Overwhelmed with exhaustion, world-renowned chemist Dmitri Mendeleev tried his best to stay awake while working on a project; however, feeling defeated and tired, he gave in to his urge to sleep and took a good nap on the work desk itself. However, while sleeping, a strange dream came to him- he saw his completed project vividly in front of him, and suddenly, as if by a miracle, it dawned on him where he had been going wrong all that while. As soon as he woke up from this eccentric dream, he quickly penned down his observations from the dream, lest he forgets his important discovery. These notes later culminated to form what is known worldwide as Mendeleev’s Periodic Table. Did this ever happen to you? Did you ever imagine that what’s the psychology behind dreams? Let’s find out here.
Not many of us are perturbed by our strange and at times realistic dreams. We pass it off as our mind conjuring up weird images from our day-to-day lives. Unbeknownst to many of us is the plausible theory that dreams can play a pivotal role in shaping our lives. Mendeleev’s dream is one of the many instances where people have had major breakthroughs or epiphanies due to dreams. Whether it was Albert Einstein discovered the theory of relativity, Danish physicist Niels Bohr unearthing the model of an atom or the Beatles’ singer Paul McCartney coming up with the melody of the song “Yesterday”, all of them made these discoveries owing to the visions they saw in their dreams.
Firstly, what causes dreams?
Our sleep cycle consists of 5 stages. The first stage is when we begin to fall asleep; our brain waves are of low amplitude and high rapidity. It’s with the onset of Stage 2 that we begin dreaming and the vivacity of these dreams increases as we fall into deeper stages of sleep. The REM stage, also known as the rapid eye movement, is the stage in which we experience dreams with the most clarity. Our eyes move back and forth and our muscles become almost paralyzed. Research suggests that the REM stage is quite essential and that people who complete all the stages of sleep are prone to having higher energy levels and brain activity when they wake up than those who wake up midway through.
There are different approaches to interpreting the meaning of our dreams. The traditional approach i.e., the Psychodynamic Approach, as formulated by psychologist Sigmund Freud, proposes that dreams are nothing but a gateway for the inhibited wishes and needs stored in the deep recesses of our unconscious mind. Freud compared dreams to slips of tongue; we blurt out what we unconsciously believe in the same way our dreams are about our unconscious desires. Furthermore, Freud propagated that the psychology of our dreams have a two-fold meaning- the manifest meaning, which is the discernible meaning, and the latent meaning, i.e., the hidden meaning. Comprehending the manifest meaning will lead to a better understanding of the latent meaning.
While the Freudian theory focused heavily on our unconscious mind, some psychologists believe that our external environment and stimuli also have a role to play. This brings us to the Humanistic Approach, which suggests that how we react with the world shapes our dreams. Psychotherapist Richard M. Alperin stated, “In self-state dreams, the self is depicted as being at the threshold of disorganization or in a state of disequilibrium. The portrayal is of an internal loss of balance due to overstimulation, a drop in self-esteem, or the threat of a breakdown of the self, and the self’s reaction ranging from fragmentation and panic to mild shifts in mood. Kohut thought that these dreams were attempts by a healthier aspect of the self to regain a sense of balance through visual imagery.”
Thus, dreams can be described as a means of our mind establishing equilibrium and achieving a sense of balance again.
Then comes the Behavioural Approach which entirely rejects the previous theories we discussed. It lays emphasis on our behavior while dreaming and awake as opposed to the internal and external environment’s bearing on dreams as suggested by Freud. Another interesting proposition behind the psychology of dreams is that it is a way for our brain to relax and form memories. While we dream, some crucial parts of our brain shut down. One of them is the frontal lobe which is responsible for our rational thinking and judgment. The amygdala, however, which ignites emotions in us, especially fear, is super active. This explains why our dreams are often marred with fear and violence. This Cognitive Approach presupposes that dreams are a way for our brain to process information from our day-to-day lives and develop memories.
While all of these analyses rely heavily on psychology, some opponents claimed that encountering dreams are solely a biological process. It was argued that during the REM stage of sleep, memories hidden inside our brain are triggered due to electrical impulses. Hobson, the man behind this theory, stated that the human brain needs to keep going even while we are sleeping and therefore, it attempts to create a storyline of our memories, resulting in a dream. In other words, dreams are meaningless and merely a weird invention of our brains.
A very fascinating theory called the Threat Simulation Theory developed by Revonsuo proposes that dreams display a real-life simulation of threats and that our ancestors’ brains gradually adapted to this strange phenomenon, which has been further extended to us. These simulations aid us in coping with the dangers looming over us when we are awake by taking inspiration from the real-life social settings we pass our time in. This theory majorly backs up the nightmares we experience at times. Traumatized people are more prone to having nightmares and can induce them by having high levels of stress and triggers. The debate can go on and on as to what exactly causes dreams and what is the meaning behind them. None of the theories are proven and hence it’s open to interpretation for the people.
To conclude, it’s highly suggested that dreams must be shared. Most people fail to remember their dreams however those who do, must actively share them as dreams are known to help people. An experiment was conducted in 1996 wherein divorced women participated in dream interpretation groups. They saw a positive change in their self-esteem and peace of mind. Dreams can serve as vessels of self-introspection and knowledge. It’s advised that you maintain a mental record of dreams which strike you as odd, but important. Some might call it a futile activity but understanding the psychology behind your dreams, your brain, and how it works will always go a long way in understanding yourself better.