Freud said that whether we intend it or not, we're all poets.  That's because on most nights, we dream.  And dreams are lot like poetry, in that in both things, we express our internal life in similar ways.  We use images more than words; we combine incongruent elements to evoke emotion in a more efficient way than wordier descriptions can; and we use unconscious and tangential associations rather than logic to tell a story.


Freud essentially called dreams those poems we tell ourselves at night in order to experience our unconscious wishes as real.  Dreams allow us to be what we cannot be, and to say what we do not say, in our more repressed daily lives.  For instance, if I dream about burning my workplace down, it's probably because I want to dominate the workplace but am too nervous to admit that aggressive drive when I'm awake and trying to be nice to the people who might give me a raise.


Freud certainly had a catchy theory about dreams, but it was also limited.  For him, every single dream was the picture of an unconscious wish.  But people who have had boring dreams or nightmares might feel something missing from that formulation.  In turn, recent theorists have tried to give a more accurate account of why we dream.  In the following post, I'll list some of the current theories on why, at night, our brains tell strange stories that feel a lot like literature.  I'd like to know if any of these theories resonate with you, or if you have your own belief about why we dream. 


(Many great literary minds were obsessed with their dreams.  Samuel Coleridge wanted to write a book about dreams--that "night's dismay" which he said "stunned the coming day."  Edgar Allan Poe knew dreams fed his literature, and he pushed himself to dream "dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.")


Modern Theories on Why Dreams Exist:


Theory #1


The Evolutionary Theory: We Dream to Practice Responses to Threatening Situations


Ever notice that most dreams have a blood-surging urgency to them?  In dreams, we often find ourselves naked in public, or being chased, or fighting an enemy, or sinking in quicksand.  Antti Revonsuo, a Finnish cognitive scientist, has shown that our amygdala (the fight-or-flight piece of the brain) fires more than normal when we're in REM sleep (the time in sleep when we dream).  In REM sleep, the brain fires in similar ways as it does when it's specifically threatened for survival.  In addition to that, the part of the brain that practices motor activity (running, punching) fires increasingly during REM sleep, even though the limbs are still.  In other words, Revonsuo and other evolutionary theorists argue that in dreams, we are actually rehearsing fight-and-flight responses, even though the legs and arms are not actually moving.  They say that dreams are an evolutionary adaptation: We dream in order to rehearse behaviors of self-defense in the safety of nighttime isolation.  In turn, get better at fight-or-flight in the real world.


Theory #2


Dreams Create Wisdom


If we remembered every image of our waking lives, it would clog our brains.  So, dreams sort through memories, to determine which ones to retain and which to lose.  Matt Wilson, at MIT's Center for Learning and Memory, largely defends this view.  He put rats in mazes during the day, and recorded what neurons fired in what patterns as the rats negotiated the maze.  When he watched the rats enter REM sleep, he saw that the same neuron patterns fired that had fired at choice turning points in the maze.  In other words, he saw that the rats were dreaming of important junctures in their day.  He argues that sleep is the process through which we separate the memories worth encoding in long-term memory from those worth losing.  Sleep turns a flood of daily information into what we call wisdom: the stuff that makes us smart for when we come across future decisions.


Theory #3


Dreaming is Like Defragmenting Your Hard Drive


Francis Crick (who co-discovered the structure of DNA) and Graeme Mitchison put forth a famously controversial theory about dreams in 1983 when they wrote that "we dream in order to forget."  They meant that the brain is like a machine that gets in the groove of connecting its data in certain ways (obsessing or defending or retaining), and that those thinking pathways might not be the most useful for us.  But, when we sleep, the brain fires much more randomly.  And it is this random scouring for new connections that allows us to loosen certain pathways and create new, potentially useful, ones.  Dreaming is a shuffling of old connections that allows us to keep the important connections and erase the inefficient links.  A good analogy here is the defragmentation of a computer's hard drive: Dreams are a reordering of connections to streamline the system.


Theory #4


Dreams Are Like Psychotherapy


But what about the emotion in dreams?  Aren't dreams principally the place to confront difficult and surprising emotions, and sit with those emotions in a new way?  Ernest Hartmann, a doctor at Tufts, focuses on the emotional learning that happens in dreams.  He has developed the theory that dreaming puts our difficult emotions into pictures.  In dreams, we deal with emotional content in a safe place, making connections that we would not make if left to our more critical or defensive brains.  In this sense, dreaming is like therapy on the couch: We think through emotional stuff in a less rational and defensive frame of mind.  Through that process, we come to accept truths we might otherwise repress.  Dreams are our nightly psychotherapy.


Theory #5


The Absence of Theory


Of course, others argue that dreams have no meaning at all--that they are the random firings of a brain that doesn't happen to be conscious at that time.  The mind is still "functioning" insofar as it's producing images, but there's no conscious sense behind the film.  Perhaps it's only consciousness itself that wants to see some deep meaning in our brains at all times. 


What do you think?  We are all authors, in a way, every night.  Is there a mind behind what's written in your dreams?  Why are your dreams of use?


Below are links to some good books on dreams.











Interpretation of Dreams (Barnes & Noble Classics Series) 












Inner Presence  

by on ‎11-12-2009 11:45 AM

Thanks for the book links.  I see no reason why all of these theories can't apply.  As far as I believe, all dreams have meaning, even if it's as my therapist once said, "maybe it was because you ate pizza last night".


Most of my life, my dreams, (as I can remember) have had little meaning to me.  I never thought much about them.  That is, until I was asked to be aware of them.  Then it became an analytical process.  I started reading about dreams and how to interpret them.  I've talked to a lot of people about their dreams.  As you remember, Ilana, I had these strange visual word dreams, as we discussed VW?  Figuring those out was interesting, to say the least. 


