"We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life, is rounded with a sleep." (The Tempest)
William Shakespeare's immortal, yet often misquoted, line brings to light the idea that we are what our dreams make us. Since the dawn of human civilization the fascinating world of dream has captured our imagination, and we have forever questioned if dreams mean anything. Are we really begotten by a series of mysterious and shifting images we encounter every night as we drift from the waking world to the world of sleep? If yes, then how significant are dreams in our lives? Popular myths have formulated the idea that dreams are anything but outrageous images conjured up by a sleepy brain. Modern day thinkers from Sigmund Freud, Henry David Thoreau to dream experts like Eugene Aserinsky and David F. Dinges have given ample thoughts and attention to the illusive realm of midnight reveries.
Dreams have been defined as a series of pictures, events, sounds or emotions that pass through our mind while we are asleep. The first records of dreams have been found around 3000 BC. Clay tablets belonging to that period included the dream-books of the Assyrians and Babylonians, discovered at Nineveh in the library of Ashurbanipal, an Assyrian emperor. Other similar tablets were discovered in Mesopotamia. Cave paintings in France from the Neanderthal Period have dreamlike quality in them. The ancient civilizations of Sumer, Assyria, Babylonia and Egypt gave oracular significance to dreams, and believed that dreams carried secret messages from their gods. In India and in several other Asian countries, dreams were regarded as having an inner source, and have been linked with philosophy and spirituality. Dreams have always been held up as an avenue to our unconscious mind. They have been said to be responsible for two Nobel Prizes, innumerable works of fiction and visual art and several ground-breaking discoveries, like the discovery of the Periodic Table. But are we giving more importance to dreams than we really need to?
Sigmund Freud was the first modern Western scientist to make a detailed attempt to understand the nebulous and controversial idea of dreams. Freud believed that all dream imageries are symbolic in content. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist, thought that dreams have an important role in our lives and have universal significance. However, contemporary psychiatric world has repudiated and disparaged Freud's hypothesis of dream. New theories and ideas have come into being, and it has been established that dreams are a reflection of internal experiences. They are transparent in many ways and if they carried any premonition that is purely coincidental. In the early 70's Harvard researchers Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley proposed that dreams are more physiological than psychological. They may have some pattern, but they never are a "doorway to the unconscious." The highly complex nature of human brain has been made responsible for the chaotic series of images that are played in the screen of our mind during sleep.
While we sleep we pass through five different stages. We start with light sleep or non-REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep in stages one and two, then head onto stages three and four (deep sleep stages) when our bodies become relaxed and our brain waves become long and dreary. Each ninety minute sleep cycle passes through the four stages ending with the REM sleep stage. REM sleep was identified and defined by Nathaniel Kleitman and Eugene Aserinsky in the early 1950s. REM sleep is characterized by visibly detectable movement of the eye behind closed eyelids. REM sleep is also called dream sleep since we experience most of our dreams during this stage.
All our dreams can be ramified into five different types: ordinary, lucid, telepathic, premonitory, and nightmare. These dreams are often threaded together for greater effect. Archetypes or ordinary dreams are our unconscious responses to our waking hour experiences. Events of our past and future are projected vividly in this kind of dreams, and their significance is mostly literal rather than spiritual. The second kind of dreams are the lucid dreams, lucid dreams are mind controlled dreams where we actually decide what we want to dream about. Try thinking something you want to see in your dreams before you go to bed, and see if you dream about the very thing you planned. The third kind of dreams is the telepathic dreams where a mind-to-mind connection between two individuals is built. People having telepathic dreams might interact with beloved dead souls and convey or receive information in the process. Dreams in this category deal with profound issues, and are much less common. The fourth kind of dreams is the premonitory dreams, and they are similar to telepathic dreams in some respect. This kind of dreams allows an individual to see through the cloudy landscapes of past and future; out-of-body experience might also be common with people having premonitory dreams. The famous Moscow-born writer and shaman P. D. Ouspensky believed that such dreams "disclose to us the mysteries of being, show the governing laws of life, and bring us into contact with higher forces." The fifth and final kind of dreams is the nightmares. They are a series of bewildering, frightening, unsettling dreams that are so powerful they can jolt us out of sleep. One can never say why we have nightmares or who is the author of the nightmares? Is there a sadistic force creating unpleasant and morbidly painful images in our brain, and why is it impossible to fast-forward nightmares? We have no answers. Nightmares are often more excruciating in dreams than they are in actual life, that is, if they truly occur in real life, the chances of which are generally very slim. Dream experts have pointed out that nightmares are nature's way of preparing us for volatile situations that we might encounter in our future life. But there is no proof to that belief, as yet.
