What are dreams? What is this strange world that exists alongside to our own, inside and outside of it, occurring at the same time? Is this a world, which is the same with the one of awareness, with the only difference of being the “eye” of consciousness that makes the one the real-world and the other fantastic?
People of ancient times had different beliefs about the world of dreams and its importance. Today scientists, researching the secrets of the brain, believe that they have got even closer in solving the riddle of dreams.
Dreams are mental and emotional expressions that are displayed on the “screen” of our minds while we are sleeping. We dream about one to two hours every night, while we may experience four to seven dreams during our sleep. Every person dreams, but not everyone remembers his dreams. Dreams are colourful and often involve all of our senses, giving us impressions of smells, sounds, images, tastes and things we touch. Sometimes we often see the same dream over and over again and some other times we feel that we had seen this specific dream before, without being able to remember if this had actually happened. Also, sometimes we might dream about unfamiliar places and situations that seem to be oddly familiar.
For hundreds of years, people were trying to understand what dreams meant. The ancient Greeks and Romans often reported dreams, which carried messages from the gods. Such messages played an important role in battles and it is said that dreams were used as advisory means to military leaders during the war. In ancient Egypt, people who could interpret the meaning of dreams were highly regarded, while in the Bible, there are over seven hundred reports or stories related to dreams. Also, stories associated with the birth of Muhammad, contain significant events that were foretold in dreams, including the date of his birth and his name. In China, it was believed that dreams were a way to visit one’s deceased family members. Moreover, some natives of America and Mexico believed that the dream world is a different world than the one we are living in while we are awake. In Europe, especially in the Middle Ages, people believed that dreams were evil and that they could lead people to perform evil deeds.
In the early twentieth century, two great scientists have developed two different theories about dreams. The Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud expressed his main theories about dreams in the book “The interpretation of dreams.” He believed that people often dream of unfulfilled situations that they would like to experience and that these dreams are particularly associated with sexual and aggressive drives. Freud believed that dreams are full of hidden meanings. He tried to understand dreams in order to understand people and the way they were thinking or acting in different ways. He believed that every thought and deed has deeper motivations and that there could be found the well-buried motile forces of our thoughts and actions. Freud gave a key to the interpretation of dreams, helping people to solve problems and self-analyse themselves. For example, Freud said that those who dream of flying or floating want to be released from their childhood. Also, if someone dreams that a close relative is dying, he is probably hiding hostility towards that person, or a desire to take this relative’s place in the current situation this person is into.
The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung worked for several years close to Freud, but he differentiated in his interpretation of dreams. He believed that through dreams people could find help to mature and gain understanding of themselves. Also, he thought that someone could find solutions to “awake-problems” through dreams. Dreams have much to show us about ourselves and our relationships with others. Although, Jung believed that dreams carry hidden feelings associated with sexual and aggressive drives, unlike Freud, he pointed the focus of his interpretation of dreams in the exact opposite direction- in a more humanistic approach, suggesting that people continuously try to develop their capabilities in order to become better beings.
Today, the science that studies dreams has evolved and we can watch what is happening in the brain of someone who is dreaming. According to the illustrations of brain functioning during a dream, a lot of activity is presented in the visual area and in the areas related to emotions, while little activity occurs in the areas responsible for logical reasoning. Probably, this may explain the fact that what we see in dreams seems to be strange and difficult to understand, and even more difficult to express.
In 1953, a particular stage of sleep was discovered, the so-called REM, which derives from the initials of the words “rapid eye movement”. Our eyes move swiftly back and forth while the eyelids are closed. During sleep, our brainwaves go through various stages, and the REM stage is the fourth one. We enter this stage four to seven times at night while we sleep. During that time, our body does not move at all and that is when we dream. If someone awakens during this stage, he can remember almost 90% of the dream he saw. This is true even for those who say that they do not dream at all, because everyone does, but some people cannot remember their dreams.
A part of the scientific research that has been conducted concerning dreams is the study of brain activity during sleep, with the use of electroencephalogram. It has been found that when we dream the part of the brain responsible for emotions is particularly active. Instead, the frontal part of the brain is much less active. There lies the centre of our higher cognitive functions such as organization and memory. Researcher Rosalind Cartwright, who works at the research centre of dreaming disorders in Chicago, states that dreams are similar to memories, which are associated with emotions rather than thoughts, placed one above the other.
Other researchers suggest that we can cope with problems and strongly negative feelings through dreams. Robert Stickgold, a professor of psychiatry of Harvard University in Massachusetts, said that when we dream, our brain tries to understand the world. It does so by combining in different ways our memories to create new connections and correlations. He believes that dreams are a biological process and he does not agree with Sigmund Freud that through dreams people express their hidden feelings and desires.
No matter how much scientific research has advanced, when it comes to solving the mystery of dreams, we are probably still far away from achieving it.