Why do we have dreams? Where do they come from? What, if anything, do they mean? These mysterious questions have puzzled humankind since the earliest days of history. The best answers, I suggest, come from integrating the insights of art and science. Dreaming is rooted in the physical workings of our brains, and it expresses our highest spiritual yearnings and deepest psychological concerns. In dreams the mind, body, and soul come together in a creative ferment, giving us new perspectives on the emotional realities of our lives.
Looking first at art, people throughout the ages have regarded dreams as a source of creative inspiration. A number of famous works of Western art and literature were directly influenced by their creator’s dreams.
Among writers, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley dreamed up several key scenes in her novel Frankenstein, and Robert Louis Stevenson had a dream about a divided soul at war with itself that gave him the core plot idea for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Surrealist painters like Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte drew upon their dreams for bizarre, symbol-laden images of melting clocks and floating bowler hats. In more recent years, a number of prominent movie directors have experienced dreams that influenced their films, including David Lynch in Blue Velvet, Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now, and Akira Kurusawa in Dreams. Contemporary musicians have also described their dreams as creative inspirations. Paul McCartney had a dream that gave him the tune for “Yesterday,” and Sting’s song “The Lazarus Heart” came from a personal nightmare.
If we consider religion as another realm where humans express their deepest creativity, then we can see even more evidence of the inspiring power of dreaming. In the Hebrew Bible, visionary dreams come to Abraham and Jacob, while Joseph saved his people by his ability to interpret dreams. In the New Testament, prophetic dreams of guidance help Jesus’ parents before their child’s birth and Paul during his missionary travels. The Muslim Prophet Muhammad told of his dreams in the Qur’an, and each morning he asked his followers what they had dreamed, so they could better discern God’s will. Hindu and Buddhist mystics consider all of life to be a dream, a great illusion shaped by our desires. Many indigenous cultures around the world have myths (e.g., the Australian Aborigine’s “Dreamtime”) and rituals (e.g., the Native American vision quest) to help their members learn more about the creative potentials of their own dreaming.
Do the insights of artists and mystics stand up to the findings of modern science? Surprisingly, the answer is yes. Based on the latest evidence from research in cognitive psychology, it appears that dreaming is a natural and normal aspect of healthy brain/mind functioning. Not all dreams are heaven-sent revelations or artistic breakthroughs, but in general dreaming is an accurate and meaningful expression of our fears, concerns, conflicts, and desires in waking life.
Since the 1950’s scientists have known about the different stages of sleep, and it appears that dreams occur most often during the stage of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. During REM sleep our brains are very active, but in a different configuration than in waking. In REM the brain centers for instinctual emotions and visual imagination are highly activated, while the parts of the brain responsible for focused rational attention are less active. This evidence fits the general qualities of many dreams—less rational, more emotional and visual—and it supports the idea that our capacity for dreaming is hard-wired into the human brain.
However, it is important to recognize that dreams occur in stages of sleep other than REM. REM sleep may be the most common trigger for dreaming, but research has shown that dreams can occur throughout the sleep cycle. This means that we still do not have a complete picture of the dreaming brain. We cannot “reduce” dreams to REM sleep.
Most people remember one or two dreams a week, but that can vary depending on many factors. Some people remember at least one dream almost every night, while others say they have never recalled a dream in their whole life. Researchers have found that small efforts to pay more attention to dreams can lead to big increases in dream recall. It’s like the movie “Field of Dreams”: If you build it, they will come—if you open your waking mind to the possibility that your dreams have something meaningful to say, you’re likely to start remembering more dreams.
When people ask me how to interpret their dreams, I start by emphasizing that only the dreamer can know for sure what his or her dreams really mean. “Experts” like me can offer ideas and possibilities based on our research, but ultimately you are the final authority on your own dreams.
Sometimes dreams speak in direct and literal terms. For example, you may be scared of flying, and thus you might have a nightmare of crashing in an airplane. But sometimes dreams speak indirectly, in a language of metaphor and symbol. Your nightmare of a crashing airplane may symbolically reflect your waking anxieties about your finances, your health, or a personal relationship. To understand your dreams you need a flexible mind that can perceive these kinds of metaphorical connections between dream imagery and your emotional concerns in waking life.
One of the most important functions of dreaming is to look ahead, to anticipate what might happen in the future and prepare us for possible dangers and threats. This isn’t a simple matter of “prophecy,” although that’s what ancient people called the same basic process. Scientists today have found that many of our most memorable dreams revolve around visions of worst-case scenarios, and it seems that these kinds of dreams are like fire drills, getting us ready in case those dangers actually occur in the waking world. Even though many of our dreams are negative and disturbing in this way, they are still promoting our physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.
This article appears on pp. 22-23 in the August 2011 special issue on Sleep and Dreams in Vintage Newsmagazine, a publication in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Thanks to editor Betsy Troyer for inviting me to contribute.