Everyone sleeps. Humans, dogs, primates, rats, and the rest of earth’s inhabitants all experience the relaxing and necessary state of sleep. It appears to just be an unconscious state essential for survival; however, much more is going on than meets the eye. Sleep is accompanied by dreams, a term associated with adventures, experiences, and conflicts, which occur in one’s mind during those hours while one is fast asleep in bed. All people dream from the moment they enter this world to the day they leave, but whether or not they remember what they experienced the previous night varies.
I, of course, am no exception and have dreams dating years back to my younger days that have remained in my memory.
Upon waking, I recall having a confused, entertained or disturbed reaction to these dreams and even remember some of them affecting the rest of my day or just my life in general. The recent premiere of the movie Inception, a movie revolving around the dream world, has helped spark my interest into the dreams and their true purpose.
I have been pondering if they have a bigger role in our lives rather than just a source of entertainment while we sleep. Prior to beginning research, my factual knowledge of dreams was quite limited to my personal experiences, as I have had my fair share of dreams as well as nightmares.
I knew that dreams were usually perceived as happy and nightmares were almost always frightening experiences. Some dreams could also be interpreted for deeper meanings.
Lastly, prior to researching, I knew dreams only lasted a portion of the time, and one usually had a difficult time remembering the content of the dream upon awakening. Through my research I wished to discover how people are affected by their dreams and nightmares in their behavior, mood, and their overall physical health. I also wished to know if there were any past evidences of events which happened in direct correlation to dreams. I was hopeful in finding the true meaning of dreams and how big of a role they actually have in our lives.
Dreams do not come and go as they please; the period when people experience dreams is when they are peacefully sleeping. When one finally falls into a slumber, the body and mind follow a cycle through five sleep phases (Obringer). In the first phase, one is in a very light sleep where it is easy to be wakened, and as the cycle continues one falls into a deeper and deeper sleep. Up to the fourth phase, muscle activity greatly declines, breathing and heart rate slow down, and the brain sends out the slowest of the brain waves, Delta Waves. Up to this point, known as Non REM sleep, the body and mind are at basically full relaxation without experiencing rapid eye movement. The fifth phase, however, is when things seem to reverse. As the body enters the fifth stage, known as Rapid-Eye Movement, or R.E.M, the heart and breathing rate accelerate, blood pressure rises, and brain activity increases to the same level as when one is awake (Obringer). This is the period when most dreaming takes place.
The body also appears to get paralyzed by an amino acid during this stage and it is suggested that “this paralysis could be nature’s way of making sure we don’t act out our dreams” (Obringer). REM was named after the movement of the eyes during this period, where the brain tells the eyes to move and scan a scene that only exists in the mind (Dement 299). One goes through this entire five-phase cycle about four or five times a night, with each dream only lasting about five to twenty minutes (Diagram Group 24). How could an event with such a short duration possibly have a big impact on our lives?
Dreams have been deemed important and meaningful in our lives for thousands of years. From the Babylonians and Egyptians to the Greeks and the Romans, dreams have been believed to be of great importance. In ancient times, people believed most of the dreams to be sent from the gods and nightmares to be sent from demons (Diagram Group 4). They believed dreams helped heal the sick and injured, delivered messages and demands from the gods, and even foresaw the future (5-7). In later years, theories began to develop about the purpose of dreams. One of the most respected theories came from Sigmund Freud, a well esteemed psychologist.
Freud believed that dreams serve to aid in maintaining sleep through possible disturbances: “When one is sleeping and is exposed to a disturbing stimulus, psychological processes would work to incorporate the dream into a dream rather than allow the person to be woken” (Robbins 14). For example, a loud noise in the dreamer’s environment would be morphed into thunder in a dream by the mind to keep the dreamer asleep (Robbins 14). He also claimed that dreams used symbols to show us our hidden aggressive and sexual desires (The Diagram Group 32). Others suggested that dreams showed one’s hidden ambitions and fears, one’s desire for power and one’s past memories. Everything seen in a dream is a projection of the dreamer. Despite the theory, it was clear that dreams had a purpose in life rather than just to entertain dormant minds.
From the earliest moments in time, people have wakened from sleep just after going through an experience they could have sworn had actually occurred; however they had only just experienced a dream, or a series of images, sensations, ideas, and emotions occurring in the mind during sleep. As time has passed and dreams have been recorded and recalled, categories of dreams have been developed: lucid dreams, where one knows he’s dreaming; nightmares, disturbing dreams with anxiety and frightening images; recurring dreams, repeating dreams with little variation; healing dreams, dreams that affect the body; prophetic dreams, dreams seemingly to predict the future; progressive dreams, a sequence of dreams that continue over period of nights; and epic dreams, vivid dreams that one cannot ignore (Dream Moods Inc).
All these dreams have the common underlying fact that “[they] reflect your own underlying thoughts and feelings… and [everything] in your dreams are personal to you” (Common). Dreams have been described as links to our subconscious. It is said that the subconscious never stops taking in all the factors, events and people that affect one’s life: …Henry Reed talks about a higher self, or “the witness”, which watches everything we do, say feel and think. Our high self never goes to sleep, it is always awake, watching, processing and seeing things from an objective perspective as we struggle through our lives (“Dreams”). Henry Reed, a psychology professor at UCLA, used the term higher self to refer to the subconscious of the body.
