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Dreams can help us understand ourselves

Lisa Keating, Ph.D.

Erich Fromm once defined dreams as “a microscope through which we look at the hidden occurrences in our soul.” Certainly, most people believe their dreaming to be important. Austrian Nobel Prize winner Otto Loewi reported dreaming of chemicals being released from the end of a nerve. He knew he was onto something but assumed his dream was incomplete so he decided to try to finish it the following night. His dream the following night helped him solve the mystery of how nerve cells transmit and receive messages.

Musician Billy Joel dreams the music to his songs in orchestral form. Novelist Steven King based his book, “Salem’s Lot,” on his reoccurring childhood nightmare.

For decades scientists have tried to discover how and why we dream. Yet, while more is known, dreaming, for the most part, remains a mystery. Perhaps their mystery is what makes them so compelling.

“I think that dreams involve a search for new and creative ways to put memories and ideas together,” says Richard Stickgold, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry at Harvard University, “They can make associations that we wouldn’t make when we’re awake.” Dr. Stickgold also believes that sleeping and dreaming help us consolidate and foster what we learned during the day. In his sleep lab, he had subjects learn the computer game Tetris. He then waited until they fell asleep and then immediately woke them up. When awakened, most subjects were dreaming about Tetris’ sensations and images.

Theorists since Freud have believed that dreams express “the Royal road to the unconscious,” in other words, our unconscious thoughts, feelings and desires. Some theorists believe that dreams are merely random cell activity in the brain as it “house cleans” itself at night.

Even if you can’t remember your dreams, you do dream. Sleep studies show that we go through different phases of sleep each night; each phase has light and deep periods. In each phase we go through a period of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and when researchers wake up subjects during this phase they always report they were dreaming. Dreams can be recalled when you wake up in the middle or the end of one. So, if when you wake up, you just roll over and go back to sleep, you won’t remember your dreams.

Dreams are fairly similar around the world, from people in Western cultures to small native tribes in the Amazon jungle. Studies of the content of dreams show that dreams do not revolve around people’s attitudes, current events or politics. They are much more personal. Most people basically dream about the same things: how we think of our self and how we feel about others. Dreams tend to be negative, focusing on insecurities, fears and embarrassments. More positive dreams focus on, well, dreams: dreams about who we wish to be, feel, or do, or a great moment with someone else. Sexual dreams tend to be simply related to the body’s physical need for sex; there usually isn’t a lot of romance included.

Then, there are nightmares. The term nightmare is frightening in and of itself. It derives from the Middle English term “nihtmare,” meaning an evil spirit to haunt and suffocate sleeping people. The content of nightmares is generally graphic depictions of raw emotions such as rage and aggression.

Theorists who believe in dream interpretation hypothesize that these graphic images are metaphors of the “ugly” parts of, and feelings about, ourselves that we cannot consciously tolerate thinking about. In a year’s time, nine out of 10 people have at least one nightmare. They are much more common during childhood as children try to master these angst-full feelings.

If you believe that dreams do tell us something about ourselves and are not simply “random firings of the brain,” you might enjoy trying to interpret your own dreams. Here’s how to do it. Keep a pad of paper and pen next to your bed. When you awaken stay in bed and write down the dream, even if you can only remember part of the dream.

Next, ask yourself, “When I think of this dream, what other things come to mind?” For instance, dreaming of Mrs. Jones from your childhood doesn’t mean you miss her. Rather, what you thought about her or how she made you feel are the important themes. Finally, try to understand how recent dreams connect together; this can offer insights into your unconscious emotional struggles.

In closing, I will quote perhaps the most famous dream interpreter of all time, Carl Jung: “Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.” Happy dreaming … and awakening.

— Lisa Keating, Ph.D., is a Carson City clinical psychologist.