I was excited to see "What Dreams Are Made Of: Understanding Why We Dream (About Sex and Other Things)" by Francine Russo for TIME Magazine pop up on my FB feed this morning, because I've been slowly reading my way through Our Dreaming Mind: A Sweeping Explanation of the Role that Dreams Have Played in Politics, Art, Religion, and Psychology from Ancient Civilizations to the Present Day by Robert L. Van de Castle Ph.D., and I was excited to see some current dream research to add to all I've been learning about dreams from that tome. I'd like to share with you some of the history of dream philosophy and research I learned from Van de Castle, who published his book in the mid 90's, before I go on to talk about Russo's article.
Dreams in Distant History
Van de Castle begins his survey of dreams with a section about famous dreams that have changed or could have the course of history before moving on to discuss how ancient civilizations viewed dreams. The first recorded dreams we have are from Sumer, are written in cuneiform, and describe dream visions in which a deity communicates messages to royalty and their priestly advisers. Egyptians were the first to have professional dream interpreters - oracles of Serapis the Egyptian god of dreams - and they also typically practiced "incubation" in which a dreamer, specially prepared for the task, would sleep in a temple and perform rites to ask the gods for messages in their dreams.
"Chou Kungs Book of Auspicious and Inauspicious Dreams" from China, approximately 1020 B.C.E., classifies dreams in 7 different categories including: heaven and weather; animals and birds; clothing and jewelry; and houses, gardens, and forests, etc. The ancient Chinese also practiced dream incubation, adding a political twist: high-ranking officials were expected to pass their first night in a new city sleeping in the temple of that city's diety to obtain the wisdom needed to judge that particular place.
The ancient Greeks believed that all dreaming was a passive experience in which the dreamer was merely an observer. They also believed that "a real god made a tangible visit in a recognizable physical form...it was thought that the deities entered through the keyhole, delivered their message while standing at the head of the bed, and then exited by the same keyhole." (pg. 61) The early Romans based their dream knowledge on the Greeks and also practiced dream incubation, although dream interpreters were not necessarily respected.
In reviewing the second through the 16th centuries, Van de Castle briefly touches on the "non-Christian world"view of dreams, stating that Muslims, Jews and Asians continued to hold dreams and dream interpretations in high regard. He went on to focus on the effect that Christianity had on common views about dreams. Early Christian philosophers believed that dreams were either demonic attacks, or divine manifestations. Saint Thomas Aquinus declared that divination was "unlawful and superstitious" because one clearly needed the help of demons to decode a dream. During the Dark Ages, demons became more and more feared, giving rise to reports of succubi and incubi as well as the viewpoint that all dreams were demonic in origin. Father Gracian, the confessor of Saint Theresa, went so far as to say that "it is a sin to believe in dreams." (qtd. pg. 83)
Dreams in Modern History
Attitudes began to change in the seventeenth century as Decartes' theory of dualism, itself inspired by dreams, changed the way that people saw themselves and the world. He posited that one's body functioned in an animalistic way but one's mind operated on a nonphysical or soul way. This led to thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes to say that dreams were caused by "distemper" of the body, while others, such as the moralist Owen Feltham, believed dreams to be "notable means of discovering our own inclinations." (qtd. pg. 86)
In the 19th century, Romanticism, which "encouraged emotional expression and reverence for nature, the soul, and the unconscious" brought mysticism back to the fore, and paved the way for the theories of Freud and Jung. Freud, of course, believed that dreams were disguised sexual wished relating to one's childhood, while Jung posited that dreams were how one connects to the collective unconscious of humanity, encountering archetypal characters that embody "typical modes of apprehension." (qtd. Van de Catle, pg. 148) Jung said that dream symbols cannot be fully expressed in words or rational terms, whereas Freud saw all dream symbols in terms of human anatomy and sexuality.
Other dream theorists in the 20th century generally agreed more with Jung than Freud, many emphasizing the self-help nature of dreams to problem solve interpersonal problems. All of the theorists held in common the presumption that "dreams reflect unconscious needs, conflicts, and desires and therefore, if interpreted correctly, reveal much about the personality structure and character of the dreamer." (pg. 208)
Dreams and Scientific Inquiry
With the 1800s came scientific experimentation with dreams and dream stimuli. Researchers experimented with exposing or covering parts of the body, introducing scents, music and other physical stimuli (often on themselves) to see what effect it would have on dreams. A study that I find fascinating was undertaken by J. Leonard Corning, an American neurologist to investigate musical stimulus as a form of dream therapy. Corning exposed his patients to music with a great many arpeggios and minor chords "in the drowsy state before waking and sleeping" which produced "pleasant and transcendent dreams." (pg. 216) He later added a visual component using a stereopticon with two different colored glass disks that spun to produce kaleidoscope-like pictures. He recorded that his experiments helped to relieve depression, insomnia, and bad dreams, sometimes after only one session.
