The dream sequence

Let’s peek into the world of dreams to understand the enigmatic phenomenon, in which anything is possible

Sleeping woman in a dream

The human fascination with dreams is certainly nothing new. Millennia ago, early on in our collective dream history, our ancestors understood that dreams were important. Ancient philosophers, such as Hippocrates and Aristotle, debated whether they were caused by the position of the stars, or by bodily processes, while in China, until the 16th century, it was illegal to make important life decisions without first recalling a dream that was suitably auspicious. Our dreams are shape shifting but revealing mirrors.

Today, psychologists and dream researchers are beginning to understand the crucial role that dreams play in regards to our emotional and psychological wellbeing. Dreams reflect our changing mental states, and take us into worlds where the impossible is possible, where our wildest fears and desires come out to play, and the rules of our earthbound lives no longer apply.

What are dreams?

At the end of the 19th century, Freud proposed that dreaming was essential to understanding how the human mind worked. His view was that dreams protected sleep. Unconsciously and outside of awareness, the neurosis of the mind was allowed to surface and make it self apparent whilst we slept. Freud’s view was predominantly a negative conceptualisation of the human psyche. Freud was adamant that dreams should not be remembered. In fact, he said that a recalled dream was a failed dream. Most of Freud’s interpretation of dream symbols relate to his idea of dreams as psychopathology.

On the other hand, Carl Jung, working alongside Freud initially, contributed to our understanding of dreams by opposing Freud’s negative view and replaced this idea with his own: that dreaming restored psychological balance, helped people plan for future events and that the consciousness that was evident in dreams, connected people to a collective unconscious where universal dream symbols and meanings could be elicited.

More recently, and with the help of information technology, views are moving rapidly towards more pragmatic explanations of dream function.

The first of these is the continuity principle—the idea that we dream about waking concerns and preoccupations. This theory has been developed more recently by Professor Michael Schredl at Manheim University in Germany. He asserts that what events from waking life we incorporate into our dreams, depends on four factors. These are:

  1. When the event took place
  2. The dreamer’s emotional attachment to the event
  3. Importance of the event to the dreamer
  4. The time of night. Waking events are more likely to be incorporated in the first two dream periods.

Schredl’s ideas have formalised the common sense view that dreams are sometimes connected to waking life and allowed us to be more specific about which events are most likely to be revealed in our dreams.

In 1996, Maquet and his colleagues mapped the sleeping brain using Positron Emission Tomography [PET] scans for the first time. Their findings showed that the parts of the brain that are active during sleep are those areas that are responsible for processing emotional information, specifically negative events. It seems then that we are hardwired to a) dream about what is currently concerning us, b) to do this in a virtual environment and c) that dreams are essentially emotional in nature and may help us accommodate and assimilate emotionally laden concerns. It is with these ideas in mind that we turn to the issue of actually remembering our dreams.

How often do we remember dreams?

On an average, we remember two or three dreams each week. This has lead to the notion of high and low recallers, with some people stating that they never dream. This isn’t true: we all dream, or at least cycle through the various stages of sleep at least four or five times every night. If you don’t recall dreams, this is mostly due to recall failure rather than absence of dreams. Usually, everyone will remember some dreams—and mostly these are ones that are salient and emotionally-laden.

However, dream recall isn’t a fixed or stable psychological event. Rather, recall rates are varied and depend on what’s happening in your waking life. Dreams are remembered more frequently during times of stress, illness or when facing major life events [both good and bad] or transitions. Such dreams usually reflect your true feelings about the issue you are facing.

Some specific life events that have been identified as causing increased recall are pregnancy, marriage, divorce, physical illness and changes in self-concept. Reduced recall can be caused simply by changes in sleep patterns such as shift work, or waking up to an alarm call rather than waking naturally.

What does a typical dream contain?

Dream researchers have established that 95 per cent of dreams contain visual imagery [occasionally, a dreamer senses only a taste, a touch, a voice]. Most dreams also contain at least one setting and change in location. Location changes are sometimes with the help of transport, and at other times by the dreamer simply walking from one place to another.

Typically, dreams contain at least two characters apart from the dreamer, and there is a 50 per cent chance that one of these characters is known to the individual. Close family members or partners, however, only feature in about 15 per cent dreams, whereas there is a 30 per cent chance that a dream will contain strangers, or characters of uncertain identity. This is perhaps the brain’s way of allowing us to explore what we don’t know rather than what we do know. Also, in case of a nightmare, it is easier to accept violence or threat from the “unknown” rather than the “known.”

Younger dreamers are more likely to dream of animals or imaginary characters, and the older the dreamer, the greater the chance of her dreams including a deceased relative. Not surprisingly, our real lives have a bearing on the content of our dreams. According to a research carried out in 2008, there’s a six per cent chance of tools or communication devices, such as cell phones, featuring in our dreams.

Gender differences in dreams

My own work with ‘The Dream Research Group’ at the University of the West of England has shown that men and women dream of different things. Generally, women are more interested in their dream lives, so naturally they like to refer to, and share, their dreams with other people. They do this far more regularly than men.

In the normal dreams of men, the most frequent characters are men the dreamer knows [67 per cent]. Aggression is the most common type of social interaction [59 per cent], and the dreamer is more commonly the victim [60 per cent]. In approximately half of aggression dreams, a physical attack is involved. Aggressive interactions usually involve men the dreamer doesn’t know, whereas friendly interactions most often occur with women.

In these scenarios, the dreamer is usually protecting or helping the other dream character. Men’s dreams more often than not take place outdoors, in an unfamiliar setting. They usually involve physical activities, such as picking up objects, moving, bending, and talking to other dream characters. A dream’s theme/story too is different for men and women.

Differences between a man's dreams and a woman's dreams
Men dream about Women dream about
More vacations Work, work and more work
More strangers More characters, especially family members
More travel More familiar settings
More aggression More emotion
More sexual dreams, especially with unknown partners Sexual dreams, when they occur, tend to be with existing partners

Men dream more often about travel, going on vacation, people they don’t know and that their dreams contain more references to both sex and aggression compared to women. However, women’s dream experience in Western culture is more likely to be unpleasant. In fact, women experience more nightmares.

Finally, whilst huge steps have been made in 20 years in our understanding of dreams, what they are and what they do, more questions than answers remain. Yet the inextricable links these nightly events allow us to share transcend sex, history and culture and dreams remain one of the great psychological mysteries of the 21st century.

Note: This article is taken, in part, from Jennifer’s Book, Dreams and Nightmares: What the Mind is Trying to Tell You Whilst the Body Sleeps. Apple Press. All the issues included here are discussed in more detail in her book.

This was first published in the March 2012 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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