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Psychology of Dreams, Reasons Behind Them and Their Meanings

The interpretation of dreams began at around 3000 to 4000 B.C. At that time, they were documented on clay tablets. In certain societies, people were unable to differentiate between the real world and the dream world. Others just chose not to differentiate the two worlds. This is because they considered dreaming as a lean-to the real world and a more powerful one. Greek and roman societies considered dreams as messages from their gods or ancestors. They interpreted them in a religious context. During the Hellenic period, dreams were considered to have healing powers. In Egypt, priests interpreted dreams and recorded them in hieroglyphics. Others saw dreams as a chance for the spirit and soul to leave the body every night to go and visit other places. In the middle ages, people saw dreams as evil and had been a vessel through which the devil passed his temptations. In the nineteenth century, dreams were considered as manifestations of anxiety and thus had no meaning (David Kahn & Hobson, 2002). The focus of this paper is to outline the main theories of why human beings dream and discuss whether these dreams have meanings or are meaningless.

Dreams can be defined as successions that occur in the mind involuntarily during certain stages of sleep. They are successions involving ideas, images, sensations and emotions. The content and the purpose that dreams carry have not been directly understood to the present day. However, this topic has been of interest in scientific, religious and philosophical speculations.  Dreams occur in rapid eye movement (REM) stage, when human beings are asleep (Hartmann, Outline for a Theory on the Nature and Functions of Dreaming, 1996). In this stage, the human mind is extremely active and works as if a person is awake. Continuous movements of the eye characterize it. However, dreams can occur in other stages of sleep, but are less memorable and clear. They can happen for a period that ranges from a few seconds up to twenty minutes. In most cases, the dreamer never has control on the events of his or her dream. However, in lucid dreaming, the dreamer is normally aware of the events. Here, the dreamer can wield a certain degree of control or manipulate events in the environment of the dream (Hartmann, Outline for a Theory on the Nature and Functions of Dreaming, 1996).

Psychoanalytic theory as explained by Sigmund Freud and Carl G. Jung is one of the main theories that explain dreams. Sigmund Freud became interested in dreams, because most of his patients told dreams spontaneously.  In the nineteenth century, Freud started his research on the mechanism of dream. He suggests that dreams represent unconscious desires, motives and thoughts.  He states that aggressive and sexual instincts repressed from consciousness drive people. He described two components of dreams that include manifest content and latent content. Manifest content includes actual messages and thoughts that are within the dream. Latent content is the hidden psychological meaning of the dream (Weitz, 1958).  

Jung used the archetype, individuation and collective unconscious doctrines to explain dreams.  Jung states that the interpretation of dreams can only happen through a scientific realm. He states that dreams uncover unsuspected psychic material and gives insight to psychic causality. Jung states that almost half of the life spent by human beings is done unconsciously. Therefore, dreams are utterances of the unconscious. He states that dreams must not be limited to certain preconceived formula, because the unconscious could carry information equal or more than the conscious. Dreams are not negligible circumstances. They reveal secrets of the inner life and hidden personality issues.  He says that dreams are effective tools that build human personality (Weitz, 1958).

Neurocognitive model of dream developed by Ross Levin and Tore Nielsen present three components. The first element, neurophysiologic substrate underlies and activates the dreaming process. Secondly, the conceptual system of scripts and schemas constitute the dreaming process. The third, dream content institutes the cognitive process. The theory recognizes the difference that exists between nightmares and bad dreams. The two scholars suggest that the two involve similar processes, but differ in terms of their effectiveness in regulating affect load (Nielsen, 2009). They characterize the two as bad dreams.  The neural substrate provides the level of activation that is required for dreaming and constricts possible types of thinking. This is responsible in determining the clarity and intensity in dreams.  Levin and Nielsen recognize the mechanisms that generate REM. They state that models of psychopathology support dream function and the production of nightmares that link cognitive and neural processes in sleeping and waking. They state that disruption in the neural and cognitive levels result to a variety of features that cause nightmare imagery. Disturbed dreaming is a result of the dysfunction in a network of affective processes, which are presumed to serve the adaptive function of fear memory extinction, which are a function of REM sleep during a normal dream. Therefore, dreaming represents the effect of the above mechanisms (Nielsen, 2009).

Threat simulation theory by Doctors Katja Valli, Sophie Lenasdotter, Oskar MacGregor and Antti Revonsuo state that dreaming is a mental replication for the preparation of the neurocognitive apparatus responsible for the recognition of threats and avoidance issues (Valli & et.al, A test of the Threat Simulation Theory – Replication of Results in an Independent Sample, 2007). The theory is based on current evidence on the systematic recurrent content of dream characteristics. The theory explains that threatening events influence dreams. They state that dream is a reaction to threatening events, which include self and people centered, personally relevant and realistic threatening events. However, they liken the dreaming experience to a reaction to a threatening event in an awaking situation. However, the dream situation does not provide a defensive reaction (Valli & et.al, The threat simulation theory of the evolutionary function of dreaming: Evidence from dreams of traumatized children, 2005).