The body and mind may sleep, but the subconscious does not, as if analyzes everything that one saw, experienced, smelled, etc and all other aspects of a person’s life. It recognizes stress and other negative factors impacting our lives, and, as a result, dreams are created in order to help people solve problems and get on with their journey through life. The subconscious can make images and “embed symbols inside of dramatic stories” in dreams so that “you can see yourself from the inside”, and be capable of solving personal issues one may never have recognized before, or has just neglected in hopes it would go away (“Dreams”). Dreams provide valuable insight deep within oneself, and have led to affect many people’s lives upon returning to reality.
Dreams experienced during the night may majorly affect people for the rest of their day once awake. Dreams revolving around the body can help in avoiding potential health problems and aid in the healing process when one is sick or grieving (Dream Moods Inc). Bodies have the capability of warning the mind through dreams that something is wrong before physical symptoms even appear, leading to many people making sudden doctor and medical appointments. Dreams also have the ability to overall heal the mind and body through a feeling of rejuvenation. Progressive and recurring dreams help people solve problems they usually do not face directly and usually try to avoid. These can also be called problem solving dreams, as they allow one to explore different options and approaches to a problem, situation or relationship. Prophetic dreams appear to show future actions and events, or provide a sneak peak, before they occur in one’s life.
These have potential to greatly alter one’s actions during the day, as one may try to change the future depending on the content. Dreams, in general, also have potential in determining one’s mood for the following day. Those that cause strong emotion or feelings can“[affect] the body… practically as much as does an… emotion when awake” (Walsh). A dream that causes extreme sadness can lead to one absorbing that emotion and feeling it throughout the rest of the day. Dreams are packed with symbols and metaphors that can lead to realizations of feelings deep within oneself, such as hidden feelings of being powerless, vulnerable, alone or ashamed (Pliskin 123). If one realizes the symbol and attempts to change the feelings, dreams actually can be life changing experiences. Another area dreams serve in is in the creativity department.
They sometimes serve as store houses for inspiration, as The Dream Foundation says, “…Artists, musicians, dancers, sculptors, and inventors are able to dive deep into the source of inspiration and explore the vast reaches of their own creative potential by meeting face to face with the unconscious”. The Beatles’ popular hits ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Let It Be’, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide, and works by artists such as Billy Joel and Beethoven are all examples of creations based off dreams. Dreams have the potential to have a very large role in determining the actions we take in life. Upon awakening, one must remember this concept: Dreams serve as the voice of our subconscious, and if it’s ignored, it may try to gain your attention in a more powerful way. A more negative and powerful type of dream is the nightmare.
The word nightmare actually alludes to a night devil, who people used to believe would approach you as you were sleeping and press against your chest which caused the nightmares (Robbins 10). Of course this belief has been discredited but it has not stopped people’s lives from being greatly affected by nightmares. What exactly could be behind you having a nightmare? Well, besides the chance that you may just have a nightmare one night, there are other pre-sleep activities that may cause nightmares. A late night snack actually leads to an increase of the metabolism and also increases brain activity (WebMD). Medications and drugs may also be underlying factors, as they affect the brain in numerous and varying ways. Lastly, post-traumatic stress disorder can lead to nightmares as it causes people to relive past horrifying experiences. Nightmares are caused by many things that impact and increase brain activity, as well as just past bad memories.
However, these nightmares greatly impact one’s body. They can lead to sleeping deprivation, or insomnia, as they actually make one scared to sleep because of the chance of a recurring nightmare. Sleep deprivation then leads to other medical conditions such as heart disease, depression and obesity. Due to quickened heart rate and increased blood pressure from the fear and anxiety associated with nightmares, natural death can even actually occur for those with bad heart conditions. Along with all the physical effects on the body, nightmares, just like dreams, act as warnings and have deeper meanings while analyzed. One example of a common nightmare is being in an out of control car.
This may be a signal that you feel your life is hectic (Dreams Foundation). If you find a way to slow life down this type of recurring nightmare may cease. If one tries to ignore or block nightmares, the subconscious, who is behind the content of the dream, may try to “speak louder to get our attention” (Dreams Foundation). They may start affecting our waking lives in sickness, accidents, relationship difficulties or other unfortunate issues that force us to deal with the problem. Although nightmares seem very negative one must remember this concept: “An avoidance or denial approach is much like putting a band aid on a car’s blinking oil light because the light seems annoying” (Dreams Foundation). Why ignore something that can potentially change your life for the better?
The information I collected on dreaming led me to conclude that dreaming is, in fact, a huge part of our lives. Dreams virtually act as the voice of our subconscious and they warn us, help us and just sometimes allow us to go on adventures that are impossible in reality. Dreams occur for our benefit. That being said, nightmares occur for our benefit as well. Despite all the negative effects nightmares may have, they, just as dreams do, provide a window into our hidden and secret problems and ambitions. The purpose of dreams is not to supply pure entertainment while asleep, but to get out suppressed feelings that can change our life for the better.
I was surprised to find that dreaming actually may lead to death as some people with worse heart conditions could die from the increase in heart rate while dreaming. I was also surprised to find that many artists are inspired by what images or people they see in their dreams. Further questions I have include how our mind is able to create places and people we’ve never seen before and yet make them meaningful and familiar to us? This research has most definitely opened my eyes to what’s really going on when my eyes are closed. In the future when I dream I shall be determined to find what the meaning is to me and how it can possible change my life for the better. Dream on.