Why Do We Dream?


The lasting sensation of waking from a disturbing or unwanted dream lays heavy upon the dreamer the morning after. Such dreams are often surreal in their experiences, they may depict dreadful scenes in an impossible setting or are so fantastically weird that they bewilder the mind. On the other hand, there are others that can be confused with the realities of everyday life. Those that resemble reality in a reflective nature, can be thought of as an impression or natural absorption of what has been and what could be. As our brain sifts through and consolidates our memories during slumber, we look inwards to the depths of the subconscious, to where dreams disappear as quickly as they form. 

But, what does it all mean? And is there a way to study the meaning of dreams?

Specifically, there are several developed theories as to why we dream and the meanings that they inhibit. Some theories of dream study have suggested that they serve several particular functions like ‘offline memory reprocessing’ which is a way to record wakeful consciousness. Dreams may also help to ‘develop cognitive capabilities’ and prepare for possible problems or ‘threats’ that arise in the future. And most interestingly is that dreams serve as a ‘psychological space’ where notions of a highly complex, overwhelming and contradictory nature come together via the dreaming ego. Such notions if brought forth while awake would be too unnerving and therefore through dreams they can become psychologically balanced. Despite these findings, dreaming is a cognitive state that, unlike any other, is clouded in misunderstanding. As a result, the complexity of dream research is quite inherent, and therefore within the small space we have to explore this topic, we will primarily discuss the work of our father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. 

Freud has never ceased to be an incredibly compelling figure in the history of psychology and through his work “The Interpretation of Dreams” we can begin our understanding of his psychoanalytic technique to study dreams. Firstly, the premise put forward in the beginning of Freud’s book is that dreams are psychological structures full of significance. By positing such an ideal, Freud rejects past theories that view dreams as somatic processes and instead they form via psychic processes. Indeed, the dream is a wish fulfillment and Freud states that “the dream is not meaningless, not absurd, does not presuppose that one part of our store of ideas is dormant while another part begins to wake.”  

In consideration of the interconnectedness of dreams to psychoanalysis, Freud’s technique involved asking his patients to report all ideas and thoughts that occured to them in relation to a theme present in their dreams. By doing this, Freud believed he could work backwards from a patient’s pathological idea to find the meaning of the dream. Through this method, Freud treated the dream as a symptom and to begin, this method calls for Freud to dissect the dream for the patient and with each fragment of it the patient describes his ‘thoughts behind’ that part of the dream. But to prepare his patients for this psychoanalysis, the patient must take a restful position and close their eyes. They are asked to renounce all criticisms of the thoughts that they perceive and that they must communicate every single thought that comes to mind. With this material it becomes possible to interpret dream formation, and Freud observed that the ‘undesired ideas’ are met with the most violent resistance. 

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Painting by Henry Fuseli – “The Nightmare”

Image Source: Painted in Blood Red: 10 Utterly Disturbing Classic Works of Art

However, if all of our dreams are wish fulfillments, then what about those dreams that are horrifying and disturbing? Even the less pessimistic observers have suggested that those dreams of pain are more frequent than those of pleasure. Freud suggests in his book that the doctrine of wish fulfillment “is not based upon the estimates of the obvious dream content but relates to the thought content . . which is found to lie behind the dream.” In other words, it’s possible that even our most painful dreams can be interpreted or proved to be wish-fulfillments. How does this happen? Referring back to the thought content behind dreams, Freud makes two distinctions within two levels of dreams: the ‘manifest content’ which is the dream as we remember it and the ‘latent content’ which are those underlying thoughts that form the dream. We can find the wish fulfillment expressed at the latent content level which is then represented in the manifest content. However, the latent content can be ‘disguised’ in the dream if it has been forbidden by our consciousness and in order to appear in a dream it must undergo distortion to get past this ‘censorship’ of the consciousness. It’s as if the mind is in conflict with itself essentially. 

From this overview of Freud’s interpretation and method of psychoanalysis, we can see that the concept of dreams and their functions are incredibly complex. The notion that all dreams are wish fulfillments is not commonly accepted among experts and is in fact considered ‘far fetched’ by some. Currently, research findings are more consistent with the theory that memories are consolidated during sleep and that dreams are used to test whether restorative processes in the brain have been completed. This is not to say that dreams are completely meaningless, rather they do not necessarily function in the way that Freud envisioned them to. Nonetheless, it’s always captivating to recall theories within the history of psychoanalysis and Freudism and to see how our understanding has changed regarding such bewildering human concepts. 

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