Introduction (Psychology and Mental Health)
Humans spend roughly one-third of their lives sleeping, and laboratory research indicates that at least a third of the sleep period is filled with dreaming. Thus, if a person lives seventy-five years, he or she will spend more than eight of those years dreaming. People throughout the millennia have pondered the meaning of those years of dreaming, and their answers have ranged from useless fictions, to psychological insights, to the mark of God.
Some of the earliest known writings were about dreams. The Epic of Gilgamesh, written around 3500 b.c.e., contains the first recorded dream interpretation. An Egyptian document dating to the Twelfth Dynasty (1991-1786 b.c.e.) called the Chester Beatty Papyrus (named after its discoverer) presented a system for interpreting dreams. The biblical book of Genesis, attributed to Moses, who is said to have lived between 1446 and 1406 b.c.e., records a dream of Abimelech (a contemporary of Abraham and Sarah) from a period that appears to antedate the Twelfth Dynasty. Artemidorus Daldianus (c. second century c.e.) provided a comprehensive summary of ancient thinking on dreams in his famous book, Oneirocritica (the interpretation of dreams).
To better understand dreaming, it must be distinguished from related phenomena. If the person is fully awake and perceives episodes departing from natural reality, the person is said to have experienced a vision. Experiencing an...
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Types of Dreams (Psychology and Mental Health)
Just as there are different types of dreamlike experiences, there are different kinds of dreams. Although there will be shortcomings in any effort toward classifying dreams, some approximate distinctions can be made in regard to sleep stage, affect (feelings and emotions), reality orientation, and dream origin.
When people fall asleep, brain activity changes throughout the night in cycles of approximately ninety minutes. Research with the electroencephalograph (which records electrical activity) has demonstrated a sequence of four stages of sleep occurring in these cycles. The first two stages are called D-sleep (desynchronized EEG), which constitutes essential psychological rest—consolidation of memories and processing of thoughts and emotions. The other two stages, which constitute S-sleep (synchronized EEG), are necessary for recuperation from the day’s physical activity—physical rest. S-sleep usually disappears during the second half of a night’s sleep. Dreaming occurs in both S-sleep and D-sleep but is much more likely to occur in D-sleep.
A further distinction in the physiology of sleep is pertinent to the type of dreaming activity likely to occur. During stage-one sleep, there are often accompanying rapid eye movements (REM) that are not found in other stages of sleep. Researchers often distinguish between REM sleep, where these ocular movements occur, and non-REM (NREM) sleep, in which there is an...
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Dreams and Reality (Psychology and Mental Health)
The reality level of dreams varies in terms of time orientation and level of consciousness. Regarding time orientation, dreams earlier in the night contain more themes dealing with the distant past—such as childhood for an adult—while dreams closer toward waking up tend to be richer in content and have more present themes—such as a current concern. The future is emphasized in oneiromancy, the belief that dreams are prophetic and can warn the dreamer of events to come. A famous biblical story exemplifies this: Joseph foretold seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine after hearing about Pharaoh’s dream of seven fat cows devoured by seven lean cows.
The unconscious mind contains material that is rarely accessible or completely inaccessible to awareness. The personal unconscious may resurrect dream images of experiences that a person normally cannot voluntarily recall. For example, a woman may dream about kindergarten classmates about whom she could not remember anything while awake. The psychologist Carl Jung proposed that dreams could sometimes include material from the collective unconscious—a repository of shared human memories. Thus, a dream in which evil is represented by a snake may reflect a universal human inclination to regard snakes as dangerous.
When waking reality rather than unconscious thoughts intrude on dreaming, lucid dreams occur. Lucid dreams are characterized by the...
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Origins and Significance (Psychology and Mental Health)
Theories about the origins of dreams can be divided into two main categories: naturalistic and supernaturalistic. Proponents of naturalistic theories of dreaming believe that dreams result from either physiological activities or psychological processes. Aristotle was one of the first people to offer a physiological explanation for dreams. His basic thesis was that dreams are the afterimages of sensory experiences. A modern physiological approach to dreaming was put forth in the 1970’s by J. Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley. According to their activation-synthesis theory, emotional and visual areas of the brain are activated during REM sleep, and the newly alerted frontal lobe tries to make sense of this information plus any other sensory or physiological activity that may be occurring at that time. The result is that ongoing activity is synthesized (combined) into a dream plot. For example, a man enters REM sleep and pleasant memories of playing in band during school are evoked. Meanwhile, the steam pipes in his bedroom are banging. The result is a dream in which he is watching a band parade by with the booming of bass drums ringing in his ears. Hobson does not believe that, apart from fostering recent memories, dreams have any psychological significance.
