Sleep Care

The Dream Series: The Psychological Perspective

Have you ever woken up from a weird dream or nightmare wondering why it was so bizarre? Or wondered why some people dream often and very vividly? Why others say they never remember their dreams or don’t feel they dream at all? And perhaps the most basic question: Does dreaming actually serve any healthy or functional purpose?

The Dream Series will attempt to answer these questions from a variety of perspectives of dreaming. Similiar to how your description of an elephant may change depending on whether you’re looking at it from the front, back, side, or top, each of the perspectives provide clues and answers to the question of what exactly dreaming is–and how it can impact our lives.

The Psychological Perspective

A good starting point for understanding psychological perspectives on dreaming is the work of Sigmund Freud and his contemporary, Carl Jung. Both were psychoanalysts who focused on the unconscious as a way of understanding why people dream.

Freud viewed sleep as a way for the body and brain to temporarily “disconnect” from the constant stream of stimuli coming from the environment. For example, he noted that when people sleep, they typically turn off the lights, make the room a comfortable temperature, and cover up with a blanket if cold. All this is done to reduce potential external stimuli that could wake people from sleep.

The brain also needs to contend with internal stimuli, however. Freud described these as base, uncontrolled urges and desires that people have, such as sex.

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In order to prevent these urges from disrupting sleep, the brain creates dreams as ways to fulfill these “wishes” which would be socially or morally unacceptable for people

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to act on if they were awake.

While Freud focused primarily on the individual, Jung took a broader approach when explaining dreams. He felt that while dreams did reflect the subconscious, they were also opportunities for individuals to tap into the “collective unconsciousness”, which Jung explained as a universal wisdom or pool of knowledge that would show up in different cultures or people groups in the form of archetypes. Archetypes typically are myths, tales, or legends about characters. According to Jung, accessing these archetypes and the collective unconsciousness during dreams can help resolve conflicts that are currently being faced by individuals.

Jung also broke dreams down into a specific format. He noted dreams often consist of four parts. First, the setting and environment for the dream is established. Second the plot for the dream plays out, including some element of essential change to the storyline. The finale occurs next, where the conflict of the plot is resolved and critical developments are ultimately made. Finally, the dream is brought to some sort of closure or ending before waking up from sleep. According to Jung, people cannot consciously affect the endings of their dreams.

The Contemporary Theory of Dreaming

Over the course of analyzing the content of hundreds of dreams, psychologist and psychoanalyst Ernest Hartmann noticed that most dreams have a central image and a corresponding emotional intensity attached to it. When researching the effect of the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks on dreams, he found that while the content of dreams did not change much from before to after the attacks, the emotional intensity and vividness of dreams did—specifically, emotions became more pronounced after the attacks compared to before.

To explain how emotion could affect people’s dreams, Hartmann developed the Neural Net Theory. According to this theory, the brain consists of neural networks that function together in a very rigid, highly organized manner during waking consciousness because there are specific goals that guide their activities. During dreaming, however, these networks are free to function in much more loosely connected, “auto-associative” manner, so they are able to form connections that they would not be capable of making during waking consciousness.

Hartmann theorizes that people’s emotions are what guide the connection making processes of the brain’s neural networks in dream sleep. He uses the analogy of a calm sea surface to describe how the brain functions normally during dreaming. A strong storm that causes large swells and waves to the sea surface is the equivalent of whatever emotions people are experiencing at that particular time. The function of dreaming then becomes to “resolve the storm”—in other words, to resolve the strong emotions by integrating them with long-term memories that can be accessed during the loosely-connective, auto-associative state the brain is in dreaming. Hartmann calls this The Contemporary Theory of Dreaming.

Continue to part two of the Dream Series, the Neurological Perspective.

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