The first dream experiment to use objective measurement was by NYU psychologist Louis Max in 1935. He used electromyographic recordings to study hand and arm muscle movement on 19 deaf-mute persons. When dramatic arm muscle movements were recorded, the subject would be waked and asked if s/he were dreaming. They nearly always had been. Conversely, when no arm motions were recorded the awakened subjects reported the had not been dreaming. He went on to study and record eye movement in dreamers, a precursor to REM studies.
Contemporary Dream Research
Rapid eye movement (REM) was first discovered by Nathaniel Kleitman at the University of Chicago in 1953, and was tracked along with brain waves, heart rates and respiration patterns.This began the era of REM dream research. In 1957 Kleitman co-authored an article that reported four observed REM sleep periods, ranging from 1 - 72 minutes, occured in normal adults during a 6 hour sleep period. This article proposed a classification for stages of sleep, including 4 stages of non-REM sleep and 1 stage of REM sleep (see image below).
One of the affects of REM sleep is a change in spinal fluid pressure and spinal reflexes. "As a result, major muscular movements disappear, which makes it impossible for sleeping individuals to physically act out the activities imagined in their dreams. (pg. 235) REM sleep is also associated with genital arousal in both males and females (male arousal has been far more thoroughly studied), although the physical response is not necessarily linked to any erotic dream content.
In 1962, David Foulkes published a sleep study proving that people dream outside of REM sleep, which was not believed possible until then. Foulkes reported that "non-REM [dreams] seemed to involve more recent events or daytime concerns of the subject without too much distortion," while "REM [dreams] were longer, displayed more intense visual imagery, and showed a higher degree of integration and continuity; specifically, the dreamer often engaged in physical movement, several scene shifts occurred, and the dreamer displayed more emotional involvement." (pg. 265-6)
Understanding Why We Dream
Despite the great deal of data on REM sleep, it does little to answer the question of why we dream. There are two main contemporary hypothesis concerning dreaming: continuity and compensation. "The continuity hypothesis is that dreams act as a mirror to reflect our waking personality; the compensation hypothesis is that dreams show the reverse of our waking personality." (pg. 251) While neither hypothesis has been definitely proven, studies have shown that "if need gratification is obtained in a dream, there may be less need to gratify that need in waking life" - which supports the latter and not the former.
Which leads us up to the recent article "What Dreams Are Made Of" by Russo. She reports that brain imaging and "big data" are currently transforming the way we examine and understand dreams.
More detailed and timely snapshots of the brain at work, combined with the information researchers amassed about dreams from experiments in sleep labs, is gradually peeling away the mystery of dreams, and revealing their meaning.
...[B]rain imaging holds the promise of being able to help scientists “see” what until now could only be reported by subjective, possibly inaccurately recalled, dream accounts. For example, in research with rats trained to run through mazes to get rewards, investigators were able to record neuron activity in sleeping rats and determined that the rats were running the same mazes in their dreams.
In other experiments with humans, scientists monitored volunteers who slept inside an fMRI scanner while hooked up to EEG electrodes that measured brain wave activity. When the EEG indicated they were dreaming, the participants were awakened and asked what images they had seen in their dreams. The investigators were later able to match certain patterns of brain activity to certain images for each person. “There’s a crude correspondence between the brain scan and the image. “From the scan, you can guess it’s an animal with four legs,” says Barrett. Despite the primitive state of this dream decoding, the ability to actually glean content from a dream is getting closer.
Mining big data bases of reported dreams holds another kind of promise. Until now, researchers have been working on relatively small samples of dream accounts, usually fewer than 200 per study. But new dream websites and smartphone apps like DreamBoard and Dreamscloud are encouraging thousands of people to report their dreams into larger repositories so researchers can finally answer their most urgent questions. McNamara, for example, is excited to study dreams from different countries to see whether there are cultural differences in what people’s brains do when they aren’t awake.
The data bases also provide an opportunity to investigate the intriguing but under-studied realm of sex dreams. Until recently, says McNamara, they represented only 10% of reported dreams, likely because people are not eager to share this type of content with researchers in white lab coats. But self-reporting via the apps and websites, despite its potential biases, may provide more information on these types of dreams. “This is a wide open area crying for investigation,” he says.
McNamara is also eager to study individuals’ dreams over time to observe differences and changes in emotional tone, colors, words and other significant patterns and connect these to events in their lives. That would bring him closer to answering whether dreams are, in fact, prophetic — it might be possible, for example, that certain kinds of dreams precede getting the flu, or that other other dreams are more associated with happier events. (Source)
I am excited to see what new theories come about from this type of research, and I might just have to get on one of those dream websites, because I love hearing about other people's dreams and I'm much more open about sharing mine than I once was. In fact, I'm thinking about doing a follow-up post to this one, describing a type of dream that I've had for as long as I can remember, and how working with my dreams has helped me to grow as a person - if anyone is interested, of course. Let me know in the comments!
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