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David Baxter

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Why do we dream?
Scientific American

Ernest Hartmann, a professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine and the director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Newton Wellesley Hospital in Boston, Mass., explains.

The questions, "Why do we dream?" or "What is the function of dreaming?" are easy to ask but very difficult to answer. The most honest answer is that we do not yet know the function or functions of dreaming. This ignorance should not be surprising because despite many theories we still do not fully understand the purpose of sleep, nor do we know the functions of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which is when most dreaming occurs. And these two biological states are much easier to study scientifically than the somewhat elusive phenomenon of dreaming.

Some scientists take the position that dreaming probably has no function. They feel that sleep, and within it REM sleep, have biological functions (though these are not totally established) and that dreaming is simply an epiphenomenon that is the mental activity that occurs during REM sleep. I do not believe this is the most fruitful approach to the study of dreaming. Would we be satisfied with the view that thinking has no function and is simply an epiphenomenon--the kind of mental activity that occurs when the brain is in the waking state?
Therefore I will try to explain a current view of dreaming and its possible functions, developed by myself and many collaborators, which we call the Contemporary Theory of Dreaming. The basic idea is as follows: activation patterns are shifting and connections are being made and unmade constantly in our brains, forming the physical basis for our minds. There is a whole continuum in the making of connections that we subsequently experience as mental functioning. At one end of the continuum is focused waking activity, such as when we are doing an arithmetic problem or chasing down a fly ball in the outfield. Here our mental functioning is focused, linear and well-bounded. When we move from focused waking to looser waking thought--reverie, daydreaming and finally dreaming--mental activity becomes less focused, looser, more global and more imagistic. Dreaming is the far end of this continuum: the state in which we make connections most loosely.

Some consider this loose making of connections to be a random process, in which case dreams would be basically meaningless. The Contemporary Theory of Dreaming holds that the process is not random, however, and that it is instead guided by the emotions of the dreamer. When one clear-cut emotion is present, dreams are often very simple. Thus people who experience trauma--such as an escape from a burning building, an attack or a rape--often have a dream something like, "I was on the beach and was swept away by a tidal wave." This case is paradigmatic. It is obvious that the dreamer is not dreaming about the actual traumatic event, but is instead picturing the emotion, "I am terrified. I am overwhelmed." When the emotional state is less clear, or when there are several emotions or concerns at once, the dream becomes more complicated. We have statistics showing that such intense dreams are indeed more frequent and more intense after trauma. In fact, the intensity of the central dream imagery, which can be rated reliably, appears to be a measure of the emotional arousal of the dreamer.


Therefore, overall the contemporary theory considers dreaming to be a broad making of connections guided by emotion. But is this simply something that occurs in the brain or does it have a purpose as well? Function is always very hard to prove, but the contemporary theory suggests a function based on studies of a great many people after traumatic or stressful new events. Someone who has just escaped from a fire may dream about the actual fire a few times, then may dream about being swept away by a tidal wave. Then over the next weeks the dreams gradually connect the fire and tidal wave image with other traumatic or difficult experiences the person may have had in the past. The dreams then gradually return to their more ordinary state. The dream appears to be somehow "connecting up" or "weaving in" the new material in the mind, which suggests a possible function. In the immediate sense, making these connections and tying things down diminishes the emotional disturbance or arousal. In the longer term, the traumatic material is connected with other parts of the memory systems so that it is no longer so unique or extreme--the idea being that the next time something similar or vaguely similar occurs, the connections will already be present and the event will not be quite so traumatic. This sort of function may have been more important to our ancestors, who probably experienced trauma more frequently and constantly than we (at least those of us living in the industrialized world) do at present.

Thus we consider a possible (though certainly not proven) function of a dream to be weaving new material into the memory system in a way that both reduces emotional arousal and is adaptive in helping us cope with further trauma or stressful events.

Answer originally posted July 14, 2003.
Answer posted on July 10, 2006

Related Links:
Dreams and Nightmares, by Ernest Hartmann, Perseus 2001

"The Meaning of Dreams," by Johathan Winson (Scientific American Special Edition, The Hidden Mind) is available for purchase from Scientific American Digital

Sleep Lets Brain File Memories
 

foghlaim

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for me i have found that dreaming often helps to make sense of the day that was, before getting into bed, especialy if someting was still playing on my mind, i would often wake up with a clearer understanding of the problem. have dreamt all the possible senarios and outcomes of those, i am usually able to sort the prob out.


Ohter times tho some dreams are very confusing and brea no relevance to where i'm at in my life and so puzzl me. but i guess that is dreaming for you. part sorting out and part fantasy maybe, taking us away from the harder things and giving out minda a break.

nsa
 

Halo

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Interesting article Dr. B.

