Unlocking the Mysteries of Dreams

Max MeshFebruary 7, 2023Dreams and DesiresFeatures
Unlocking the Mysteries of Dreams

Artwork by Rachel Unthank, age 15

Currently, the average life expectancy is 79 years.

Assuming one were to live to 79, then 26 years of their life would consist of sleeping with another seven years dedicated to trying to get to sleep. Sleeping is the single longest activity we spend our lives doing. For most people, these 26 years feel like a black hole that leaves nothing but one big mystery. However, consider this quote from the Old Testament: “A dream uninterpreted is like a letter left unopened.” If we approach dreams with this in mind, then we can understand ourselves more deeply and give our lives more meaning.

People have tried to understand the meaning of dreams since at least the time of the Egyptians. A famous example of dream interpretation can be found in the Old Testament in the book of Genesis 41. One night the Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, dreamt that he was standing by the Nile river when he noticed seven fat cows being eaten by seven skinny cows. He was frightened by the dream because he didn't understand it. The Pharaoh sought someone who would be able to interpret his dreams but no one was able to interpret them except for a Hebrew man named Joseph. He told the Pharaoh that his dream was a warning from God that there would be seven years of prosperity followed by seven years of famine. With this newfound knowledge, the Pharaoh planned accordingly by setting aside one-fifth of the harvest during the good years in order to have enough grain during the seven years of famine. This ensured that his people would survive.

In the 20th century, interest in dream interpretation began to grow rapidly as a result of Sigmund Freud’s publication of his book “Interpretation of Dreams” in 1900. This book became very influential and Freud hypothesized that dreams uncover unconscious desires. Freud believed that during the day we have many different interactions with people. Some of these interactions make us anxious and cause us to worry. Freud called the unwanted feelings and desires from the day the “Day Residue.” He suggested that dreams are symbolic representations of our struggle to resolve our unwanted emotions, thoughts, and desires. For example, Freud believed that objects that are longer than they are wide, like guns, snakes, and neckties, can be seen as phallic symbols. In addition he believed that openings such as doors, tunnels, and windows are vaginal symbols. According to his theories, he believed that our minds try to protect us from becoming overly anxious by presenting our desires in a symbolic fashion. While Freud's theories became popular in the early part of the 20th century more and more people criticized his theories for being overly focused on sexual interpretations.

Carl Jung was a colleague and student of Freud. However, he became increasingly disenchanted with Freud's focus on sexuality in his interpretations of dreams. Jung also saw Freud's interpretation of dreams as overly negative and limited. Jung believed there to be twelve archetypes. These include Sage, Innocent, Explorer, Ruler, Creator, Caregiver, Magician, Hero, Outlaw, Lover, Jester, and Regular Person. Jung associated seeing a mother in a dream as representing the “nurturing and protective aspect of the female figure.” Even though Jung believed that symbols represented something different than Freud, he still shared the belief that our dreams need to be viewed symbolically and not literally. He believed that if the symbols could be fully understood then the language of dreams would be uncovered.

Soon after Freud and Jung were working on theories about dream interpretation Calvin S. Hall, Jr. developed his own theories. Between the years 1935 to 1975 Hall was regarded as one of the most creative psychologists in the nation. Hall’s early work was based on anonymous reports written by college students. It wouldn't be long until he began receiving reports from adults, children, and anyone who kept a dream diary. Hall analyzed 15-25 dreams from each participant, investigating them for obvious patterns. With time, he created the quantitative coding system. This system works by breaking down dreams into various categories including, social interactions, success and failure, misfortune and good fortune, emotions, settings, and objects, among various others. He refined these systems in his book The Content Analysis of Dreams (1966), written with Robert Van de Castle. Hall's cognitive theory explains that “dreams express ‘conceptions’ of self, family members, friends, and social environment.”

Modern-day scientists have drifted away from the view that dreams hold symbolic value to the view that dreams are simply attempts to resolve problems we encounter during our waking hours. Some researchers now believe that dreams occur as a byproduct of basic neurological functions, this is known as the Activation-Synthesis Theory.

Harvard graduates Allan Hobson and Robert McMarley proposed the Activation-Synthesis Theory in 1977. In their hypothesis, they state that the brain is remarkably active during sleep. The lower part of the brain, called the brainstem, is responsible for our body's survival process which includes healing, breathing, and pumping blood. On the other hand, the upper part of the brain, known as the cerebral cortex, takes care of more complex tasks such as developing and understanding concepts and thoughts. Hobson and McMarley believe that dreams are a result of our cerebral cortex processing nerve impulses as we sleep. Consider the following: "Imagine a high school student level athlete having a recurring nightmare that she is being chased by a blank faced individual. While she is awake, a lot of her time is spent training to be the best athlete that she can possibly be. The nerve activity that comes from her legs running and her lungs breathing heavily, are still firing while she is sleeping. The brain stem receives this nerve activity, and the cerebral cortex perceives this activity as a threat chasing her, involving similar nerve impulses sent from her legs and lungs.” Thus, the Activation-Synthesis Theory suggests that dreams have a neurological basis. The activities you participate in during the day involve nerve impulses that continue as you sleep.

Whether you believe in the Activation-Synthesis Theory or another theory, you must first be able to remember your dreams in order to interpret them. When dreaming it is common to have unique and vivid experiences. However, when you wake up dreams can slip your mind within minutes. A great first step to improve dream recall would be identifying a bedtime that works best for you and going to bed consistently at that time. When you get accustomed to this schedule you will be able to wake up without an alarm. Drinking a few glasses of water right before heading to bed can significantly increase the likelihood of you remembering your dreams. Typically your brain will wake you up to urinate right after a REM cycle when your dreams will be fresh in your mind. When you wake up in the morning it is important to take it easy and to let your mind relax to remember what occurred in your dreams. After giving it five minutes or so, write everything you can remember down in a dream journal. With time, remembering your dreams will come naturally and you will be able to remember more details from them. On average, we dream approximately five times per night, so if you can remember one dream then with practice you may be able to remember two, three, or even all five.

We have developed many theories attempting to understand dreams. Nonetheless, we have not yet determined a way to validate any of these theories. However, trying to interpret your dreams, whether valid or not, can enrich your life. We are able to freely explore our dreams without a care in the world, so make sure to get at least eight hours, and dream on!


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Max Mesh is a junior at the NYC iSchool in New York City. In his free time he enjoys playing electric guitar, skiing with his friends, and writing science fiction.