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The Dream Explanatorium
People have always had an interest in dreams. The Babylonians, 5000 years before Christ, had a Goddess of Dreams, Mamu, and a book for interpreting dreams. The Egyptians, in 3000 B.C., also had a God of Dreams, Serpis, and famous people, like Joseph from the bible, were dream interpreters. They even had self-help techniques for inducing certain dreams. They may have thought, as we do now, that dreams satisfy some of our psychological needs and change our mood.
During the Dark and Middle Ages when alchemists were trying to turn lead into gold, etc., many ideas were proposed about good and evil forces, human thoughts, and dreams. Generalizations were made, such as "things must fall apart, decay and rot, before a revival of new healthy growth is possible," "opposites, like love and hate, try to escape one another, but also seek a balance," etc.
The alchemists thought in terms of three worlds: the black, the white, and the red world. Black is darkness, evil, despair, ruins, the crude unconscious taking over our minds. White is the eerie, uncertain light of the moon, the twilight zone of lunacy, irrational thoughts, things changing. Red is the bright light of the sun, new life, things in order, ability to see clearly, rational, willful control, morals, growth, laughter. Each section of a dream and each object comes from one of these worlds, supposedly.
Archaic Interpretation
Now, about 1000 years later, many dream interpretation books, especially those by Jungian analysts, are still using these alchemy ideas to understand the symbolism in dreams. There is no science here; there is a lot of mystical, religious fantasy.
Examples: The black world's symbols - death, wounds, violence, confusion, chaos, black cats, witches, sewers, sinister figures, perversion, physical and sexual abuse, etc. The white world's symbols - going crazy, shimmering surfaces, falling, snakes, night animals, street people, being drunk, healing the sick, taking drugs, lying down, being chased, eroticism, voyeurism, sex changes, pregnancy, etc. The red world's symbols - a bright light, new growth, keen-sighted animals, computers, schools, scientists, food, exercise, powerful people, male and female genitals or similarly shaped objects, romance, making love, etc.
You can train yourself to think in these terms; there is no proof but perhaps the above objects and acts are associated with your underlying emotions of bleak sadness (black), scary confusion (white), and productive joy (red). At least, the archaic symbolic interpretations may cause you to think. But don't take them too seriously.
Sex and Sin
During the middle ages, Christian theologians were obsessed with sex and sin. They were deadly serious. Dreams were thought to be the travels of our souls outside our bodies during the night. Certain church authorities preached that the devil was responsible for dreams. In fact, your dreams might have been interpreted by churchmen to indicate if you were chaste or lustful. And if you were seen as lustful, and if you were a woman, and if there was any hint that you might have had sex with an evil character (the devil) in your dreams, you might have been burned alive.
Freudian Dreams
Hopefully, you will not take your dreams as seriously as some alchemists, some generals (Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Genghis Kahn), some dictators (Hitler), or as some religious folks and witch burners have. But while we hardly know more about the meaning of our dreams than the Babylonians 5000 years ago, it is possible that dreams reflect our traumatic memories, our needs, and our unconscious thoughts. So, dreams are thought to tell us something about ourselves we did not know.
Freud attached great significance to dreams. He said dreams were a 'peep hole' ("a royal road") into our unconscious which directs much of our lives - and our dreams. The unconscious was made up of infantile wishes (e.g. kill your little brother), intense impulses (let's kill father too) and our strong needs for love and sex (even when a toddler doesn't know the meaning).
Freud thought dreams were a means of venting our emotions or fulfilling our unconscious wishes, except we had to conceal the really awful stuff (like wanting to have sex with your mother), because such thoughts would wake us up. Thus, for insight Freud thought analysts needed to separate the surface or manifest dream content from the repressed forbidden feelings and urges, which were the real causes of our problems. That is what "dream analysis" involves, i.e. figuring out the symbols, the distortions, the displacement, and the reversal of feelings (all designed to hide the real purpose of dreams and calm us down so we can continue to dream about these awful, shameful emotions and needs).
REM Dreams
Science has discovered that mammals and birds have REM (Rapid Eye Movement that occurs when we dream) sleep. While the eyes move vigorously (the movement can easily be seen through the closed eye lids), the rest of the body is usually quiet. Even a 6-month-old foetus has REM sleep. But for the first ten years of life, children's dreams (as distinguished from nightmares) are different from adults' dreams; their dreams are simple, usually unemotional, and children do not usually put themselves into their dreams (Begley, 1989). It is said that very young children dream in the form of a 'slide show'. Adults are almost always involved in their own dreams. Since 1952 when REM was discovered, thousands of sleepers have been awakened by researchers and asked, "What were you dreaming?"