I have to say that for me I don't dream....or if I do than I don't remember them at all. I maybe dream twice a year and usually it is when I am extremely stressed but the dream seems to have no relevance to my life. They are usually weird and I wake up wondering why that was the night that I had a dream and what does it mean. I wonder if it is weird not to dream every night? If it is then that is okay because at least I am not waking up confused (or would that be more confused than I already am :))

Sometimes though I find myself not in a deep sleep but yet not able to open my eyes but I hear things around me and my thinking is just like as if I was wide awake. These times are really frightening sometimes.

Anyway, just my thoughts on dreams.
 

sister-ray

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I love my dreams, I dream everynight, always vivid, colours, sounds, sensations and smells, and I can remember them on waking. I sometimes dream that I have woken up and am going about doing things I actually think Im awake, then all of a sudden something very strange happens in the dream and I cannot make sense of it and get very scared in the dream, then the floor opens up and I fall, the dream disappears and becomes sounds and sensations and I cannot wake up, eventually I do, usually with my pulse racing. I also dream Im flying alot, I like that dream, all the freedom :)
 

Halo

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TTE, I am jealous of you and your dreams. I wish that if I were to dream that I could have very vivid colours, sounds and sensations. It sounds very fascinating to me.
 

sister-ray

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Hi Nancy,

sometimes I dream in the day too, I do meditation and fall to sleep sometimes and have very vivid dreams then too, yes dreams fascinate me too, some people dream things that come true, that really does fascinate me.
 

Halo

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TTE

When you dream during the day is it like day dreaming where you are awake but your mind is off thinking other things? Is that what you mean or are you talking about when you sleep during the day?
 

sister-ray

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Hi Nancy,

When i do meditations I sometimes fall into this strange sleep, I have dreams, like proper sleep but am still aware of things around me but they are in the distant, its not day dreaming, its sort of a deep relaxed state almost going to sleep but not quite, Its always after doing meditation to my cd, sometimes it doesnt happen. I hope that answers your question ;) :)
 

Halo

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Thank you TTE and yes it does explain it better for me.....and I am still jealous :D
 

David Baxter

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Actually, everyone dreams every night. It's part of how the brain processes the experiences you have had in the previous day, comparing those memories with memoriers already in long-term storage and figuring out where and how to file them away for later retrieval.

Sometimes, you are more able to remember your dreams - this tends to depend on how soundly you are sleeping and whether you wake up during the dream or shortly afterwards.

See http://forum.psychlinks.ca/index.php?topic=5047.new#new.
 

Halo

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Maybe it is a good thing that I don't remember my dreams because I don't want to experience the memories of the day again :) Having them during the day is enough for me. :D
 
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Thus people who experience trauma--such as an escape from a burning building, an attack or a rape--often have a dream something like, "I was on the beach and was swept away by a tidal wave." This case is paradigmatic. It is obvious that the dreamer is not dreaming about the actual traumatic event, but is instead picturing the emotion, "I am terrified. I am overwhelmed." When the emotional state is less clear, or when there are several emotions or concerns at once, the dream becomes more complicated. We have statistics showing that such intense dreams are indeed more frequent and more intense after trauma.

I think this is interesting. I remember my dreams every night. When I fall asleep I feel like I'm going into another world. There are two main themes I dream about. One of them is water and fear of water like this article mentions. I have had dreams of being close to a flooded river or the ocean is trying to overtake me or something like that. Those dreams are scary. Only a few times have I ever dreamed about actual scary events.

The other theme I dream about is houses. I'm always moving into a different house almost every night. And cleaning it and rearranging furniture and things. And in those dreams locks are very important.

Mostly I like my dreams. I think they're better than my real life. I don't like the scary ones though. I hate waking up from those.
 

ThatLady

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I very rarely remember my dreams. I think it's because I sleep like a dead opossum! My family has always teased me about being able to sleep through a world war conducted on the bottom of my bed. They're probably right....... :rolleyes:
 

foghlaim

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Janet: I hope you don't mind but your dreams remind me of something.. as i said in my own post, for me dreaming is a way of processing the days events or a problem that needs sorting. using that anology while reading your post..

being close to a river or the ocean is trying to overtake you, could mean that it's your emotions that are trying to everwhelm you..(the ocean) the river could meant that you can see your emotions as they pass by, like warching the flow of the river.
cleaning and rearranging things in a new house every night, could mean that because you are in therapy, you could be moving into a diff area of your issues, one by one and sorting thru them and effectively cleaning your mind and emotions of all the fears and the pain you experienced in the past and present. each house could mean a diff emotion or diff issue.

does any of that make sense to anybody. ??

just my thoughts on this ok.

nsa
 
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nsa, I think what you posted makes a lot of sense. I definitely think the water dreams have something to do with my emotions, fears, terrors and being afraid of being overtaken by something.

The house dreams I've had for a long time, but maybe I've been trying to those things by myself anyway, the sorting out of things and figuring things out even before therapy.

Thanks for sharing that. :)
 

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