Why do we dream?

‘WHEN Jacob reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set.  Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.”

As chronicled in Genesis 28:11-12, we can surmise that dreaming has been with us since time immemorial. Greek philosopher Socrates looked on them as representatives of the voice of conscience. French historian Voltaire dismissed them as random products of physical indispositions. Sigmund Freud called them “the royal road to the unconscious.”

However one feels about dreams, they are an enduring source of fascination. “Dreams are true while they last,” penned British poet Alfred Lord Tennyson.  “Dreams are a way for the subconscious to communicate with the conscious mind,” wrote Michael J. Weiss in an article,  which appeared in Reader’s Digest.

What most people don’t know that we dream when we sleep—between three and six times per night, according  to studies. Each dream lasts between five and 20 minutes. “Around 95 percent of dreams are forgotten by the time a person gets out of bed,” wrote Hannah Nichols in an article published in the web site of Medical News Today (MNT).

Although science has made a great progress since Biblical times, the answer of why we dream is still elusive as ever. “The question is easy to ask but very difficult to answer,” admited Dr. Ernest Hartmann, a professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine and the director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Newton Wellesley Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts.

“The most honest answer is that we do not know yet the function or functions of dreaming,” Hartmann told Scientific American. “This ignorance should not be surprising because, despite many theories we still do not fully understand the purpose of sleep, nor do we know the functions of REM [rapid eye movement] sleep, which is when most dreaming occurs.”

There are five phases of sleep, according to the MNT feature. In Stage 1, described as light sleep, our eyes move slowly, and the muscle activity slows; it forms 4 to 5 percent of total sleep.

Stage 2 takes place when eye movement stops and brain waves (fluctuations of electrical activity that can be measured by electrodes) become slower, with occasional bursts of rapid waves called sleep spindles. This stage forms 45 to 55 percent of total sleep.

When extremely slow brain waves called delta waves begin to appear, interspersed with smaller, faster waves, Stage 3 starts. It takes about 4 to 6 percent of total sleep. Stage 4, which forms 12 to 15 percent of total sleep, happens when the brain produces delta waves almost exclusively. It is very difficult to wake a person during Stages 3 and 4, which together are called “deep sleep.”

It’s when someone undergoes stage 5, or REM, that dreams occur. In this stage, breathing becomes more rapid, irregular and shallow, eyes jerk rapidly in various directions and limb muscles become temporarily paralyzed. Heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, and males develop penile erections.

“When people awaken during REM sleep, they often describe bizarre and illogical tales—dreams,” wrote Nichols of the stage, which forms 20 to 25 percent of total sleep time.

Although science cannot give us the exact reason why we dream, several theories are being explored.  In an article published in Psychology Today, Dr. Michael J. Breus listed several theories about dreaming that are currently being studied:

A component and form of memory processing, aiding in the consolidation of learning and short-term memory to long-term memory storage.

An extension of waking consciousness, reflecting the experiences of waking life.

A means by which the mind works through difficult, complicated, unsettling thoughts, emotions and experiences, to achieve psychological and emotional balance.

The brain responding to biochemical changes and electrical impulses that occur during sleep.

A form of consciousness that unites past, present and future in processing information from the first two, and preparing for the third.

A protective act by the brain to prepare itself to face threats, dangers and challenges.

“There is not likely ever to be a simple answer, or a single theory that explains the full role of dreaming to human life,” Breus surmised. “Biological, cognitive, psychological—it’s very likely that dreaming may serve important functions in each of these realms.”

Recent studies have shown that dreams are often distorted reflections of our daily lives—not necessarily symbolic pictures of unconscious wishes, as Austrian neurologist Freud believed, or random, nonsense images caused by brain signals.

Many sleep experts now believe our dreams are so related to our waking lives. Ask Stephen King, American author of nightmare-inducing horror novels. In an interview, he told writer Naomi Epel: “Whatever’s going on in our daily lives trickles down and has some sort of influence down there [meaning dream].”

After research was carried out for two decades at the Washington State University, investigators concluded that dreams fall into three categories, namely: “tension dreamers,” “social dreamers” and “reward dreamers.”

Tension dreamers, researchers say, were people who reflected anxiety, hostility or frustration, hypochondriacs who could not concentrate on their work. Social dreamers, on the other hand, always dreamt of pleasant relationships with other people: having good times at parties, always getting the best and always being the center of attraction.  Researchers reckoned that such dreams were compensation for the people concerned who, in real life, were invariably shy and retiring.

