This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.
2004 First Web Paper
Dreams are a product of the brain in ways that science cannot fully explain. I have always been fascinated by the ability for dreams to be extremely vivid and realistic. Almost anyone can identify with having a dream in which they awoke feeling as if they had just been active in some way, although they are at home in bed.
The most vivid and active dreams occur during the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage of sleep which occurs every ninety minutes (1). It has been found that during this cycle, brain activity is comparable to being awake. The implication of this information is that during sleep, the brain still processes and reacts to information without external influence. This enables the existence of intense imagery and the formulation of situations, dialogue, etc. The body is immobile although mental activity is extremely high (2). The restriction of the body prevents the dreamer from acting out any physical activity that may occur in the dream.
The subject of dreams and their role as part of the brain's functions cannot be discussed without Sigmund Freud's take on the dream world. In his Interpretation of Dreams he outlines dreams as a wish-fulfillment, sending a message that the brain formulates images of something that is lacking in one's waking life (3). While it cannot be decided whether or not this is fundamentally the purpose or meaning of dreams, it is interesting to think that our brains may be trying to communicate a way to fulfill an existing void. Freud also equates dream bizarreness to the mind's effort to cover up the true meaning of the dream and subconscious desires that the conscious mind cannot deal with. Although most dreams may be "strange" or "weird", why would the subconscious go to such lengths to disguise true desires? I believe that Freud's psychoanalytic take on dreams is valuable in trying to understand our subconscious, but do his ideas necessarily apply to every dream? He believes that our hidden desires are trying to break through to our consciousness, but does that include dreams that simply depict a situation in life that is normal to the dreamer? For example, if someone anticipates some major event, such as a giving a presentation or throwing a party, and they dream about this event either being a disaster or a success— does this necessarily communicate desires that are unacceptable to the conscious self? I do think that these "normal" dreams communicate hidden, or even obvious, anxieties and hopes but that Freud's focus on the dark side of the psyche might not always be applicable.
The extensive study of the symbolism of dreams has always fascinated me since it logically follows to wonder how the brain utilizes symbolic imagery to communicate to the conscious self. One example of symbolism from a dream book, which intends to help decipher and understand dreams, states that if a dream includes keys they represent power and access (4). While it may be somewhat obvious for us to think of possessing keys as having access, or wanting access to something—it is fascinating to think that the brain will substitute access with the possession of a key. If we do not have this conscious association with keys in our everyday life, how does the subconscious identify it in this way? I think that everyday objects have subconscious associations that we may not be consciously aware of.
The ability to dream communicates that the brain functions actively without the need to receive input from the external world. In our dreams, we create an alternate universe into which situations, places and people in our everyday lives take on symbolic value. The knowledge of REM sleep and Freud's interpretation of dreams contribute to further our understanding of the dream world and how dreaming involves our brain and the subconscious.
1)American Psychoanalytic Association, A helpful article on the current scientific stance on REM sleep and dreams.
2)The MIT Encyclopedia of Cognitive Sciences,A searchable reference outlet that contains more information on sleep, dreams and Freud.
3)Interpretation of Dreams, Freud's interpretation of the meaning of dreams.
4)Dreams, A book to help decipher dreams.
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