The Mystery of Dreams: Why Do We Dream And What Might They Mean?

Dreams express our innermost hopes and fears based on unconscious information that we may or may not be repressing.

The human brain and dreams have been one of the more enduring mysteries of life.  As much progress that science and medicine make each year, they’re still no closer to determining why we dream or how the brain “sees” our dreams. They only know that we dream, and that our brain translates them into moving pictures.  But is it merely entertaining itself while we sleep, or is there something more?

Renowned specialists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung interpreted dream states differently. Freud argued that the function of dreaming was to preserve sleep by expressing unfulfilled desires or wishes in the unconscious state, and to do so in the secrecy of nighttime. Jung took the idea much further in his research and decided that dreams reveal more than they conceal and that they are a natural expression of our imagination and use the most straightforward language at our disposal: mythic narratives. Because Jung rejected Freud’s theory of dream interpretation, he also didn’t believe that dream formation was a product of discharging our sexual taboos.

Jung further suggested that the archetypal images he was so fond of that came through in dreams might be derived from different bodily organs and thought centers in the body, and represented evolutionary drives.

Jung’s determinations have fueled the careers of many a dream interpreter, whose goal it is to decipher our personal dreams to find out what they might be telling us. Using such mythical imagery, are we better able to understand the nature of dreams and why we might “need” them in order to be happy and healthy?

Since that era, we humans have performed a lot of invasive research and sleep studies to try and determine once and for all the mystery of dreams and why we need them.

In 1953, American sleep research specialist Eugene Aserinsky stumbled across the rapid eye movement phase of sleep quite by accident.  He had been conducting an overnight sleep study by recording his 8-year-old son. From his findings he wrote about the “rapid, jerky and binocularly symmetrical” (REM) eye movements his son exhibited.  These eye movements were likewise associated with increased brain activity.  Aserinsky was the first to determine that sleep wasn’t just a passive phenomenon. During REM sleep, the brain is active and behaves as if it’s awake and active. However, it appeared that in most cases, muscle activity is suppressed so that we can’t physically carry out our dreams.   Yet even that theory has since been disproven.

A recent study in patients with REM behavior disorder (where they physically act out their dreams due to a lack of muscle paralysis), found a strong association between goal-oriented limb and head action and eye gaze direction in REM sleep.  Still, the reasoning behind REM sleep and the dream state continued to remain a mystery. Coincidentally, investigators from Tel Aviv University who studied the brain of epileptic patients from within the brain itself, and not just through surface measurements on the scalp, determined that REM sleep are linked to visual processing rather than physical activation or movement. Electrodes are placed in the medial temporal lobe, the region of the brain associated with visual awareness.

Can dream study determine why some people can foretell future events or provide answers to past mysteries?

In conjunction with early theories about why we dream and what they might mean, it was determined that processing nocturnal content that was consciously or unconsciously avoided during waking hours somehow needed to be dealt with during sleep to maintain our psychological well-being.  In other words, the brain strives to keep itself healthy through dreams. Though there are conflicting theories to this effect, we continue to research and study this rather perplexing phenomenon.

Are eye movements the byproduct of the visual processing that occurs when we dream? Is there a proven psychological reason why we need to process these images, and does it lend itself to better understanding our brains?

These questions drive ongoing research and sleep study by specialists and scientists eager to determine the truth.  They hope to discover what benefits REM sleep and dreams provide us both while we sleep and while we’re awake, and whether the two theories are connected.

Can dream study determine why some people can foretell future events or provide answers to past mysteries?

Precognitive and prophetic dreams appear to have no logic, or at least none that we’ve been able to detect.  Not everybody has these types of dreams, so despite what skeptics may say, many people have experienced precognitive and prophetic dreams and believe that they are able to foretell the future.

Here’s an example of what many people would deem as precognition, but is actually quite simply explained. Mary has a dream that she is pregnant and three weeks later discovers that she is pregnant in real life. This is not really a psychic dream because Mary had access to plenty of unconscious insight: her body gave her subtle signals, and she knew she had been trying to conceive.

We all have intuitive dreams like this. They express our innermost hopes and fears based on unconscious information that we may or may not be repressing. There is nothing paranormal about Mary’s dream and would be a good example of the Unconscious Intuition Principle, a means of knowing things without deduction or obvious reasoning.

Indeed, to be deemed a truly precognitive dream with paranormal roots, we need to access unpredictable information about the future. And that is one reason why precognitive dreams are difficult to prove.

When the Titanic sunk in 1912, hundreds of people came forward with reports of psychic dreams about the demise of the great ship. Amazingly, it was possible to validate at least 19 of them, including one date-stamped letter.

Does this prove that psychic dreams are real? In the minds of some, it does.  Skeptics, of course, offer a different perspective, that it’s only a matter of statistics before someone dreams about a future event that proves to be true.

In 1865, two weeks before he was assassinated, Abraham Lincoln was said to have had a precognitive dream about a funeral at the White House. In the dream, he reportedly asked someone, “Who is in the casket?” and was told, “The president of the United States.”  He told his wife of the dream, but neither took it seriously for on the night of the shooting, he’d given his bodyguard the night off.

The American humorist, Mark Twain, and his brother Henry once worked on riverboats on the Mississippi. One night Mark had a dream about his brother’s corpse lying in a metal coffin in his sister’s living room. It rested on two chairs, with a bouquet and a single crimson flower in the center. He told his sister about his dream.

Weeks later, his brother was killed in a massive explosion on a riverboat. Many others died and were buried in wooden coffins. But one onlooker felt such pity for young Henry that she raised the money for an expensive metal coffin. At the funeral, Twain saw the coffin as it was in his dream. As he stood over Henry’s casket, a woman placed a bouquet with a single red rose in the middle on top of the casket.

Taken at face value, these are both compelling cases of precognitive dreaming. They are image-driven, much like the imagery mediums claim to receive when communing with the dead.  Still, their interpretation is highly subjective and don’t necessarily prove beyond a doubt that precognitive dreams exist.

If nothing else, we can perhaps gain future insight from our dreams by taking advantage of the unconscious intuition principle mentioned earlier. If Mary had an unconscious inkling that she was pregnant, it would be quite easy to ask her lucid dreaming self whether this was the case. Other lucid dreamers, while talking to their unconscious self, ask for personal insights that would otherwise go under the conscious radar. It’s a great way to explore your unconscious mind.

Unfortunately, such events only seem to deepen the mystery, though with each passing year, we get closer to finding answers.

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