In memory reprocessing model, Robert Stickgold states that dreams occur as a reflection of the activation and recombination of memories. However, the memories and their associations can be altered in the process of dreaming (Stickgold & et.al, Science, 2001). Therefore, dreams occur from memories of waking events. However, it does not mean that episodic memory is used for dream construction even though dream elements can be traced to certain waking events. Threatening memories form most of the dreams that people have. The brain acquires dream elements from cortical traces of discrete components of episodic memories that are combined with semantic memories (Stickgold, Dreams are made of this. , 2005).

Allan J Hobson’s theory of protoconsciousness suggests that REM sleep constitutes a protoconscious state that provides a reality world model useful for the establishment and maintenance of waking consciousness. Therefore, dreaming exists in features of primary consciousness manifested in emotions and perceptions elicited by the brain without an influence from external consciousness. Dreams are incoherent, limited of thought and memory that illustrate the scientific base of subjective experience. Dreaming is a biased occurrence of the state of the mind. It has phenomenological similarities that have a relationship with waking consciousness and other brain functions that are high-order and depend on brain activation during sleep. This is understood through REM sleep-dream relationship (Hobson, 2009).

Ernest Hartmann, in his theory of connections, states that dreaming connects widely and broadly. He states that connecting and reconnecting are basic features of dreaming. These connections happen in a net of units. When dreaming, the process involves certain patterns that manifest in strengthening or weakening of certain connections. Dreaming has more wide connection ability than does waking. The progression in this connection is less focused and less specific. In the process, emotion acts as a guide, while dreaming contextualizes the emotion. For instance, the emotions brought up during traumatic events guide the connections that are made by the dreamer, when dreaming about a traumatic event and other past events. Emotions also serve to guide connections of an expected outcome of a certain event in dreams, for instance, on pregnant women (Hartmann, Outline for a Theory on the Nature and Functions of Dreaming, 1996).

Different theories explain the possibility of dreams to carry meanings. Freud postulates that dreams are a manifestation of suppressed feelings and urges. He states that aggressive instincts and sexual urges control human behavior. When they are suppressed or repressed, they become apparent in dreams. He confirms this in the manifest and latent content parts of dreams. The snake dreams also tell the meanings of dreams where the snake is a symbol of the penis.  This is linked with sexuality and extended to male figures in a person’s life (Cwik, 2000). Jung also states that a snake in a dream is a symbol of nature’s wisdom and is indicative of the gap between attitude of the instincts and conscious mind. The snake is a symbol of the threat existent in this conflict (Weitz, 1958).

In the study of the relationship between dream character and dream emotion, David Kahn found that emotions people’s dream characters evoke emotions used as a basis for identification (Kahn & et.al, 2000).  He agrees that dreams have meanings by stating that affection and joy associate with known dream characters, even when emotional attributes are inconsistent with the emotions present during the waking state.  Therefore, emotions are essential in the identification of dream characters (David Kahn & Hobson, 2002).

Antonio Zadra confirms that dreams have meanings.  He states that most recurrent dreams in childhood and adulthood have positive, negative or a blend of both positive and negative outcome. Fear and apprehension are the most common emotions in negative effects. However, sadness, anger and guilt also occur in recurrent dreams. The occurrence of such in adults is prevalent than in children. Therefore, this shows that dreams are related to waking states that involve real life situations. Therefore, dreams are meaningful and show satisfaction or disappointment about certain real life issues (Zadra, 1993).

In posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) therapy, dreams play an essential role underscoring their meaningfulness. Most people who suffer of PTSD report a lot of nightmares and difficulty in commencing and maintaining sleep. These nightmares replicate past traumatic events and have been characterized as a symptom of PTSD. Patients with PTSD report that they think and dream of traumatic events frequently. These dreams replay the traumatic events and provoke awakening. This shows that dreams have a connection with real life events and are thus meaningful (Rothbaum & Mellman, 2001).

In conclusion, the theories discussed in this paper explain why human beings dream and explain the meanings of dreams. In these explanations, most dreams reflect issues that deal with traumatic events and experiences, especially with patients suffering from PTSD. Other theories explain that dreams are manifestations of repressed desires and urges. Therefore, dreams reflect real life situations and desires of human beings understood mostly through clinical and psychological experiments and therapies.

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