Have you ever wondered if dreaming serves any purpose? More importantly do you know what purpose sleep serves? Today I want to blog about why we dream and the importance of sleeping. What prompted me to explore this? My friends know I write these blogs and every so often a friend will ask me to write about a subject that is important to him or her. I have a friend who is interested in ‘lucid dreaming’. I had absolutely no idea what ‘lucid dreaming’ was when he first mentioned it, but I’ve now learnt it is a technique for controlling your dreams. I did agree to research this subject but after beginning my research it dawned on me that I understand very little about the actual process of ‘dreaming’, and more importantly the importance of sleep, so that is what I’ll be exploring today. I want to find out if we can use sleep and dreaming to enhance how our brains work when we are awake.
What is the importance of sleep?
The very latest research on sleep shows it is essential to helping us remember. Neuroscientists from the University of Alberta published a new paper on their research into sleep and memory in early May.
PhD candidate Anastasia Greenberg led the research, under the supervision of Professor Clay Dickson. The team found that during slow-wave brain activity, brain cells fired in all sort of patterns, which (these scientists believe) shows that the brain is strengthening memories. In a lab experiment, the researchers then applied electrical fields to the heads of volunteers and stimulated slow-wave sleep. Previous research had also found that electrical stimulation boosts memories. There is now discussion that electrical simulation might work as a way to artificially enhance memories. Much more research needs to be done in this area before ‘electrical stimulation’ can be rolled out to the public! However it would be great news, particularly for people with degenerative brain disorders like Alzheimer’s, who suffer memory loss. In the meantime, all of us should be getting enough sleep, and if you feel like taking an indulgent afternoon nap, go for it! Your justification is that you are improving your memory. Now, let’s move onto the purpose of dreaming …
Various theories on dreaming
In the scientific community there are radically different theories about why we dream. Some neurobiologists argue that dreams are just randomly produced by the chemistry of the brain. Our dreams have no meaning or significance. In stark contrast, Freudians believe that dreams are a gateway into the subconscious. Every dream is significant because it reveals the repressed desires and anxieties that we refuse to face up to in our waking lives. Freudians argue that our dreams expose more about our true selves than our wake persona reveals. Yet another theory has been put forward by evolutionary psychologists who theorise that in dreams people and animals ‘practice’ responding to threats. If you have ever owned a dog, you will know that dogs dream. I am not a pet-person, but once when visiting relatives I watched their pet dog yap and flinch in a dream. Was it chasing a rabbit or running away from bigger dogs? Evolutionary psychologists have come up with a ‘threat stimulation’ theory, meaning in our dreams we replicate potential threats and practise responding. These psychologists argue that this is an ancient biological defence mechanism and gives animals which dream (including humans) an evolutionary advantage. We have built on the ‘neuro-cognitive mechanisms’ needed to deal with threats.
Ancient theories on dreaming
For more than a thousand years people believed that dreams were a link between our everyday lives and divinity. The Greeks, Roman and Israelites also believed dreams were prophetic and foretold of the future. The Bible is full of prophetic dreams. God tells Jacob to return to the land of his father in a dream. The King of Egypt is warned of years of drought with visions of starving cows in a dream. I have no trouble accepting that God can speak to us in a dream.
Revelations that have changed the world have been delivered in dreams. The scientists Dmitri Mendeleev discovered the Periodic Table in a dream in 1869. “In a dream I saw a table where all the elements fell into place as required. Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper,” he said. Scientist Otto Loewi thought that nerve signals were transmitted by chemicals, but couldn’t prove it. Over two nights in 1920 he dreamt of an experiment that did prove his theory. Dreams have also delivered great art. Paul McCartney dreamt of the song, ‘Let It Be’ and when he woke it was perfectly formed in his head. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein after the story came to her in a dream.
The theories of Ernest Hartmann
The psychologist Ernest Hartmann wrote a wonderful book about dreams in 1998 called Dreams and Nightmares: The Origin and Meaning of Dreams. If you are really interested in the purpose dreams, I suggest you read this book. Professor Hartmann drew on his clinical practice, his research on sleep and over 5,000 of his own dreams. He concluded that the main purpose of dreams was to help us make sense of our emotions.
He discovered that our dreams are shaped by our emotions and they help us understand our experiences. Dreams effectively assist us in gathering knowledge about ourselves. Professor Hartmann said dreams help the brain make connections, and the connections are influenced by how we are feeling. The dream image “contextualizes” our dominant thought. For example if you are worried about losing someone, a relationship is about to end, you may dream that all your teeth fall out. The dream is giving your emotion context – your dominant feeling is a fear of loss, so you give this fear context by imagining you lose all your teeth. Professor Hartmann concludes that the dream provides an ‘explanatory metaphor’ for our emotional state. Sometimes when awake we don’t face up to our fears, but dreams bring our emotions to the fore. This is psychologically healthy.
There was a great article, called ‘The Science behind Dreaming’, in the Scientific American journal that went further in explaining this. Author Sander van der Lindin wrote:
Dreams seem to help us process emotions by encoding and constructing memories of them. What we see and experience in our dreams might not necessarily be real, but the emotions attached to these experiences certainly are.
Ms van der Lindin explains that this fulfils an important task because when people don’t process their emotions, especially negative ones, worries and anxiety build. In fact, severe REM sleep-deprivation is linked to the development of mental disorders.
Ms van der Lindin concludes that “dreams help regulate traffic on that fragile bridge which connects our experiences with our emotions and memories”. Dream on dreamers…
ABOUT PAT MESITI
Pat Mesiti is a best-selling author, coach and educator in the area of personal development. Having built some of Australia’s largest people-driven organisations, Pat understands the power of harnessing human potential. He has shared the stage with some of the world’s great business minds and has sold over millions of copies of his books and materials.