At the turn of the century, Sigmund Freud suggested dreams were a window into our unconscious minds, wishes that we held while we were awake and expressed while we were asleep. Since then, we’ve learned how to study dreams and even pinpoint when a sleeping person might be dreaming. But there are still unanswered questions about why we have them, what they symbolise, and how they can give insight into our lived realities.
WIRED asked psychotherapist David Billington, MA from The Dream Research Institute and co-author of The Neural Correlates of Dreaming, Dr Francesca Siclari, what are dreams and what, if anything, do they mean?
What are dreams?
Dreams are a state of consciousness, an experience that you have when you are asleep, Dr Siclari told WIRED. “When you dream something you have an experience that resembles in many ways a waking experience. You hear things, you see things, you have emotions, and the experience is real, its imaginary of course, but the experience is real.”
Dreams can be identified in a person who is sleeping and in a rapid eye-movement (REM) stage of the sleep cycle. During sleep studies, dreams are indicated by high-frequency electrical activity in the brain. But, it has been shown that similar activity also occurs during non-REM sleep, something that is not well understood and what Siclari and her team hoped to find out more about. In their study, they found that when dreaming was reported by volunteers in both REM and non-REM sleep, a decrease in low-frequency activity occurred in the posterior cortical region, an area at the back of the brain associated with spatial reasoning and attention. The neuroscientists say they were able to correctly predict whether a volunteer was dreaming 92 per cent of the time by monitoring activity in this zone.
Why do we dream?
Writing in The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud suggests dreams are just wishes that we have formed in our waking lives. While this has been widely criticised as reductionist, decades later, the why behind dreaming is still up for debate.
Billington told WIRED that strictly speaking dreams may not have a function and instead be a byproduct of other brain functions, “such as the ‘cleansing’ of neurons during sleep.”
But, there are other hypotheses – like Antti Revonsuo’s theory that explores whether dreams are a function to practice survival scenarios while sleeping. “The body gets the rest it needs and we can live out simulations without putting the body in danger,” he said.
More ancient views of dreams suggest they come from ‘elsewhere’ or the dreamer goes ‘elsewhere.’ In modern times, the ‘elsewhere’ can be described as the unconscious mind, which has been seen to have an impact on the conscious self. “This might simply mean gaining insight into current problems (for example, August Kekulé’s ouroboros dream, which helped him model the benzene atom), to having dreams that help someone overcome a past experience (e.g. the dream of a dead relative that provides relief), to something that helps a person make a decision about future direction,” Billington said.
While in cultures all around the world views on why we dream and how we can use dreams to our benefit differ, Billington said they are almost universally seen as “giving hints about the body, soul and the world around us”. He said there are positive correlations between indicators of well-being and vivid dreams. For example, being well means you dream more and more intensely. Working with dreams in psychotherapy also seems to have positive effects on mental well-being, he said.
Why can we remember some dreams and not others?
Sometimes people remember their dreams in vivid details, sometimes there is a feeling that you have had a dream but can’t remember what it was, and other times you can’t remember if you have had a dream at all. Siclari said this is an area her recent research touched on. “We found that in order to remember the dream, another area of the brain needs to be active – so if it’s not active you don’t remember it,” she said.
Although, generally speaking, she said it is likely a good thing that we don’t remember all our dreams. “If we remembered all our dreams as if it was waking experience then we would start getting confused between what is dreaming and what is reality.”
Do dreams mean anything?
Billington said dream meanings are subjective because meaning is subjective. “If your dreams mean something to you, that means something. Content analysis approaches are looking at the common themes, which may also reveal common or universal meanings, but we’re not there yet.” In a study by Nielsen and Powell in 2015, it was found people perceived there to be a causation between eating specific foods and bizarre or disturbing dreams, but there were other factors that influenced this kind of dreaming. “This included sleep quality, emotional stress, and poor mental well-being. In fact, indicators of wellness like good sleep quality, healthy diet and longer fasting between meals were associated with vivid dreams,” Billington said.
Siclari and Billington both said that research of dreams and what they can reveal about non-sensory consciousness is significant for how we view reality in wakefulness. “The more we learn about what consciousness is in the (apparent) non-sensory reality of dreams,” Billington said, “the more we learn about the reality we live in”.