“For in dreams, we enter a world that is entirely our own. Let them swim in the deepest ocean, or glide over the highest cloud”, are the immortal words of Albus Dumbledore. In dreams, we enter a world constructed by our subconscious, from the things we see, the things that move us, and the things we feel. Dreams are like fingerprints, utterly unique to each individual, transporting us to the mythopoetic realms that hold profound insights about us. The befuddling, enigmatic, scary and sparkling images, thoughts and feelings that transpire when we are asleep are considered dreams. While visual imagery dominates our dreams, visually impaired people tend to dream in the sensory language of sound, taste, and smell (Meaidi, A., Jennum, P., Ptito, M., & Kupers, R. 2014).
Throughout recorded history, dreams have been the subject of immense religious, scientific and philosophical exploration, with dream visually impaired people interpreting our dream content’s subtle and overt meanings. The first known mention of dreams dates as far back as 2500 BC to the Sumerian Civilization in Mesopotamia, where dreams were used for divination to predict the future or receive messages through their interpretation. Dreams were thought to occur in another dimension entirely. It was believed that our souls travelled to other worlds while we slept and that we visited the persons or places we saw in our dreams. In ancient Egypt, people with vivid and lucid dreams were considered to be blessed, with their dreams being transcribed on papyrus to enable further analysis. They believed that dreams were like oracles, seeking to predict future outcomes and that the Gods communicated through dreams. They went so far as creating sleep rooms to be able to dream comfortably. The idea of dreams in the Upanishads (Indian religious texts) is similar to the Freudian explanation of wish fulfilment that they are mirrors of our inner desires. Ancient Greeks even worshipped a separate God of dreams called Morpheus, who was believed to communicate with his devotees when they slumbered at temples dedicated to him. Another relevant description of a dream with a psychological perspective was put forth by the Greek Philosopher Herodotus. He states that “The visions that occur to us in dreams are, more often than not, the things we have been concerned about during the day.”
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, babies dream almost half the time they’re asleep, whereas adults only dream for 20% of their time sleeping. Dreams generally occur during the REM stage of sleep. REM or Rapid Eye Movement is a stage of our sleep cycle characterised by the rapid movement of our eyes and low muscle tone in the body. Research about dreaming in the REM phase began in the mid-1950s. Brain activity during REM sleep is similar to our waking state, with mixed frequency brain wave activity. According to a study on the neuropsychology of dreams in 1997, people interpreting dream reports tend to wake up their subjects during REM sleep since 80% of people offer some kind of explanation of their dreams at this stage. Most research suggests that dreams are most vivid in the REM phase. The National Sleep Foundation suggests that we can dream 4-6 times during the course of a night. Unfortunately, most dreams are usually forgotten when we wake up; it’s advised to maintain a dream journal to unravel their themes and patterns.
The content of a dream is subjective, but it – can be broadly classified into:
- Visual Imagery – One of the most striking elements of dreams is the imagery which is a blend of everything that we’ve seen in our waking life, the various objects and people we interact with, and the merging of these subjective parts into bizarre and psychedelic forms. The landscapes, people and setting might be entirely new or different, or familiar places with a Déjà vu quality. These landscapes might not necessarily follow the laws of physics, too, as our imagination can dream up anything.
- Emotional Responses – Negative emotions are more common than positive ones while dreaming. It comes as no surprise that anxiety is the most common emotion experienced while dreaming. Other prevailing emotions during dreams are joy, anger, fear, happiness and wonder. Pleasant dreams occur more often if we are experiencing low stress and feel moderately satisfied with our life. Women are prone to have more nightmares than men during their teen and adult years. Eating late can also induce nightmares as our metabolism signals our brain to be more active.
- Broad Themes – Generally speaking, dreams cannot precisely be boxed into a niche or genre. Common universal dreams often include flying, revisiting an old memory, conversations with the people around us, falling or being chased, confrontation with animals or monsters, etc. Dreams with sexual themes account for 10% of our total dream content.
- Colour and Sound – A study conducted by the University of Dundee found that people who were only exposed to black-and-white television and films during their childhood reported dreaming in black and white about 25% of the time. Not everyone dreams in colour, and about 12% of the population dream in black and white. Another interesting finding is that people who are visually impaired at birth dream with their other senses. If they lost their sight after having a significant period, they could still see in their dreams.
Lucid Dreaming is when we’re conscious during a dream. This is essentially metacognition, an awareness of awareness, per se. A meta-analysis of 50 years of research suggests An estimated 55 per cent of people have had one or more lucid dream experiences in their lifetime. A fascinating fact is that lucid dreaming often enables us to control our dreams. Lucid dreaming can be utilised for its therapeutic effects in treating PTSD, recurring nightmares, and anxiety by enhancing our subconscious understanding and the contents it projects while dreaming. Lucid dreaming usually happens spontaneously. However, there are several ways to induce lucid dreaming, such as reality checks, induced REM dreaming, keeping a dream journal, etc.
Dreams offer us an avenue to act out our subconscious or forbidden desires. They are a multi-dimensional whirl of the information we process daily. Sleep experts suggest that dreams can help with problem-solving, processing emotions and memory integration. The idea of biocentrism shines a light on the occurrence of dreams. It posits that we’re always not just observing but creating reality.