Our nightly excursions into hazy other worlds filled with rich symbolism and shocking, sometimes terrifying visions, are an inexplicable part of life that has kept people guessing since the beginning. Dreams tend to occupy polar opposite places in the public’s opinion. Some people see them as trivial flashes of meaningless brain activity, while others place dreams at the forefront of personal revelation. The truth about dreams most likely lies somewhere between those extremes. If we want to understand what psychologists are saying about dreams, it’s necessary to examine research and studies about dreams and their contexts first.
All of the major schools of thought and practice in psychology address dreams and dreaming. Naturally, they interpret dreams according to their specific strictures. and beliefs. However, each approach tries to answer some fundamental questions about dreams. What are they? Where do they come from? What do they mean and what purpose do they serve? Each school places different emphasis on these questions and has radically different answers.
The Psychodynamic Approach to Dreams
If we look at the onset of the scientific study of behavior, mental processes and the mind, we need to re-visit Sigmund Freud and his seminal 1899 publication, The Interpretation of Dreams. Freud saw dreams as deeply symbolic upwellings from the deep ocean of the unconscious, the aspect of the human psyche that is not accessible to the waking mind. Dreams, for Freud, were expressions of unconscious desires that our logical egos, our waking minds, censored, by obscuring our deepest wishes into symbolic, complex imagery. Freud saw dreams as being personal to an individual, laden with meaning that would make sense only in the context of the dreamer’s life.
According to Freud, dreams then arose in symbolism, having both a latent and a manifest meaning. The manifest meaning is what we remember: the bizarre, often inexplicable content of the dream. The latent meaning is the deeper wish or wishes the individual longs to have fulfilled. Freud believed that the manifest meaning of dreams could be analyzed and interpreted within the context of an individual life. This process of interpretation was time-consuming and could take years. It’s important to note that the psychodynamic approach was developed long before science discovered the phases of sleep or any of the other neurological bases of sleep.
The Cognitive Approach
Cognition deals with how people think, how they learn and understand the world around them. Cognitive science also examines how we develop thought processes and ascribe meaning to our thoughts, values and ideas. Calvin Hall (1909-1985) was the first researcher to study dreams scientifically and formalized the idea that dreams represent thoughts. He collected over 50,000 impressions of dreams from people over the years and theorized that dreams show us how we see ourselves, other people, the world at large, conflict, and morals.
Cognitivists hold that the mind is the origin of dreams. Scientists know that dreams occur in the rapid eye movement (REM) phase of sleep, giving strength to the notion that dreams are a physical response to a particular kind of neurological activity. Given that REM sleep is necessary for memory consolidation, it’s possible that dreaming is an essential part of the brain’s transferring and processing information that become memories. It’s an established, scientifically proven fact that both sleep and dreaming are important to successful learning and good recall. Cognitive psychologists use scientific research to continue their study of dreams.
The Neuroscience Approach
Neuroscience approaches dreams as a natural part of the human physiological and biological system. For neuroscientists, dreaming is a purely biological function of the resting brain. Unlike the cognitive approach, the neuroscience approach looks at how brain cells called neurons work. Neurons are the physical, biological basis for all thought, emotions and memory. The neuroscientist J. Allan Hobson posited that during REM sleep, random electrical signals partially trigger the activation of stored memories. These triggered memories, sensations, and emotions get woven together into a kind of muddled narrative by the neurological organizing principle, a postulated function of the brain. The organizing principle states that the human mind seeks to make sense of the world at all times.
Psychological neuroscience takes on dreams is thus a purely functional approach, seeking only to understand how dreams happen biologically and not any further or more comprehensive meaning. Instead, neuroscientists emphasize the brain’s modularity in sleeping; that is, areas of the brain turn off and on during different sleep phases. For example, the area of the brain responsible for maintaining conscious control over thought and memory, the prefrontal cortex, disengages during sleep. The limbic system, an ancient part of the brain that regulates emotion among other vital functions becomes much more active than during the day. Dreams are then shaped by what parts of the brain are active during REM sleep.
The neuroscience approach is rationalistic and empirical, unlike the psychodynamic and humanistic approaches.
The Humanistic Approach
Humanistic psychology’s approach to dreaming is not dissimilar to the psychodynamic approach. For humanists, just like psychodynamicists, dreaming is about a person’s deeper self. Humanistic psychologists see dreams as having significant meaning unique to each individual. Humanism emphasizes how the self feels, how it interacts with problems and challenges in the environment. Humanists note how we are often in peril in dreams, or at the very least, in bizarre circumstances in which we attempt to assert balance, control and meaning over our dreaming situation. They view dreams as emblematic of our overall attempt to do the same things to our external environment: to bring personally significant reason and meaning to an often confusing world.
Unlike the neuroscience approach to dreaming, the humanistic school valued highly subjective interpretations of dreams.
We know that people dream about two hours every night and that most dreams are forgotten. Dreams occur during REM sleep, and research has shown that REM sleep is essential for getting the full benefits of sleep. Without REM sleep, people don’t feel refreshed and become fatigued more easily. Given that dreams most often occur in REM sleep, there’s good evidence that dreaming is an essential part of good health.
B.S. Psychology | Arkansas State University
M.A. Rehabilitation Counseling | Arkansas State University
M.A. English | Arkansas State University
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