Sweet Dreams (are made of this)

By Tobias Klüpfel from Munich, Germany (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Who am I to disagree?

No, I’m not inviting you to Eurythmics sing-along, nor to Marilyn Manson’s either. Today, we are discussing dreams. Yes, those crazy, surreal experiences you have while sleeping where you can skydive like Felix Baumgartner, shred guitar before an audience of millions like Hendrix, or be chased out of a town with scythes and torches like Frankenstein (I had that dream, and believe me it wasn’t very a pleasant experience).

Anyway, as you might have guessed, today’s million-dollar question is: why do we have dreams?

Let me cut to the chase and give you a very short and honest answer: we don’t know exactly.

‘What the hell!’ You interject. ‘Why did you even bother writing about it, then? Why waste my time?’

Hold on, hold on. Before you let off steam and navigate away from this page, vowing never to return, just hear me out.

First of all, when I say we don’t know exactly doesn’t mean we are completely clueless about dreams. There are some theories you might find interesting, or helpful in making more sense of your dreams (depending on your perspective). Secondly, since my last post was about sleep, I thought it fitting to place a post about dreams next in the line.

‘Hmm,’ you grunt, reluctantly agreeing to give me a chance (oh, gracias).

Although dreams are still not understood in depth from the scientific point of view, you’ll find a cottage industry of historical and cultural views about dreams. For example, the Greeks thought that dreams were direct messages from either Gods or dead people, while the Chinese believed that one part of soul fluttered away from the body to go on a trip to the dreamland while the other stayed inside. Some even believed that dreams point to some significant event in an individual’s future (and many still do, unfortunately).

Sigmund Freud - Image available in public domain
Sigmund Freud – Mick Jagger of psychology. Everything boiled down to two things for him – Aggression and Copulation

Needless to say, such explanations about dreams aren’t considered anything more than fancy tales by the scientists. The first theory seriously entertained by the scientific community came from Sigmund Freud. Chances are you’ve heard his name – the guy who gave us Super-ego, Oedipal complex, and psychoanalysis, the famous couch therapy to treat psychological disorders you see so often in movies and TV shows. In his book, ‘The Interpretation of Dreams‘, Freud famously claimed that dreams are ‘the royal road to unconscious’ and they were among his personal favorite tools in his psychoanalytic arsenal.

According to Freud, dreams are desires and thoughts which we can’t openly articulate in real life. Any secret, perverted fetishes we have are expressed more freely in dreams. Whatever one literally sees in them, he called it the manifest content, and what actual interpretation lies underneath, he called it the latent content. The most famous (and commonly cited) illustration of this symbolism came from a Hitchcock movie, in the last scene of which a train enters the tunnel before the screen blacks out. Going by Freud’s rulebook, the train here represents a phallic object penetrating the tunnel, which represents… (cough, cough) you know I’m talking about.

Freud insisted that his patients keep a dream journal, in which they would record their everyday dreams (by the way, if you’re interested in reading others’ recorded dreams or writing your own, there’s a site mentioned in resources). Then he would interpret those dreams to reach the patient’s underlying problem.

One major problem with this oneiromantic approach was the fact that dreams are ambiguous in nature, and what one saw in the dreams didn’t always translate smoothly to Freud’s diagnosis. Besides, it didn’t really explain what was actually going inside one’s brain while dreaming, or how dreams came to be. Plus, the reliability of patient’s dream was another issue.

Ultimately, this decoding-the-dream method didn’t work out for the modern neuroscientists, who wanted a more reasonable explanation which at least included the word ‘neuron’ (It worked out for Joseph in the Old Testament, though. He went from a yardbird to top gun after interpreting the Pharoah’s dreams and profiteering on the Plague scare).

In the wake of these setbacks, a new theory that had some neuroscientific double Dutch was proposed by J. Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley in the early 70s. Known as the ‘activation-synthesis hypothesis’, it proposed the idea that dreams came from the random ‘activations’ or electrical impulses here and there in the brain. During activation of those parts, certain images are retrieved from our long-term memory associated with those parts. For example, one activation may be about Justin Bieber (highly unlikely unless you’re a lovesick tween obsessed with him, but I’ll take a shot), while the other one may be about dinosaur. Without your voluntary intervention, the conscious part of your brain automatically tries to make sense of this random stuff and presto! – you get a dream about a T-Rex rampaging through one of Bieber’s concerts before finally gobbling him up (now that’s a dream many would wish to come true).

