To Sleep, Perchance to Dream
The above is a quote made by Hamlet. The play Hamlet is filled with metaphors about dreams, ghosts, and death. It is a Shakespearean play, and I encourage the reader to learn more about Hamlet. For now, we are focusing on the importance of sleep and dreaming.
Dreams, a Brief History:
Why do we dream? Dreams have interested people since ancient times and, most probably, long before. Most of us know the Old Testament Biblical account of Joseph and his many colored coats. Joseph could interpret dreams and help rescue ancient Egypt from famine by interpreting Pharaoh’s dream that there would be five years of rich harvests followed by five more years of famine. According to the bible, Pharaoh then had Egyptians store wheat and other foods to prepare for the five years of famine.
Jumping ahead to the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Sigmund Freud found new meanings in dreams. According to Freud and his psychoanalytic theory, dreams represent wish fulfillment of those desires and strivings we find unacceptable in our waking state. Dreams, according to psychoanalytic theory, are metaphors, symbols, and riddles which can be understood with the help of a psychoanalyst using that same theory.
Towards the end of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, psychology veered away from psychoanalysis because it was impossible to measure the results of psychoanalytic practice. Demanding clear-cut, verifiable results, the mental health community and the public demanded procedures that could more quickly end mental suffering. At that point, cognitive-behavioral psychology eclipsed psychoanalysis as a set of techniques that reduced anxiety and depression while being verifiable in all controlled studies.
A common human folly is to “throw out the baby with the bathwater.” Thankfully, we have recovered from an extreme position and value emotions, dreams, behavior, and cognition again. Even cognitive-behavioral psychologists admit that dreams have meaning. But they reject the psychoanalytic interpretation of dreams.
But do Dreams Have any Meaning?
Recent research into the structure and functioning of the brain has given us a clearer understanding of sleep and dreaming. Thanks to modern MRI and related technology, studying the brain and the movement of thoughts along its billions of neurons has been possible. We now know that sleep is a complex phenomenon and is vital to our physical and mental health. In addition, we know that dreaming is essential to our mental health.
People deprived of sleep and the opportunity to dream have risked becoming temporarily mentally ill. We also know that the brain continues to work hard at night, busily running our bodies through the complex network of the nervous system. In addition, thought processes during the REM stage of sleep (Rapid Eye Movements) continue and reveal themselves through the dream process. We also know that the brain is computing and resolving problems we have been wrestling with for many days. That is why people sometimes wake up in the morning and suddenly realize they have found the solution to a problem that has plagued them for some time.
Among the problems the brain continues to cope with during sleep and the REM stage of sleep issue from the previous day, which it connects with similar issues stored in its vast memory store-house dating back to our earliest childhood.
So, in answer to our question: “do our dreams mean anything? ” The answer is yes. The meaning may not lie in the strict Freudian interpretation of wish fulfillment of unacceptable wishes but in meanings, issues, and problems that we have struggled with from yesterday to our earliest life.
A Fuller Understanding of Dreams:
Dreams are a natural part of our sleep cycle and can provide insight into our innermost thoughts, feelings, and desires. The psychological importance of dreams has been a topic of interest to many researchers and theorists. Here are some of how dreams may be psychologically significant:
- Processing emotions: Dreams may process emotions we experience during waking life. They allow us to work through difficult emotional experiences in a safe and controlled environment.
- Creative problem-solving: Dreams can be a source of inspiration for creative problem-solving. Many artists, writers, and scientists have reported that their dreams have helped them develop new ideas and solutions to problems.
- Unconscious desires and fears: Dreams may also reveal our unconscious desires and fears. They may provide insight into what we truly want or what holds us back in our waking lives.
- Memory consolidation: Dreams may also play a role in memory consolidation. They help us integrate new information and experiences into our long-term memory.
- Evolutionary significance: Some theories suggest that dreams have had an evolutionary significance, helping our ancestors prepare for potential environmental threats or challenges.
Overall, dreams remain a fascinating area of research, and scientists continue to explore their many psychological and neurological functions.