Why Do We Dream?
When many people have a dream, they think someone else should tell them what it means, as if the dream is not related to their own life. But need it be someone else? Is that even desirable? If it is indeed true that dreams come from the very depths of the dreamer’s psyche, who else can interpret a dream better than the dreamer?
Before, we discuss dream interpretation; it might be beneficial to present a theory as to why we dream. Such a theory will broaden our perspective on the meanings of dreams, and enable us to outline objectives that will provide guidance on our journey of dream interpretation. Similar to going on a mission, it is best to know the objective, before determining a direction in which to proceed.
What is the Basic Purpose of Dreaming?
To the question, “What is the basic purpose of dreaming?” there is no one answer or agreed upon theory. Many in the psychological community believe dreams do not have any significant meaning. According to this school of thought, dreams are random thoughts that go through the mind when the brain is being cleared out at night, much like one takes out the garbage. Fortunately, many others in the psychological community believes dreams do have significant meaning and are of great value. This is my position.
Dreams are meant to guide or advance an individual through life by suggesting alternate choices based on the new data, or changed circumstances, encountered during the day. The following theory is a composite of many other theories plus my own input into the meaning of dreams from my forty years of interpreting dreams which began in group psychotherapy and has broadened with books on psychoanalysis and dream work. So, some of my theory is based on my opinions and experiences, some is based on the research of others, but I have connected the dots in an original way not offered by anyone else, and not accessible in such a complete or succinct manner.
Structurally, the human brain can be broken down into three anatomical regions including the reptilian, the old mammalian and the new mammalian brain. All three regions are active in humans while they dream. Because the reptilian part of the brain is active when we dream, it is reasonably inferable the dream process developed prior to the advancement from the reptilian stage in the evolution of human development, most likely over several million years ago, maybe 100 million years ago. The process of dreaming evolved along with the rest of the cerebral functions for creatures of many species. Applying Darwinian Theory, the dream state is an iterative process computationally allowing organisms to adapt, making them better survivors. Reptiles and mammals, including mice and humans, dream.
Yes, mice dream. They have been tested for increased learning ability when given the chance to fall into Rapid Eye Movement, or REM, sleep. Mice that were allowed to fall into REM sleep performed significantly better going through a maze than mice deprived of REM sleep. This not only suggests that many creatures dream, but that the act of dreaming has beneficial, goal oriented, characteristics, even in rodents.
Why Are Dreams Important to Document and Interpret?
We might consider that life would have been extremely precarious at the beginning stages of existence for predators and prey alike. Being hyper-vigilant–noticing every sound, movement or any change in their immediate environment was required for continued existence. A moment’s inattention or hesitation could bring sudden death. Creatures could not take time to contemplate events as they occurred. They acted reflexively, possibly evolving a dream state to assimilate information collected during the day. This sleep-triggered playing and replaying of incoming information from one day improved their chances of survival in the next. Those that developed the capacity to learn about potential threats and adapt their behavior accordingly were more likely to survive than those who failed to learn and adapt. The capacity to dream, therefore gave them an extra edge in the ‘Survival of the Fittest’ Darwinian Theory.
Our neurological hardware is not that much different today even with the great deal of cumulative stimuli reaching us in the digital age. There is no way to assimilate everything we gain through our five senses every day, or every emotion that is evoked. All of our thoughts and emotions, in addition to our reacting to Twitter, Facebook, Cell Phone Ring Tones, Instant Messenger, etc. are added to our pre-existing conditions located in the unconscious mind and the collective unconscious. Because we are given additional time and can allot mental capabilities to sort through and process the day’s information while we sleep, we become better survivors. Over time, assimilating information while we dream gives us this opportunity.
Dreams may also provide the dreamer with a more accurate view of reality, clarifying steps to a desired goal. By dreaming, we may see the way we incorrectly perceive life in our conscious ego driven state. Our dreams often suggest better ways of adapting to our daily challenges.
Dreams are often confusing because they make use of metaphors and analogies that we might not understand at first glance. Perhaps the reason for allegory is because the dreamer’s unconscious psyche intimately knows the dreamer in their conscious waking state, and realizes that they cannot handle biting reality all at once, cue Jack Nicholson saying, “You can’t handle the truth!,” in the movie, A Few Good Men. Could it be our dreams piecemeal reality’s truth over and over to us, until our subjective ego can accept reality as perceived by the more objective psyche? Perhaps instantly confronting total reality or “ultimate truth” might be too detrimental to the ego. As it is, dreams have to overcome defense mechanisms which are impasses the mind sets up to block information from coming into consciousness.
It is important to note that arguments against change, even toward the positive directions suggested by dreams, are numerous and varied. For instance, some people insist they do not dream, although science tells us almost all people do. Many other people know they dream, but cannot remember dream specifics. Then, there are people who remember their dreams at first, when they awake, but have them vanish before they can record them.
Perhaps these dreamers who cannot fully access the benefits of interpreting their dreams are egos who prefer to stay in denial, a trait often found in addictive personalities. For example, persons with drinking problems or eating disorders often have problems obvious to those around them in the objective world, but the addictive personality wants to stay in its subjective world seeking short term pleasure over long term goals. Addictive persons often do not remember dreams or will forget them very rapidly, however, often in early recovery a deluge of dream material will surface.
