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The interpretation of dreams has always been a subject of interest. Early explanations of dreams included the Greeks and Romans believing that dreams were messages from the gods, and the Chinese thinking our souls left our bodies and entered the dream world. In the early 19th century dreams were dismissed from interpretation and regarded simply as noises heard while asleep or indigestion, until the late 19th century when Sigmund Freud revived the importance of dreams and the need for them to be interpreted.
In this essay I will cover explanations of dreams including Freud’s theory of repressed subconscious, Hobson and McCarley’s activation synthesis and Crick and Mitchison’s theory that we dream in order to forget. Freud revolutionized the study of dreams by stating that dreams were “disguised fulfilments of repressed wishes” (Freud, S. (1900) The Interpretation of Dreams). Common of the Psychodynamic approach Freud believed that we are driven by our unconscious desires, mostly sexual.
Those desires or urges which are considered inappropriate are suppressed and are then later represented in our dreams. Through dreaming we are able to gain an insight into our unconscious, which occur in two ways; the manifest and the latent content. The manifest content is the actual content of the dream and the latent content which is the hidden meaning behind the dream. For example climbing up a set of stairs or shooting a gun may represent sexual intercourse. Freud stated that elongated objects that appear in our dreams such as weapons all symbols for the penis; similarly hallow objects such as tunnels are representative of the vagina. Psychoanalysts will always come up with a relevant explanation for the dream content and symbols.
Calvin Hall (1966) agrees that dreams have symbols within them however he believes these symbols are not hidden and are unique to the individual and the meaning they apply to it. Kohler and Borchers (1996) conducted a study that supports Freud’s theory of our dreams being our subconscious. In contrast with Freud, another explanation of dreaming is Hobson and McCarley’s activation synthesis (1977). The introduction of this theory changed the perspectives people had about dreams.
From conducting experiments on animals it has been shown that during REM sleep (Aserinsky and Kleitman (1953)) the cortex is highly active despite receiving little external stimulation however it is isolated due to the spinal cord blocking the signals which effectively leaves us paralysed. As well as the cortex being cut off, there is an inhibition to signals produced by the sensory system. Due to all this activity happening in the brain during REM sleep, we try to interpret the signals and they translate into images. This may explain why we sometimes encounter bizarre features in our dreams. “The fact that the narrative of a dream, though some bizarre, is at least coherent must surely reflect interpretive processes, at higher levels of the brain trying to impose order or plausibility on the chaos of activity in the sensory area of the cortex” (Blakemore 1988).
A reason for why we try to interpret these signals could be illusory pattern perception. This means the identification of a structured and meaningful relationship between a set of random or unrelated stimulus. (Shermer, M. (2010) Scientific American Mind Magazine). This could explain why we try to interpret the random signals given off by parts of the brain. Since we aren’t in control of these signals we try to regain control by looking for patterns to explain them. Although the activation synthesis theory has more scientific background than Freud’s, it focuses more on where dreams come from rather than why we have them.