Why Do We Dream?
You are walking on a cobbled stone street, lined with shops on either side, but you can’t make out the signs. You think you should be frightened because you are alone, but you feel relaxed and at home. Suddenly, you friend is by your side pointing out one of the shops. When
you look in the window, you see your parents eating sandwiches. This makes you happy, but you remember that they should not be there and wake up. You shake your head and wonder “Where did that come from?”
Have you ever wondered why you dream? From scary dreams to erotic ones, what is fueling the nightly movies in our minds?
Freud’s Psychodynamic Dream theory posits that dreams come from internal conflicts and unconscious forces. He believed that dreams were a battle for our minds where the Ego played referee to the wish fulfillment needs of our Id, that immature, impetuous side of our personality, and our Super Ego, the critical side of us that likes to tell us we are doing it wrong.
Wish Fulfillment is part of what Freud termed magical thinking, where we create desires from our fantasies. Our dreams then are a series of deep, dark wishes playing out symbolically while other parts of our personality judge those same wishes. This is particularly disturbing in the case of dreams that have you in romantic situations with someone you do not like in your waking life. Does this mean you secretly wish to be with them? Probably not. Despite the interesting ideas behind Freudian theories, there have been very little research done to prove or disprove them.
The Activation-Synthesis Model was proposed by the Harvard team of Hobson and McCarley in the 70s. This theory suggests that dreams are merely the brains attempt to interpret neural activity during our sleep. When we sleep, we are not unconscious.
Unconsciousness implies little brain activity. Sleep and dream states involve lots of brain activity! Hobson and McCarley postulated that the brain, specifically the forebrain, notes the activity in the lower
levels of brain responsible for autonomic body functions, and tries to make sense of it. This requires the forebrain to activate areas such as the hippocampus and amygdala which are related to our memory storage to assist in providing “pictures” or context to the neural stimulation.
In laymen’s terms, our brain has one job- problem solving. That is what it does. Even when we sleep, the brain tries to create meaning out of the neurons firing to keep our blood pressure stable and breathing regular. This does not mean, however, that dreams are not meaningful, according to the Hobson and McCarley.
The Neuro-Cognitive Dream Theory is based on the facts that dreams and waking thoughts are highly correlated. This theory proposes that the purpose of dreaming is that we are witnessing our brain encoding and storing our memories of the day. The human mind takes in tons of information daily and this becomes apparent very apparent when we do not sleep. When we do not sleep adequately, we find it difficult to either remember things or think clearly. This theory includes the research regarding the need to “clean” out the overload in our brain. Like
having an over-flowing in-box, the brain, during sleep and dreams, tosses out the useless information and encodes and stores the important information. Sometimes, we get a glimpse of what is happening in this process as it shows up in our dreams.
While it can be quite jumbled, that also speaks to how our brain encodes information. For example, have you ever played Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon? The process with which we can tie in an actor to Kevin Bacon using other actors and films is a lot like how our brain files away memories. Cross filing and tagging makes for weird connections.
So, why do you dream of cobbled stone streets and why does that person keep showing up in your dreams? Any of these theories can give you a hand at figuring that out. First, we can start with, what does it mean to you now, while you are awake? After that, it is up to you to decide if that meaning makes sense. Any attempt to interpret a dream cannot do so without using the dreamer as reference. Many things in dreams can be symbolic and even an attempt to fulfill a wish. And then again, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.