The properties of the innumerable experiences, ideas and faces we see in our dreams are highly important to decipher the meanings of the dreams. Dreams are often thematic, and they focus on certain dominant or distorted traits a person might have. Dreams that are personal may find different interpretations with respect to different individuals who encounter them. One third of our dreams tend to deal with unhappy events. A record of a series of lifelong dreams encountered by a person would show that most dreams we come across are reflections of preoccupations and concerns we face in our waking hours. Yet it is possible to point out certain recurring and popular dreams that have been haunting the gallows of human mind over a considerable period of time. One such popular dream is the exam dream. In it, the individual may find herself in a classroom trying, desperately, to look into someone else's paper, but the page is turned and the dreamer realizes that she has forgotten to prepare for the test. This dream could be associated with insecurities, fear of failure in life, etc. The other generic dream is the dream of being chased. Many people have this dream, and it is typically thought to be connected with hidden fear, anxiety or deep and secret emotions from which the dreamer runs away in real life. The actor's dream or a missed appointment dream may be related with one's regret over some missing opportunity or deep fears of failure and low self-esteem issues. The naked dream, where a person usually finds herself in a public place, nude, may denote fear of inculpation for one's activities and repressed sexual wishes. Dreams where one sees herself falling may indicate lack of control, insecurity, and lack of support in her rousing hours. Seeing animals in your dreams might signify primitive desires, uncivilized and hidden longings and sexuality. However, to see animals who can talk in your dreams may represent your superior knowledge. A dream of drowning can signify an overwhelming emotional situation where the individual is too much involved with certain things in one's life that are beyond her control. Drowning dreams may also signify loss of identity and over-dependence on something or someone. People stuck in bad relations tend to have this dream. If you see yourself surviving the drowning it means you might come out of the bad relationship, rejuvenated.
In our dreams abstract concepts, like time and space, take on identity and often work symbolically indicating a particular kind of personal emotion. A religious dream, like seeing a deity or a dominant mythological figure, may indicate your unconscious or conscious subservience to the will of others in your waking life. Dreaming of simple geometric figures, like straight lines or triangles, commonly signifies strength of purpose and/or lack of self-expression and predictability. Strength and weakness of character is usually defined by dreams featuring a series of common visionary motifs -- babies, flowers, darkness, labyrinth, etc. Seeing wide open spaces and expansive boondocks in dreams may signify a wish to break free.
Often dreams and creativity have been hemmed together with inextricable thread. In our dreams, emotions rein free, creative ideas; thus, find better expression in the deepest depths of human dream. People with high level of creativity may find their inspiration, their muse, in a dreamy corner of their mind.
The themes and images of a person's dreams may directly point at her own personal situation; therefore, before accepting the generic interpretation of dreams, the dreamer is advised to point out the personal associations that apply to her unique individual situation.
Questions like "Why do we dream?" or "What purpose they serve?" are highly ambiguous, and have not provided any solid answers. Despite their being innumerable theories, assumptions, dream-tests, brain scans, the brain and the mirage it creates are still objects of great mystery. Some scientists feel that dreams are needless. Therefore, they serve no purpose, whatsoever, while other schools of thought vociferate that there must me some thought behind nature's wish to force us go through the painstaking cycle of dreams; that dreams are not just an epiphenomenon encountered during REM sleep, but have deep revelational powers. The Contemporary Theory of Dream, states dreaming is the last stage of the REM sleep cycle when connections between various neurotransmitters in the brain are loose and unfocussed. Emotions of a dreamer guide the process of dreams. It is our deep-seated emotions that dress up and play different roles and conjure up different kinds of images in our brain. Traumatic and stressful events often come back in dreams either directly or via different indirect motifs or themes, which could be easily linked to the original emotion. The mind meshes the upsetting sentiments to the texture of our memory system such that in case we face similar traumatic experiences our mind would know how to react, and response would not be extreme and unprepared. Thus, however much we might consider dreams as gibberish language of our somnifacient brain, we can never deny the illuminating and adaptive aspect of dreams.
Thus, keeping in mind the contemporary and veteran arguments about dream, it might be assumed that in many ways dreams usually form a connection between the conscious and the unconscious. They are a "hidden gate to eternity"; an unknown world of fascinating and mysterious images that has been dwelling inside us since the time our world was created, our civilization coined. The psychedelic emotions associated with dreams hold secrets to a mysterious future that is up to us to discover. Dreams have been springboards for great inventions and discoveries; they have been rulers of our mind, the real God-particle that exists in all sentient beings. Dreams, indeed, are an essential part of our lives. And they are certainly more important than a series of confusing, outrageous pictures we see every night as we drift off to sleep.
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"The Dictionary of Dreams and their meanings" (book) by Richard Craze; Herman House (2003).
"The Dream Book-- Dream Spells, Nighttime Potions and Rituals, and Other Magical Sleep Formulas" (book) by Gillian Kemp; Little, Brown and Company (2001).
"What Are Dreams? Inside the Sleeping Brain: Nova" (PBS documentary); directed by Charles Colville and Sarah Holt (2009).
"Dreams Let Up on Us!" by Dick Cavett; Opinionator: New York Times (April 2010).
"Why do we dream?" by Ernest Hartmann; Scientific American (July 2003).