In the third category, reward dreamers, are those having visions of winning the lottery, getting an acting award or a recognition from his or her peers. According to the researchers, people who have this kind of dream are self-confident individuals with dominant personalities. Their dreams simply complemented their actual living characters.

The nature of dream activity has been characterized by many clinical and laboratory studies around the world. “These studies show that dreams are more perceptual than conceptual,” said Hartmann. “Things are seen and heard rather than being subjected to thought.”

In terms of the senses, visual experience is present in almost all dreams; auditory experience in 40 to 50 percent; and touch, taste, smell and pain in a relatively small percentage. A considerable amount of emotion is commonly present—usually a single, stark emotion such as fear, anger, or joy, rather than the modulated emotions that occur in the waking state.

According to Weiss, dream emotions can help real therapists treat patients undergoing traumatic life events. In a study of 30 recently divorced adults, Dr. Rosalind Cartwright tracked their dreams over a five-month period, measuring their feelings toward their ex-spouses. She discovered that those who were angriest at the spouse while dreaming had the best chance of successfully coping with divorce.

“If their dreams were bland,” pointed out Cartwright, chairman of the psychology department at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, “they hadn’t started to work through their emotions and deal with the divorce.”

Men and women differ genetically—and even when it comes to dreaming. “It’s biology and social conditioning,” explained the director of Bethesda Oak Hospital’s Sleep Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, of the difference.

In a study of 1,000 dreams, half from each sex, Robert Van de Castle, author of Our Dreaming Mind, found that men more often have action-oriented dreams involving strangers, identified mostly by their occupation. Usually these dreams are set outdoors or in unfamiliar surroundings.   

Women, on the other hand, dream more of emotional one-on-one struggles with loved ones (husband or children), usually in indoor settings. 

Unknowingly, dreams affect our attitudes. Studies by University of Pennsylvania professor emeritus Aaron Beck show that angry people act out their anger in their dreams. An other research showed that depressed people sometimes dream they’re victims of rejection, humiliation or abandonment. People with “thin boundaries”—unusual openness, vulnerability, difficulty standing up for themselves—are likely to suffer from nightmares.

Creative people often harness their dreams to solve problems. According to author Epel, when some writers, artists or scientists go to sleep, they ask their subconscious for a dream that will help them with unresolved issues. “Your unconscious knows things your conscious doesn’t,” Epel said. “It can be an ally with new insights.”

“Dreams are the touchstones of our characters,” wrote philosopher and naturalist Henry David Thoreau. In one of his writings, he explained: “I have learned this at least by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

Yes, dreams do come true. The Book of Lists scanned the yellow pages of history and came up with a list of people who put their dreams to work. One of them was British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. History’s most celebrated episode of dream inspiration occurred on an English summer day in 1797, when the young poet dozed off while reading a history book about Kublai Khan. An opium addict, Coleridge was probably in a pleasantly drugged state when the immortal verses came to him.

Waking up, Coleridge began to write feverishly. He had reached the 54th line—one-sixth of the poem as he envisioned it—when the infamous “person on business from Porlock” interrupted him. An hour later, when his visitor had left, he had forgotten the rest of the poem.

Another case was that of Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson. He read entire imaginary books in his sleep and traveled to distant places, but most important, he received visits from what he called his “little people.” They dictated stories to him, “piece by piece, like a serial,” especially when he needed money.

Sometimes, Stevenson dreamed stories without their help. According to his wife, Fanny, “In the small hours of one morning, I was awakened by cries of horror from Louis. Thinking he had a nightmare, I awakened him. He said angrily, ‘Why did you wake me? I was dreaming a fine bogey tale.’” The bogey tale turned out to be the classic, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Can our dreams foretell the future? In some instances, they can! In the weeks prior to his assassination, Abraham Lincoln reportedly dreamed he heard people sobbing, and wandered downstairs to find out what was going on. In the East Room, he saw a coffin and a corpse whose face was covered.

“Who is dead in the White House?” Lincoln asked a soldier standing nearby. “The President,” the soldier answered. “He was killed by an assassin.”

Denson Franklin declared: “When you let your dreams die, something dies within you.”

Sweet dreams!


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