Discovering The Mystery Of Dreams: Five Books You Must Read

One of the most intriguing questions about humans is – why do we dream? There are many scientific theories about the complex process of dreaming that include explanations about sleep cycles, the meaning of dreams, the content of dreams, and how we can interpret them. The fact that we know so little about this has left room for pseudoscientific clarifications, since there is a lack of reliable evidence, even from the scientific point of view. Most of us have surely (at least once) searched google in order to find meaning in a weird dream. These interpretations are sometimes shallow, or they may include general explanations through some sort of symbolic reckoning (i.e. dreaming about teeth falling out means insecurity). Various religions offer specific dream interpretations, as it is believed that in dreams, man can get the warning signs he needs to prevent catastrophic events from occurring. So, it is believed that in dreams – we can get a hint of what is going to happen in the future. For this weekend’s reading, we have prepared five scientific explanations about dreams, starting with the best known – the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud.

On Dreams, Sigmund Freud (read online)

Freud is well known as a psychologist who believed that sex was the root of everything. His psychology of dreams conformed to this conclusion. According to Freud, dreams are zones of freedom, where all the desires that are suppressed in reality – can be fulfilled. Freud’s dream theories were criticized by his colleagues, who thought Freud emphasized the role of primal instinct in humans too much. Freud differentiated the manifest and latent content of dreams, that is – what happens in a dream, who is present, etc., and – its hidden meaning. The manifest content, in Freud’s view, was crucial for interpretation. Freud insisted that dreams are not merely a manifestation of randomly connected images, drawn from reality, that our brain reproduces during the night in an arbitrary manner. Every single detail in our dreams has its meaning and is deeply connected to our being. The language of our dreams is layered and complex:

The dream-thoughts which we first come across as we proceed with our analysis often strike us by the unusual form in which they are expressed; they are not clothed in the prosaic language usually employed by our thoughts, but are on the contrary represented symbolically by means of similes and metaphors, in images resembling those of poetic speech.

Unlike his contemporaries, Freud did not think that the symbols that appear in dreams can be thought of as universal and one-sided. He believed that dreams intentionally disguise their meaning, which can be unlocked only through psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis creates a bridge between real life and the unconcious. Dreams are a precious road to the unconcious, he thought. Throughout his study of deams, Freud referred to his own dreams several times, using them as examples of how dreams work and how we can interpret them. He dreamt of a woman (a certain Mrs. E.L.) who complimented his eyes and then put her hand on his knee and offered him spinach. As Freud confesses, this seemed confusing and meaningless to his memory – he did not think about her nor did he have any feelings towards her. But, as he tries to deconstruct every detail and connect it to his reality, Freud realizes it is about his desire to enjoy love without any cost. Freud admitted that he had not previously understood the process by which the dream arose from those thoughts, but he perceived that it would be wrong to regard the dream as psychically unimportant.

Memories, Dreams, Reflections, by Carl Jung (read online)

Jung thought that dreams were merely a reflection of the current mental state of the one who dreamt. He claimed that dreams were a symbolic representation of the unconciousness. Dreams use a form of language that is natural to our unconcious beings (symbols and metaphors) and the only reason we have trouble understanding their meaning is because our awakened self does not use this kind of language. Dreams are based on mythic narratives and are our connection to the collective unconcious we belong to, which is the core of Jung’s theory of archetypes. Unlike Freud, Jung did not believe that we need to interpret our dreams or analyse them in order to figure out their message. Dreams are a natural connection between our concious and unconcious being. So, dreams process all the necessary communication between Ego and the unconcious, which Jung called the process of individuation. He explains this with the example of his own dream, when he dreamt of his deceased wife:

The objectivity which I experienced in this dream and in the visions is part of a completed individuation. It signifies detachment from valuations and from what we call emotional ties. In general, emotional ties are very important to human beings. But they still contain projections, and it is essential to withdraw these projections in order to attain to oneself and to objectivity.

Dreams are extremely important in these situations, since they help us to accept reality and ensure the healthy function of our being. They help us in reaching our full potential. Unlike Freud, Jung thought that dreams had nothing to do with the primal sexual instinct, neither did they appear as manifestations of suppressed desires. They were a pure way of ego’s communication with its shadow – the unconcious. Dreams have two main functions, according to Jung: one is to compensate for the imbalances in the psyche, the other is to support the process of development of the dreamer.