Dreams last 10 to 40 minutes. Men and women have about the same emotions as they dream. The longer, more vivid and dramatic dreams are early in the morning, shortly before awaking. Actually, most of our dreams are common-place and dull. We remember and talk about the more interesting ones. More dreams involve being passive or playing than involve work or studying..
Many more unpleasant emotions, especially fear and anger, are expressed in dreams than pleasant emotions, although sexual arousal is frequent during dreams. It is a bit puzzling to wake up from a scary or sad or violent dream with an erection. In contrast with our frequent sexual arousal, only an occasional dream is X-rated. Nightmares occur more often in sensitive and creative people; they are different from dreams or non-REM experiences (non-REM "experiences" are short, simple, and seem to us more like thoughts than dreaming).
Quite a lot has been recently discovered about the physiology of dreaming. For example, during REM sleep, electrical activity from the brain stem surges into the motor and thinking areas of the brain. This led McCarley (1978) and Hobson (1988) to speculate that during dreams the cortex is working very hard to make sense out of the senseless nerve impulses it is receiving. Thus, a male might get an erection as a result of this brain stem activity (why 85% of the time?), then the thinking part of the brain concocts a fantastically beautiful, very explicit, and elaborate sexual dream with a specific person to explain the erection. As Hobson points out, you are still faced with the same problem Freud struggled with: why does the brain make this kind of sense - this particular image - out of an erection or some other nerve activity? Hobson believes our drives, emotions, early memories, daytime experiences, and associations influence our dreams (just like Freud). Researchers have noted that even though a dream contains lots of visual images, the occipital lobe (where we see) is not as active as the frontal lobe (where higher thinking, emotions and personality are located).
Remembering Dreams
Theories about the functions of dreams are contradictory. Recent studies have found that dreaming and learning are connected: people think better after a good night's sleep; they remember complex skills and bedtime stories better. However, another theory is that dreams have to do with forgetting or, more specifically, with dumping useless information from our brain during sleep, like "purging" the big computers.
The exact connection between dream images and erasing or enhancing our memory is unclear. Once out of REM sleep, it is hard to remember the dream we just had. So hard that even extremely vivid and traumatic or unusual dreams are quickly forgotten. If you were really in a horrible auto accident or really had a torrid sexual affair, you wouldn't forget it within 15 minutes, would you? So dreams and forgetting (or repressing) are connected somehow. Maybe, as Freud said, the connection is because dreams are laden with nasty sexual and aggressive drives which our conscious mind wants to forget.
Cartwright and Lamberg
These theories are interesting but they don't tell us much about the meaning of dreams. Clearly, dreams are not totally random chaotic neural activity but they may not be windows to the soul either. Cartwright and Lamberg (1992) have a very different notion, namely, that our dreams reflect our major conscious emotional concerns. In effect, our dreams underscore our current problems, rather than hide or erase them. Also, according to Cartwright and Lamberg, the dream content, while symbolic, can, with a little thought, be easily associated with the things that are consciously worrying us tonight. The mind supposedly searches our past to find a person, situation, or symbol that fits the feelings that are pressuring us during our sleep.
Langs (1994) has another idea; he believes that dreams are giving us solutions for important but repressed problems. He says the conscious mind, busy with coping, often passes on difficult emotional problems to the unconscious mind for solving. Dreams are a way for the unconscious mind to give us its wisdom about handling emotional situations. Thus, the conscious mind needs to discover what problem the unconscious mind is working on and then decipher the unconscious's solution.
Allan Hobson
Allan Hobson's theory is that dreaming is a form of psychosis and functional delirium. His argument is that there are resemblances between the two mind-states, and that dreaming arises from a chemical "balancing act". I attempt to view this theory from a more functional point of view. The central "psychotic" characteristics of dreaming disorientation, attention deficit, spotty recent memory, confabulation, deficit in intellectual functions, and decline of language usage are aspects of the dream's metaphorical/analogical function of memory consolidation and of the thought process at large.
The Meaning of Dreams
As some ancient tribes, Indian medicine men, yogi dream interpreters, and (disappointingly) some psychoanalysts believed, perhaps we should listen to dreams for insight and emotional health. Humans have certainly wanted dreams to have meaning. Dream analysis could be for understanding unconscious motives, instead of understanding our cortex trying to make sense of nonsense. For instance, wondering about the significance of what we see in a cloud or an ink blot may yield some helpful self-awareness, without our believing that the cloud was formed by a higher power specifically to send us a message. Consider this method a challenge, not necessarily the "golden path to enlightenment."

The Dream Explanatorium (1999) is created and coordinated by The Somniloquy Institute.

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