Plato believed that dreams do have psychological significance and can reveal something about the character of people. More recent ideas about the psychological...
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Dream Content (Psychology and Mental Health)
Dream content varies depending on the stage of sleep and time of night. Research has also revealed that characteristics of the dreamer and environmental factors can influence the nature of dreams.
Three human characteristics that influence dreams are age, gender, and personality. It has been found that children are more likely to report dreams(probably because they experience more REM sleep) and their dreams are reported to have more emotional content, particularly nightmarish themes. Elderly people report more death themes in their dreams. Male dreams have more sexual and aggressive content than female dreams, which have more themes dealing with home and family. Women report that they dream of their mothers and babies more when they are pregnant. Introverts report more dreams and with greater detail than extroverts. Psychotic individuals (those with severe mental disorders), depressed people, and those whose occupations are in the creative arts (musicians, painters, and novelists) report more nightmares. Schizophrenics and severely depressed people provide shorter dream reports than those of better mental health. It is also reported that depressed people dream of the past more than those who are not depressed.
Environmental factors occurring before and during sleep can shape the content of dreams. What people experience prior to falling asleep can show up in dreams in blatant, subtle, or symbolic forms. People watching...
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Dream Interpretation (Psychology and Mental Health)
There is a plethora of books about dream interpretation offering many different, and often contradictory, approaches to the subject. With so many different ideas about what dreams mean, it is difficult to know which approach is more likely to be successful.
A few principles increase the probability that a dream interpretation approach will be valid. First, the more dream content recalled, the better the opportunity to understand its meaning. Most people remember only bits and pieces of their dreams, and serious efforts to interpret dreams require serious efforts by people to remember their dreams. Second, the more a theme recurs in a series of dreams, the greater the likelihood that the theme is significant. Dream repetition also helps in interpretation: Content from one dream may be a clue to the meaning of other dreams. Finally, the focus of dream interpretation should be the dreamer, not the dream. To understand the dream, one must spend time and effort in knowing the dreamer.
There are many scholarly approaches to dream interpretation. Three theories are particularly noteworthy due to their influence on the thinking of other scholars and their utility for clinical application. Each perspective emphasizes a different side of the meaning of dreams.
Freud proposed that dreams are complementary to waking life. His basic thesis was that many wishes, thoughts, and feelings are censored in waking consciousness...
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Sources for Further Study (Psychology and Mental Health)
Dement, William C. The Promise of Sleep. New York: Dell, 2000. One of the pioneers in sleep research presents a comprehensive overview of sleep for the general public. Includes information on dreaming and research pertinent to dreaming.
Farthing, G. W. The Psychology of Consciousness. New York: Penguin, 1996. In a scholarly book emphasizing research on various aspects of consciousness, Farthing examines dreaming in three chapters and related phenomena in two other chapters.
Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Translated by Joyce Crick, edited by Ritchie Robertson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. This is the classic book that outlined Freud’s theory of the mind and revolutionized thinking about dreams. Probably the single best book ever written about dreaming.
Hall, James A. Patterns of Dreaming. Boston: Shambhala, 1991. Hall looks at dream interpretation from a Jungian perspective with an emphasis on clinical application. This intellectually sound book contains excellent historical background and well-rounded coverage of different approaches toward dream interpretation, including a brief look at Piotrowski’s system.
Hobson, J. Allan. Dreaming: An Introduction to the Science of Sleep. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Hobson, a Harvard professor of psychiatry and sleep expert, describes how dreams are related to brain...
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Dreams (Encyclopedia of Psychology)
The sequence of imagery, thoughts, and emotions that pass through the mind during sleep.
Dreams defy the laws of physics, the principles of logic, and personal morality, and may reflect fears, frustrations, and personal desires. Often occurring in story-form with the dreamer as participant or observer, dreams usually involve several characters, motion, and may include sensations of taste, smell, hearing, or pain. The content of dreams clearly reflects daytime activities, even though these may be distorted to various degrees. While some people report dreaming only in black and white, others dream in color. "Lucid dreaming," in which the sleeper is actually aware of dreaming while the dream is taking place, is not uncommon. Research has indicated that everyone dreams during every night of normal sleep. Many people do not remember their dreams, however, and most people recall only the last dream prior to awakening. The memory shut-down theory suggests that memory may be one of the brain's functions which rests during dreaming, hence we forget our dreams.
In order to understand how dreaming occurs, brain waves during sleep have been measured by an electroencephalograph (EEG). Normally large and slow during sleep, these waves become smaller and faster during periods of sleep...
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