Dreaming: An Introduction to the Science of Sleep, by J. Allan Hobson (buy on Amazon)

Moving on to a modern scientific perspective on dreams. Hobson is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who has specialized in researching the science of sleep. In Dreaming: An Introduction to the Science of Sleep, Hobson covers the topic of the notion of dreaming (explaining to us the core of the sleep cycles), brain activity during sleep, the neuropsychology of dreaming, the connection between dreaming and mental illness, interpretations of dreams, and reasons why dream analysis failed to become a recognized branch of science. Hobson claims that there are universal similarities to every single dreaming process, although the content of it can widely vary. Just like Freud and Jung, Hobson fails to explain in detail the reason why we dream or how this process gets triggered, although he does underscore the importance of it. However, he dismisses Freud’s conclusions, thinking they are outdated, and offers a more scientific approach. This is a completely logical progression of sleep science, since today it is backed up with more advanced technology. Today, EEG can map brain activity, which shows what part of the brain is active during different sleeping cycles. According to Hobson, the content of our dreams is determined by the complex processes in our brains (including chemistry and levels of activity), rather than our suppressed desires (as Freud assumed). However, Hobson does not claim that dreams are completely arbitrary and have no meaning. Just like Freud and Jung, he interprets his own dreams, showing that there is a connection between our dreams and our waking life:

We are not saying that dream content is unimportant, uninformative, or even uninterpretable. Indeed, we believe that dreaming is all three of these things, but it is already crystal clear that many aspects of dreaming thought to be meaningful, privileged, and interpretable psychologically are the simple reflection of the sleep-related changes in brain state.

The Mind at Night: The New Science of How and Why We Dream, by Andrea Rock (buy on Amazon)

Another modern view on dream science comes to us from Andrea Rock, an award-wining science reporter. This book offers a brief overview of how perspectives on dreams have changed through time, mainly focusing on the period since the first breakthroughs in the 1950s, when EEG discovered how the brain functions during sleep. She quotes Robert Van de Castle, who is the author of a comprehensive history of dreaming – noting that the first recorded dreams date from the time of Mesopotamia, and recalling the great Epic of Gilgamesh. Dreams have always been a mystery and a source of fascination to human kind. Rock creates a connection with ancient and modern times and points out an interesting fact: there were some precursors of the modern way of thinking about dreams even in ancient Greece! Aristotle was the one who referred to dreaming as thinking while we are sleeping. Unlike Hobson, she does not discard Freud’s theory completely: rather she thinks that all the conclusions from today’s world have evolved from the first theories:

The current revolution of thought about how and why we dream debunks some elements of the theories proposed by both Freud and Jung. But, as you’ll see, there are significant pieces of each of their theories that are now supported by scientific evidence.

In the first chapter, where she starts explaining the importance of EEG on the further development of sleep research, Rock quotes William Dement: We experience a dream as real because it is real… The miracle is how, without any help from the sense organs, the brain replicates in the dream all the sensory information that creates the world we live in when we are awake.

As you can assume, Rock did not manage to answer this question, although she contextualized it.

The Scientific Study of Dreams: Neural Networks, Cognitive Development, and Content Analysis, by G. William Domhoff (buy on Amazon)

This study is based on empirical research and focuses on a neurocognitive approach to researching sleep and dreams. Domhoff uses a complete scientific approach, backed up with advanced technology and computer software. Out of all the above-mentioned books on our list, this one comes the closest to understanding the trigger of the dreaming process. As Domhoff explains:

First, there is the neurophysiological substrate that underlies and activates the process of dreaming. Second, there is the conceptual system of schemas and scripts that constitutes the process of dreaming. Third, there is the dream content that results from this cognitive process.

The Scientific Study of Dreams: Neural Networks, Cognitive Development, and Content Analysis is extremely interesting, especially for those who are interested in medical science. It gives the reader invaluable information about lucid dreaming and about the nature of dream content and waking cognition, but it does so from a physiological point of view. Just a small note for future readers: unlike the four previously mentioned books, it is not written in layman’s terms, but uses highly specialized medical jargon and may therefore be harder to understand. On the plus side, it is comprehensive and offers many references to previous neuro-imaging studies. It is thorough and includes a historical overview of the field, which shows just how well written the study is respecting scientific evidence. Domhoff took into consideration a great deal of research in order to provide a unique and voluminous study of dreams.

How our brain functions remains the greatest mystery of all, although there is scientific progress every year. Therefore, dreams are not fully explained and these processes are still a topic of many debates. You can start exploring the topic through these five books, reading through Freud and Jung – the ones who started it all; two modern scientific views – Hobson and Rock, who wrote their studies in layman’s terms; and one comprehensive study by Domhoff that might give you a headache because of the challenges in its vocabulary (that is, if you are not used to it or familiar with it) – but definitely worth your time. Enjoy your weekend reading!

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