Why do we dream?

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Why do we dream? This question has fascinated philosophers, scientists and psychologists for thousands of years. Many theories have been propounded but none has been fully established.

The most notable theory about the purpose of dreams was given by Sigmund Freud in his famous book “Interpretation of Dreams“. I have had this book with me for many years and although I could never read it fully but I have gone through it in bits and pieces many times. In short Freud’s theory says that dreams are a disguised fulfilment of repressed wishes. According to Freud there are two component of every dream – Manifest and Latent. Manifest content is what we actually see in the dream and the latent component is the hidden psychological meaning of the dream.

Many other theories have been suggested to account for the occurrence and meaning of dreams. The following are just of few of the proposed ideas:

  • Dreams are the result of our brain trying to interpret external stimuli during sleep. For example, the sound of the radio may be incorporated into the content of a dream.
  • A computer metaphor is used to account for dreams. According to this theory, dreams serve to ‘clean up’ clutter from the mind, much like clean-up operations in a computer, refreshing the mind to prepare for the next day.
  • Dreams function as a form of psychotherapy. In this theory, the dreamer is able to make connections between different thoughts and emotions in a safe environment.
  • Circuits in the brain become activated during REM sleep, which causes areas of the limbic system involved in emotions, sensations, and memories become active. The brain synthesizes and interprets this internal activity and attempts to find meaning in these signals, which results in dreaming. This model suggests that dreams are a subjective interpretation of signal generated by the brain during sleep.
  • A contemporary model of dreaming combines some elements of various theories. According to this theory, activation patterns are shifting and connections are being made and unmade constantly in our brains, forming the physical basis for our minds. There is a whole continuum in the making of connections that we subsequently experience as mental functioning. At one end of the continuum is focused waking activity, such as when we are doing an arithmetic problem or chasing down a fly ball in the outfield. Here our mental functioning is focused, linear and well-bounded. When we move from focused waking to looser waking thought–reverie, daydreaming and finally dreaming–mental activity becomes less focused, looser, more global and more imagistic. Dreaming is the far end of this continuum: the state in which we make connections most loosely.

The subject is indeed very interesting and it is possible to have unlimited theories on the same until medical science develops a proper method of clinically analysing the dreams.

My own take on this subject is that dreams are an extension of our thinking process. If we notice carefully our brain is always active and thinking about something. In normal course, the brain keeps randomly shuffling between a variety of topics and it is not an easy task to control the way our brain thinks. When we are awake we do make conscious effort to keep our brain from wandering from time to time. I guess, the brain keeps thinking in the same way when we are asleep. The only difference is that since we are not in a conscious state, we are not making any attempt to prevent the brain from wandering and therefore it is free to think. In addition to that since the sensory organs are also inactive during this stage, the brain is simulating images, sounds, sense of touch, taste and smell to suit the random sequence of thoughts that it is going through.

If we follow this approach, it becomes easier to interpret and explain many things related to dreaming. The best approach is to allow our brain (mind) to wander freely but at the same time make a note of the thinking process. If we analyse our thinking process, it would give us many clues about our dreams.

The only problem is that this would be totally against our basic training of keeping our thought process in check. Coming to think of it – this process may be called Ant-Meditation because in meditation we are required to control our thought process and channelize it in a particular direction.

I realise that this post has already become very long so I would save this discussion for some other time. Hope this would be a good food for thought till them.

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  • Rubi  On September 10, 2008 at 5:36 pm

    I’ve been writing down my dreams as of late. It’s just that lately I’ve been dreaming A LOT. I never thought it be such a complicated process to unravel them. I just started writing them down because a friend told me I should, that the meanings of the dreams would come to pass as the days and weeks went by.

    To be honest, I never thought of Freud and letting the old guy help me figure it all out. . .It would seem the process is more detailed. . .more than I ever would have thought. . .

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