Photos of Justin Bieber and T-Rex both are taken from Creative Commons
If you have flashes of Justin Bieber and T-Rex, then according to activation synthesis model, your brain automatically tries to make sense of it. So stay assured to see T-Rex chew up Bieber like Mars Bars

The activation-synthesis hypothesis dealt a haymaker to the Freud’s psychoanalytic stance, which propagated that dreams are essentially manifestation of hidden desires, and replaced it with a purely biological one – that dreams are nothing more than random noise that our brain tries to mold into a coherent form. Needless to say, it provoked quite a reaction, especially from Freud fans.

However, one major problem with this theory was that it assumed that dreaming occurs only during REM sleep, which I discussed in the last post (you can read it in full here and help decrease my site’s bounce rate 😉 ) and hence believed REM sleep is solely responsible for dreams. Evidence later appeared that showed that isn’t true – dreams can occur in non-REM mode, too (although it’s harder to remember having dreams during NREM sleep). So it meant that dreams and REM sleep aren’t the old wedded couple as thought earlier. Besides, more experiment showed that the portion of brain where dreaming happens also includes the limbic system, the emotional center of brain. So it seemed rather unfair to treat dreams as perchance gibberish, since emotional moods may also shape the type of dreams you have.

In the light of these proofs, activation synthesis model was updated by Hobson to something called the AIM model (sounds fancy, doesn’t it?). It’s relatively complicated (and mathematical) compared to its predecessor, but basically it tries to reconcile Freud’s psychological and Hobson’s physiological views. If you’re interested in checking out the AIM theory in detail, you can refer to this link.

There are some more theories, which attempt to provide justification for dream occurrence in human beings. For example, one such theories explains that dreams are essential for flushing the unnecessary data of the previous day from our memory system, so that our brain isn’t bombarded with too much information.

Before we go further, I want to rehash some stuff from my previous post. I talked about 5 stages of sleep, and told you how just before the beginning of the last stage, or the REM sleep, your whole body is paralyzed by neurochemical cocktail of glycene and GHBA (seriously, read the previous post if this sounds total Klingon to you). I explained to you that this paralysis keeps us from acting out our dreams, though people in Middle Ages definitely take the cake for a more amusing outlook: they thought the bodily hijack was caused by demons like incubus or succubus, who dry-humped people in their sleep (Take that, Freud! People had dirty-minded theories long before you came). Sometimes, the paralysis can actually be felt while we’re dreaming. This effect can especially become pronounced in those dreams where you feel you’re slowing down or suffocating.

Georges Biard [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
‘Dream within a dream within a dream within a… okay get me out of here fellas. I’m stuck in an infinite loop.’
One very interesting aspect of dreaming is that you can actually control your dreams. The only prerequisite is you have to learn how. This phenomenon is called lucid dreaming, and one of the interesting training methods I came to know involves asking yourself one question every waking moment – ‘Am I dreaming?’. The reverse is also true – your dreams can control you, or at least your sense of awakening. This false awakening may give you the impression that you’re awake and performing your routine while you’re actually sleeping (and yes, in case you’ve realized it by now, Chris Nolan’s ‘Inception’ was grounded on these very ideas). I’ve listed a page from Wiki-How in the resources section that lists various methods to achieve lucid dreaming, but I personally do not condone them as fool-proof.

Though we still don’t have a full understanding of the purpose behind dreams, we do know they are important. From escapism to creative inspiration, dreams play a vital role in an individual’s life. And the metaphoric use of dreams for ambitions… well, that says it all. So whatever scientific revelations the future may have in store for us, we do know that our dreams will always be a part of us.

After all, it was not for nothing that Martin Luther King Jr is remembered for his iconic speech ‘I have a dream‘.