Why do we dream? The average person spends approximately six years of his
or her life dreaming, but after centuries of interpretations and studies accumulated
throughout the years, it's still a question to which we have minimal answers. Over
the course of history, ever-evolving research and theories have led us in many
varying directions about the purpose behind our dreaming. What sort of progress
has been made in regards to this question? Where do we stand now?
The earliest documented research about dreams came from the works of the Egyptians, followed by the Greeks in the 8th B.C. The general belief of both groups was that dreams were not the creation of the person having them, but were rather directly sent and derived from a greater godly source. They were messages and warnings of futuristic occurrences. They were indicators of how to go about treating illnesses, and how to answer and deal with life's biggest concerns. Aristotle advised that doctors could possess the ability to diagnose someone's medical state based on hearing a summary of a recent dream they had had. Early Christians also took on this same perspective, believing that all dreams they had were sent from God and interpreted them as such (Cartwright 3).
The first person who publicized the idea that dreams came from within the mind of the person having the dream instead of being something beyond our control--something meant for us but certainly not rooted within us--was a Roman man named Artemidorous around the year 50 A.D. Artemidorous did a great deal of research about dreams and wrote a book to describe his theories. He stated that a person's work, social status and the sort of health issues they may have all were different factors that contributed to the subject matter of the dreams produced by that person (Cartwright 3).
In the 19th century, a French doctor named Alfred Maury began dedicating his life to studying dreams and his conclusions led us to many beliefs that are now popularly held in the modern world. This doctor studied approximately 3,000 dreams during his work, and while including his own dreams and experiences into his research, found that dreams were often influenced by external stimuli, such as sounds, talking or being touched. Something had fallen on him during one dream in particular, which he incorporated into the dream as something else, and this led him to further investigations regarding external stimuli's effects on the dream someone is having while experiencing that external source (Cartwright 3).
Sigmund Freud came into the picture of dream research in the late 1800s and published a book of his own works, entitled The Interpretation of Dreams. Freud's dream theory revolves around the subconscious. To Freud, dreams need to be paid close attention to, because they directly reflect the subconscious and we can learn a
lot about ourselves with the aid of dreams. He also believed that dreams are suppressed desires of the subconscious and our sleep is the time when our most outrageous and often sexually related desires can be freely expressed (Cartwright 5). He stated that often the dreams we tell others or remember upon awakening are just a quickly pieced together cover up story hiding what the true dream actually was. This is not an intentional occurrence or something that we even realize, but is Freud's explanation for why dreams seem to be so nonsensical, random and absurd. Our waking mind makes up a dream to cover up the original one and in doing so, erases the truth to protect us from our deepest desires and the true longings of our subconscious mind. Freud believed that if we actually knew what we dreamt about, we would be shocked and severely disturbed, which is where the replacement "dreamwork" as he called it, comes into play (Cartwright 5). As far as he is concerned, this made up version is certainly for the best.
Carl Jung, a student of Freud's, also left his mark on the scientific dreaming world. He disagreed with the teachings of Freud when it came to Freud's belief that most dreams were related to sexual fantasies. He saw dreams as a symbolism of whatever was going on in that person's life at that very point in time. He also taught that dreams have a way of balancing people out in a sense. Whatever we aren't doing during our waking hours, dreams help to make up for whatever's missing and give us whatever we need to leave us more complete and satisfied. They tell us a lot about what is going on right then and there within our mind and are to be
interpreted, as they can tell us a lot about the current state we are in, things we may otherwise not notice or be aware of (Cartwright 5).
A Finnish scientist named Antti Revonsuo brought forth the idea that dreams were a means to prepare ourselves for real-life situations that required self-defense.
While studying dreams, Revonsuo noticed that the parts of the brain that control body movements as well as the areas responsible for fight-or-flight responses have increased brain activity during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. This fact, along with the sense of urgency that many dreams seem to have to them, brought Revonsuo to the conclusion that dreams give us practice for situations when we are awake where we may actually need to react quickly (Zadra, Desjardins, Marcotte 451). This does seem convincing, as many dreams leave us feeling embarrassed, afraid, nervous and needing to respond in a rapid manner to resolve whatever kind of situation we may find ourselves in. It also seems logical when considering human evolution, and the dangers faced, along with the survival of the fittest. People definitely had to fend for themselves most especially at the beginnings of humanity, and maybe dreams were helpful then in that sense and continued down the same path and remained instilled in our composition throughout generations to leave us prepared, facing these nightly "rehearsals."
Matt Wilson, a professor of neuroscience at MIT, performed a study involving rats and came to the conclusion that dreams "clean out" the mind, giving us the power to hold onto the things that are important and worth remembering from our
day while simultaneously discarding whatever may be unnecessary and not worth remembering. After all, it would be impossible to remember absolutely every moment from our lives, so it is best to be organized with our memories and knowledge, and our brain stays productive keeping things the way they should be. Wilson performed the study by recording the brain activity of rats while they wandered through a maze. Afterwards, while the rats slept, their brain activity was again recorded by Wilson. He found that their brains fired in the exact same ways as they had while they had been running through the maze and trying to figure their way out of it (Kaplan 1). Wilson concluded that dreams give us wisdom and let us hold onto information and knowledge that we will need for future reference. Our brain knows what will and will not be important later in our lives, and dreams are the perfect time and place to filter out the unimportant memories.
A doctor at Tufts named Ernest Hartmann gave rise to the idea that the purpose of dreams is to deal with our emotions. This theory claims that dreaming is a method of psychotherapy for us, where we have time to ourselves without having to worry about the "real world". We are given the opportunity to sort things out in a safe and secluded state of mind. If we were to depend solely on our brain while awake, that may prevent us from handling our emotions properly (Marquard 3). There would be way too many distractions and we may not even sort things out emotionally at all if we didn't have those 8 or so hours a night-going by the standard amount of acceptable and healthy sleeping time-- to ourselves. Dreams provide an opportune and peaceful place to get to the bottom of how we're feeling.
Hartmann once stated that "dreaming connects. Even those who believe dreaming throws things together in a more or less random fashion must admit that a dream image somehow connects material in our memories, imaginations" (Marquard 4).
One of the most current theories by J.A. Hobson and Karl Friston brings forth the dream theory that dreaming occurs because the brain tries to make sense of visuals that arise in the mind during sleep. This idea supports the randomness theory of dreams, stating that random images and ideas fire off in our mind, and it is our response to simply react, to try and figure out what's going on. While doing so, we end up creating scenarios, placing ourselves in stories of sorts. Hobson also stated during an earlier time of research in the 1950's that dreams are "our most creative conscious state" where many new ideas are formed, and that "While many or even most of these ideas may be nonsensical, if even a few of its fanciful products are truly useful, our dream time will not have been wasted" (McNamara 2).
The last explanation that can be given for dreams and is believed by many is the possibility that there is no purpose for dreams at all. They simply exist and we should look no further. They aren't meant to be investigated or interpreted, and are simply pictures that our brain comes up with while we sleep. To believers of this theory, nothing lies beneath this world we live in during our sleep. But with the thousands of years of great attention paid to dreams and so many different cultures throughout history doing tremendous research, the idea that dreams mean nothing at all seems to be hard to believe. Humans have made their fair share of dents in the
study of dreams, but this is only the beginning and as many scientists would agree, we have only brushed the surface.