What’s the Deal with Dreams?
I have long been fascinated by dreams. I still remember a recurring dream I had that commenced around the age of three that incited YEARS of my own dream analysis.
My partner is so accustomed to hearing me state “I had the strangest dream last night…”, that the absence of me saying that would alert him to there being something very off with me. I find dreams can be a useful resource to tap into where I am struggling with how to start a project. We often can get too fixated on something that it blocks our creativity (for more on this: https://blacksheepcounselling.com/2017/12/focus-exhaustion-try-unfocusing/). Many of my best ideas come to me when I am either drifting off to sleep or am in full REM* sleep, evidencing the helpful nature of dreams.
Researchers have not concretely pinpointed the “why” of dreams. We do
know that dreams can occur anytime during sleep, but the most vivid dreams occur during deep REM sleep (rapid eye movement), when the brain is most active**. Despite people who state that they “never” dream, research suggests we dream about 2 hours per night. Sigmund Freud was the founding father of dream analysis and believed dreams to be an expression of a repressed wish that we would rather not admit to. As such, a dream being an unfulfilled wish is indicative of conflict within the psyche. In deciphering dreams, Freud believed this conflict within the mind could be resolved via the use of a technique called free association. (http://www.dreaminterpretation-dictionary.com/freud-dream-interpretation.html).
Fellow psychoanalyst Carl Jung rejected Freud’s notions of dreams being designed to be secretive and did not believe that dream formation is a product of discharging our tabooed sexual impulses. Jungian dream theory asserts that dreams reveal more than they conceal and are full of symbols, mythic narratives, and metaphors. Jung’s belief was that dreams are doing the work of integrating our conscious and unconscious lives ~ he referred to this process as individuation: the mind’s natural propensity towards wholeness. It is easiest to think of individuation as the mind’s quest for wholeness, or that quality that separates “elders” from grumpy old people (after all, “wisdom” is healed pain). Because Jung rejected Freud’s theory of dream interpretation that dreams are designed to be secretive, he also did not support the notion that dream formation is a product of discharging our tabooed sexual desires and impulses (https://dreamstudies.org/2009/11/25/carl-jung-dream-interpretation/).
We often struggle to recall dreams come morning because the information is not being “recorded”; our limbic system is “on”, but our prefrontal cortex is mainly turned “off”. Located in the middle part of the brain, the limbic system controls emotional responses and cravings. The organ of the brain that is most active during sleep is the amygdala (the area responsible for fight-or-flight responses). The prefrontal cortex generates language, logic, and critical thinking, but is largely “offline” during sleep which contributes to our genuine feelings of fear of preposterous events, environments, or experiences that transpire in our dreams. However, some critical thinking does still occur in dreams, evidenced by how we attempt to control the narrative. Dream researcher Rosalind Cartwright suggests that dreams are so emotional because we are replaying old memories and updating them with information from recent experiences. It’s not straightforward reason but an emotional kind of logic that links all these memories together. Cartwright’s research indicates that many dreams are negative in emotion. The most prominent emotional themes in dreams are fear, anxiety, anger and confusion, providing support for the amygdala’s role in the dreaming brain (https://healthfully.com/78256-parts-brain-produce-dreams.html).
An exception to the lack of executive functioning in REM sleep occurs during lucid dreaming, a phenomenon in which the dreamer knows they are dreaming. Lucid dreaming is marked by conscious choices, active thinking, and logical reasoning during the dream. To increase your ability to engage in lucid dreams, Dr. Ellis, a psychotherapist specializing in dream work recommends meditation to increase lucidity of dreams ~ see attached link for a guided sleep meditation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8TDcGYmEgyM&fbclid=IwAR00x5CdzSF8UuNf6Sfilz_RfeUB8h6xZtY2X-d5iUXWr4Znc7XqUPK33qY&app=desktop
Research on dreams suggests that we only recall about 10% of our dreams. Recommendations for increasing dream memory recall are to awaken without an alarm and keep a journal by the bed to write down your dreams before they escape your memory.
Tips for engaging in your own dream analysis: Appreciate the dream
~Clear a space. Sense what concerns or burdens your body is carrying at the present moment and imagine sequentially placing each issue outside of the body or at a distance (people who have engaged in EMDR therapy may liken this to using their “container”)
~Recall the dream from a first-person, present stance (not as an observer)
~Reflect on associations; begin with dream setting or place
~Try to recall the dream in detail including the emotions that the dream elicits
~Look for the help (the life force) in the dream and embrace curiosity to embody the felt sense of that [empowering] life force
~Questions to ask yourself: What is the most interesting part of the dream? What is the longing in the dream?
~Use bias control: look for the opposite of what you think the dream is saying or explore the least-liked or most aversive places (insight: death dreams are often more about transformance/rebirth than actual death)
Just like the flower who resiliently blooms in the harshest of conditions, we are innately wired to heal: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, despite our woundings. Rather than fear your dreams, try to embody a curious stance….perhaps your psyche is trying to heal you, not harm you.
*During sleep, the brain moves through five different stages. One of these stages is rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. During this phase, the eyes move rapidly in various directions. The other four phases are referred to as non-REM sleep.
**People enter REM sleep within the first 90-minutes of falling asleep. As the cycle repeats throughout the night, REM sleep occurs several times nightly. REM sleep accounts for 20-25% of an adult’s sleep cycle and over 50% of an infant’s sleep cycle.
Fast Facts on REM sleep:
~During REM sleep, our brain is almost as active as when we are awake
~People enter REM sleep within the first 90 minutes of falling asleep. As the sleep cycle repeats throughout the night, REM sleep occurs several times nightly.
~REM sleep accounts for 20-25% of an adult’s sleep cycle and over 50% of
an infant’s sleep cycle.
~In this phase of sleep, breathing can become fast and irregular
~REM sleep is thought to help consolidate memories
~Drinking alcohol before bed reduces the amount of REM sleep we have
~People with REM sleep behaviour disorder act out in their dreams
Ellis, L (2019). A
Clinician’s Guide to Dream Therapy:
Implementing Simple and Effective Dreamwork, 1st Ed.