Dreams assist dreamers in adapting to the world with a clearer view of the world’s dynamic reality. As we dreamers take in new information every day and add it to our brain’s database, dreams naturally recalculate what adjustments are necessary to lead the dreamer to make more qualified adaptations and hence become a “better survivor.” Many dreams cover a particular issue, repetitively trying to get the message of a possible solution through to the conscious level. In other words, the story changes but the plot and the characters are relatively the same until a course of action is accepted and implemented by the conscious mind. Recurring dreams are similar to this; however, in this case the story also remains the same. In either case the same dream theme is repeated ad infinitum until the conscious mind acknowledges the malady and takes recourse to redirect the dreamer to their ultimate ‘truth’ or ‘reality’ which is equivalent into getting in touch with their ‘true spirit’.
I, myself, do not believe that dreams need to be interpreted to take effect. Humans and other animals have been making use of the dream process for millions of years before psychoanalysts were available to interpret dreams. Because nature tends to affirm and develop those processes necessary for survival, it follows that dream process pathways must operate on some automatic level. These adaptations work whether or not there are outside psychoanalysts to interpret their conception and manifestation. As we saw above in the REM mouse experiment, the mice successfully responded to dream stimuli without any interpretive aid from psychoanalysis.
Dream pathways seem to be a type of unconscious subliminal process that gets the messages from the unconscious level of our sleep state forward to the conscious, awakened mind. It may take many dreams a period of years before we make any of the modifications necessary to improve our lives. The process does continually take place, even if it is very gradual. I have often wondered if, perhaps, this is partially why wisdom comes with age.
Carl Jung, one of the most prominent ‘psychoanalysts’ and early pioneer of psychoanalytic dream analysis, saw the major purpose of dreams to be the process of “individuation”. Individuation is a psychic process where each individual strives to attain their highest level of being given their unique skills and aptitudes, and Jung believed that dreams served to that purpose.
Overall, this better survivor theory does not conflict with Jung’s individuation theory regarding the purpose of dreams. Enhancing the natural talents each one of us possesses, and assimilating them into the ego will lead to a dreamer having “better survivor skills.” The dreamer will become the best unique individual they have the capacity to become, which is the meaning of “Individuation.”
On the other hand, trying to become what someone else wants you to be, or trying to emulate someone because they are successful, will most likely put a person at a disadvantage. Compare a self directed, self motivated person acting with passion to one who is merely fulfilling a role. Dreams will generally reveal how successfully a dreamer is moving toward their life goals as the dreamer is connected to their natural spirit or motivation factor in dreaming. This connection is what gives that dreamer their “spark of life.” By allowing our dreams to guide us to what our path should be, by “following our passions”, we will be assisted in fulfilling our expanding Individuation, thereby becoming one of Darwin’s “Fittest Survivors.”
So then, if dreams do the job automatically, what reason is there to remember, write down and interpret the meaning of dreams? Analyzing the meaning of a dream is important because analysis acts as a catalyst accelerating the forward motion of proactive options from the unconscious mind to the conscious mind. Once these ideas are at the conscious level, action to make adaptations can be manifested, thus accelerating change in stark contrast to the slower momentum of the natural process without analysis.
Ongoing dream analysis also assists the dreamer in adapting to reality ever more objectively. Dream interpretation makes the dreamer’s waking reality more objective, like the dream state, as the subjective bias is modified or removed. The dreamer’s real world being less subjectively biased will enjoy enhanced decision making working toward solving real life problems, which is analogous to the REM mice getting through the maze faster.
In summary, the purpose of dreaming is to provide an individual with a more objective view of their own reality. This less biased view presents more options for solutions to problems, thereby allowing better choices and decisions to be made. This enhanced decision making process championed by our dreams naturally leads to a higher quality of life. Dreams lead the dreamer to discover the truth of their “true” spirit and place in the world. The insights gained by this discovery of expanding potential will make Darwin’s Theory of, “Survival of the Fittest,” a reality. Dreamers who analyze their dreams will become better fit and better able to survive. Active Individuation, the expansion of each person’s unique qualities, will better enable life’s decision making, making the dreamer a “better survivor.” This, then, is the purpose of dreaming, which makes dreams and their self-analysis very important for those of us who want to exist on a more fulfilling level.
What is amazing here is that most human beings have the excess mental capacity to think of extremely complex allegorical plots and themes while their brains are on autopilot – in a rest or sleep state when we are not consciously aware – the brain produces plots, metaphors, etc. more complex than or as complex as the most masterful plays, books and movies – and each of us does this while we are sleeping – yet most of us go through life as if we are not creative – not like the people who write movie scripts, songs or books – most plots in these media forms do not come close to what your subconscious produces when you are not consciously trying. Your brain produces ‘home runs’ while you sleep – yet in your waking state you think you can only ‘strike out’. Most people go through life not realizing how creative each one of us actually is.
(Research by Lakoff was copied from book by Erik D. Goodwyn, “The Neurobiology of the Gods” – How Brain Physiology Shapes the Recurrent Imagery of Myth and Dreams. Lakoff, G. (1997). How Unconscious Metaphorical Thought Shapes Dreams. In D.J. Stein (ed.), Cognitive Science and the Unconscious. American Psychiatric Press.