The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

A hundred years ago, Sigmund Freud's masterpiece, "Interpretation of Dreams" created a stir in the scientific world when he claimed that dreams are not meaningless, idle, or purposeless activity of the mind, that they have a specific purpose and a precise meaning. This was pooh-poohed by the scientific community at the time, but the general public, including artists, writers, and the media, were fascinated by the idea. Dreams have intrigued, fascinated, and even terrorized humanity from its beginnings. So, when someone like Freud came along and claimed to hold the key to the mystery of dreams, it got everybody's attention. People went to see analysts just to understand what their dreams meant. The interest in dreams never dwindled, it keeps growing.

A three to five thousand year old script had this to say about dreams:

"Just as a woodchopper chops the wood all day and a carpenter fashions different objects from it, in the day, we gather experiences with our senses and our mind creates dreams from it." Around that time, it was widely believed that dreams foretold the future.

According to folk wisdom, dreams are the product of the highest and the finest part of the mind, and arise from our longings and aspirations. This makes logical sense. After all, our dreams are what should guide our thoughts, values and actions. We live our lives to fulfil our dreams. But, science, which is usually not deferential to the romance and the drama of life, views dreams as simply random firings of the neurons that reside at the bottom of the brain, called pons, sitting over the stem of the brain.

Such a down to earth view of how and why we dream eliminates the role of the mind in formation of our dreams. It says something to the effect, "Don't worry if you have a bad dream and don't get too excited if you had a wonderful dream. Dreams are nothing but random firing of neurons to keep your brain alive while you are sleeping." The underlying logic, perhaps, is that you don't want to shut off the brain completely, it may not turn on in the morning.

We are more comfortable with the mechanical, chemical and automated views of our mental life. The possibility that in the state of dreaming our mind may be working "behind our back," without our permission and awareness, has something very scary about it. At the least, it makes us feel a little more insecure knowing that we don't exercise conscious control over mind.

This non-mental view of dreams is under question now. New findings from brain imaging studies suggest that dreams may after all have a relationship with our emotions, motivations and aspirations. Brain images produced while people are actually dreaming reveal that not just the bottom of the brain, but many parts of the brain, particularly the emotional brain, are involved in the activity.

According to PET scans, a brain imaging technique, the limbic and para-limbic regions of the brain that control emotion and motivation are highly active during dream sleep. This suggests that dream stuff, after all, is emotional stuff. PET scans reveal something more. They tell us that while the emotional brain is highly active during dreaming, the prefrontal cortex, which sustains working memory, attention, logic and self-observation, is inactive.

These studies suggest that in the state of dreaming, we tend to give full rein to our emotions while keeping our reasoning and logic at bay. Our dreams enable us to fulfil our wishes, desires and dreams without much interference by reasoning, censoring or restraint of the reality. It appears that dreams are the tools by which we can fulfil our wishes that we could not, or felt we should not, during the waking state. So, at least, in dreams you can live your dream.

However, if dreams were only the suppressed or unfulfilled wishes, life would have been a lot easier. With pleasant dreams, sometimes, come nightmares because fears are also part of our emotions. When we feel fear about a certain situation, people, or event, we may dream to master that particular fear.

Why do we need someone to interpret our dreams? Why don't we just dream in plain and simple language we can all understand? Because, dreams come from that part of the mind that prefers to use symbols and disguised forms. So, rather than specific events or individuals, the real source of fear may show up in the shape of a monster or a ferocious animal.

Scientists are on the verge of solving another puzzle about dreaming: how can we "see" when our eyes are closed and we are supposedly sleeping. This question becomes even more puzzling in light of the recent brain imaging studies. The part of the visual brain that processes information about what we see out there in our external world, is switched off, but regions of the brain that interpret visual information remain active. This may explain how we can continue to "see" in dreaming, even while the brain is cut off from the outside world. Could it be that in dreaming, while our eyes are closed to the outside world, we can "see" what is inside our own mind?

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Copyright 2000, Mind Publications 


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