I appears that some people have very vivid dreams, ones they can remember upon waking.  Some are in color, some not.  Some people are interested in talking about their dreams, some people aren't.  I used to think, because I worked out my daily life, in real time, that's why my dreams were inconsequential.  I also think meds effect parts of the brain, feeling as though they activate the REM sleep.  I have more deep sleep, now, and I dream a lot more.  And now I can remember a lot of what I dream about. 


The more active my brain is in the evening, the more vivid those dreams become.  Dreams do sort through a lot of the daily chaff.  I have had very few nightmares in my life, and I never dwell, or worry, on any of my dreams.  If I feel like working through them, I do.  Otherwise they just disappear when the sun comes up. 


My most important thoughts, or at least what seems important to me, is just before and after that deep dream sleep.  I do think a lot during the day, and if intense activity/thought happens before I fall asleep, I wake with what seems as a refined view of those thoughts. That's when I lie still, and listen.  It's like running those dreams through a sieve.

by Sunltcloud on ‎11-12-2009 09:52 PM

"Living alone is a daily exercise in self discipline. Nobody comes home to praise or punish. When the sun goes down the front door closes. The world stops existing in its gregarious lust; curiosity naps, slumped into a chair by the geranium patch."

These are the words I woke up with the other day. I sometimes get first lines for stories from a dream. But just as often they don't make sense. How could I drive a shopping cart into the butcher shop? I fly in dreams, sometimes I tinker with doors that won't open or close. I try to escape what's on the other side, or maybe I want to touch what's on the other side. Frequently I rummage through houses, attics, closets, sorting clothes. Why clothes? I don't particularly care about clothes. In my daylight life I am more concerned with sorting my thoughts.Occasionally I choke on teeth, or I suffocate in a pillow case. Only once did I have an encounter with a man I didn't know; it was during a time I wanted to write a novel. Twice a man I did know held my hand, was close. When I woke I experienced a strange, safe, long forgotten feeling of being loved no matter what. And-fifty some years ago I saw my mother turn into a witch and then into a ticking clock that warned me not to forget to do the dishes. Oh yes. I remember that warning. As if it had happened yesterday.


And so, which theory should I fit around my dreams? Which dreams should I interpret how? Should I be suspicious of dreams I dream in German? Or black and white dreams? Should I build a story on a dream of words? I don't have a geranium patch.


Many years ago I woke form a nightmare, a nightmare about getting sucked into a dark earthy mass. I lived with somebody then. I woke him, afraid, shaken by "impending doom." He advised me to continue the dream, embellish it. "Grow a carpet of grass over the dark earth." he said. He made me smile. But he was doomed.


The older I get the more I think that dreams are the loose ends in my brain, connecting in odd ways. The way my daytime thoughts and actions sometimes get mismatched. One morning I dropped a spoon of ground coffee beans into my oatmeal by mistake as I was readying my breakfast. Why? Because I didn't pay attention and my automatic response system must have been sidelined with other, more important images. That's how I look at dreams. Sidelined, mismatched, forgotten fears and joys swirling through the night trying to connect. Falling into the oatmeal. No rhyme or reason. Well, except for that pizza Kathy mentioned.

by Blogger IlanaSimons on ‎11-13-2009 07:49 AM

Kathy and Sunltcloud,

Thanks for such rich responses.  I am a bit jealous of your increased capacity to remember dreams, Kathy. Lately, I've been remembering less of mine, and it feels like a loss.

I just read some article about how lowering (or increasing??) depression correlates with remembering more in our dreams. 

Sunltcloud, your writing is like a carpet of grass over the dark earth, I think.  I espeically love how you write of the dreams as if they were actual events in the 1st paragraph above.

by on ‎11-13-2009 11:30 AM

Ilana wrote:  I just read some article about how lowering (or increasing??) depression correlates with remembering more in our dreams. 


Ilana, I'm interested, do you have the name of the article you read about this correlation? 


Just guess work on my part, I have nothing scientific in my personal thoughts about this.  I think that when depression is lowered, the daily confusion and stress is lowered, allowing the waking thoughts to be transferred freely during sleep, into that part of the brain  that needs to work through, and reason out the confusion.  When that happens, the irrational thought, during waking hours, seems lessened.  I guess It's like having a shrink sleeping in your head at night.  You just nod off and let them do the work!  Ha!  Although, too much REM can tire you out, too!  The other day I was reading, and couldn't keep my eyes open...I woke up three hours later!


You know, Ilana, age, daily activity, writing or not writing,  and a million other things probably effect the reasons why dreams come and go in our life.  Writing fiction is fantasy during waking hours.  Maybe those dreams at night aren't as necessary as they once were?  Who knows?  I think only remembering and talking about those dreams can answer that. 

by on ‎11-15-2009 12:31 PM

Early to sleep, and another 3 a.m. mulling.  I feel sad this morning.  The words jealousy and loss kept floating to the surface of those waves.  The words Mercurial Boundaries sits upon that surface.  The more sleep, the more dreams, the more dreams, the more tiring it all becomes.  Dreams are beginning to be a reply of daylight hours.  Night, day, night, day;  It's all in real time.  Recanting, recanting, recanting.  Today I'm sad at this prospect.  It's like chewing bubble gum until it becomes hard and loses it's flavor, then saved and chewed again tomorrow.  I've got a headache.

by on ‎11-15-2009 08:47 PM

Gisela, Here's one for you that just poped up out of the old gray matter!  Do you know this one?

by on ‎11-15-2009 08:55 PM

Oh, my!   I think I just opened the dam!  Now a whole slue of song titles are poping up, that have to do with Dreams!

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