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Sweet dreams are made of …

Last Modified: July 18, 2018

Family Medicine

Have you ever opened your eyes in the morning questioning what in the world your dreams last night were trying to tell you? Aaron Roberts, MD, PPG – Sleep Medicine, and his wife, Rachel, a mental health counselor, have some suggestions, from both the neurophysiological and psychological perspectives.

Dreams have fascinated people for centuries, inspiring books and even movies. So, what exactly is it about dreams that has kept ancient civilizations intrigued for so long, psychoanalysts and philosophers constantly hypothesizing, and neuroscientists busy looking for definitive data? Perhaps part of the fascination is that they can drastically differ in content and from subject to subject. At times they can seem so vivid, yet other times we have no recollection of what we dreamt about. They range from being fun and peaceful, to disturbing and downright bizarre. Even with all the theories and research out there, a lot of speculation remains. 

The facts about dreams

What do we know for sure about dreams? As stated in Medical News Today, “Dreams are a universal human experience that can be described as a state of consciousness characterized by sensory, cognitive and emotional occurrences during sleep.” We know that dreams can occur throughout the sleep cycle, but primarily occur and are most vivid during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep, which makes up about 20-25 percent of the whole sleep cycle. For adults, this stage begins roughly 90-120 minutes after falling asleep and recurs every 90 minutes with a longer time spent in REM with each passing cycle. This stage of sleep is also known as paradoxical sleep because energy is being provided to the brain and body, the brain is very active, both eyes dart back and forth, and the body becomes immobile and relaxed as the muscles are turned off.  Most people dream 3-6 times per night, but 95 percent of people will forget if they did or not by the time they get out of bed.

Historic interpretations of dreams

In ancient times, the focus and meaning of dreams appeared to change depending on the culture. In Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, individuals considered their dreams to come directly from the Gods and to hold prophetic power about the future. Considerable weight was given to dreams of Pharaohs since they were already viewed as Gods themselves. Ancient Greece brought Aristotle, who thought the pure form of wisdom could only be achieved while sleeping. Due to the fact dreams were important in predicting the future and prosperity of one’s life, they had a significant impact on decision making along with the development of the ancient world.

Ancient Greece also brought Hippocrates and his view of dreams. He was identified as the first individual who began thinking dreams had more to do with indicating one’s mental and physical health instead of coming from a divine self. He also gave more focus to the connection between dreams and human thought. Ancient Rome adopted a significant amount from the Greeks’ view of dream interpretation. Roman scholars openly proclaimed that dreams were inspired more by one’s own passions, emotions, and experiences of everyday life rather than gods.  This history illustrates the longevity of curiosity surrounding dreams.

The theory of dreams

Psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung each had their own interpretation of dreams and the possible connection to our subconscious. Sigmund Freud held the belief that through interrupting our dreams, we can reveal a lot about our true selves and our unconscious/repressed desires. Things that we normally would not say or do in day to day life are freely acted out in our dreams. Carl Jung had the perspective that dreams are more a reflection on current lifestyle and can offer solutions to complex problems.

As the years progressed, more theories began to evolve on the meaning behind dreams. The first theory is that we dream to practice responses to threatening situations allowing us to practice our fight-or-flight responses. Another theory offered by Ernest Hartmann is that dreaming is a form of psychotherapy. It provides a safe place to explore and work through our emotional content in a unique way. By doing so, it may aid us in accepting truths that may otherwise get repressed. A final theory is the thought dreaming is like a computer defragmenting a hard drive. This allows us to get rid of old connections and maintain the more sufficient ones.

The neuroscience of dreams

In the 1950s, scientists discovered a method to measure people’s brainwaves, known as electroencephalography (EEG). With use of EEG, it was observed that during a specific portion of sleep, people’s brains were particularly active, and their eyes would make quick jerking movements, which we now know as rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep. People who were woken up during REM sleep were much more likely to recall dreams compared to those woken during non-REM sleep. Hence, it was thought for a long time that dreams were somehow associated with REM sleep.

John Allan Hobson, a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist, researched dreams for over 30 years and believes they come from random activation of the forebrain (amygdala and hippocampus). The amygdala is involved with decision-making and emotional responses whereas the hippocampus is involved in memory consolidation. As a way of organizing information from random firing of neurons during REM sleep, the forebrain makes up a story which we perceive as dreams.

Sweet dreams

With all the theories and speculation that is out there, it is no wonder there remains a strong fascination with dreams. Until more definitive data is known about the act of dreaming and interpretations, enjoy the wonder and creativeness your dreams have to offer. Don’t take them too literally, but do share when you have bizarre or entertaining ones! Happy dreaming.



  2. The History and Meaning of Dreams in Ancient Cultures – The Sleep Blog
  4. Psychology Today What do dreams do for us

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