An Analysis of Dreams Using the Different Psychological Theories

To better understand the origins and purposes of dreams and the unconscious mind, one must look at theories from multiple psychological perspectives: Freud, Cartwright & Lamberg, Hobson & McCarley. It examines Freud’s notion that dreams are the royal road to the unconscious mind. As well as Cartwright (1977) & Lamberg’s (1992) perception that dreams are cognitive, problem-solving views into our everyday lives. Lastly, Hobson & McCarley’s (1977) preposition that dreams are merely neural activity produced by brain waves during REM sleep.

It is quite difficult to develop and expand ones knowledge about their dreams or unconscious mind without exploring a variety of theories, thus leading to the goal for this paper.

Dreams can be defined as “mental experiences during REM sleep that have story-like qualities that include vivid imagery, are often bizarre, and are regarded as perceptually real by the dreamer” (Antrobus, 1993 as cited in Weiten and McCann, 2007, pg. 209). To better understand such complex concepts of the mind and its unconscious involvement in dreams, one must observe multiple neurologists, philosophers and psychiatrists.

Cartwright & Lamberg, Hobson & McCarley, and Freud, to name a few, are three theorists who have developed a better understanding to help provide insight into this diverse ideal. According to Cartwright and Lamberg (1997) “dreams allow people to engage in creative thinking about problems because dreams are not restrained by logic or realism”.

In contrast, Hobson & McCarley (1977, as cited in Weiten & McCann, 2007) argues, “dreams are simply the byproduct of bursts of activity emanating from subcortical areas in the brain”.

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Along with both theories, Freud’s (1900/1953) concept that “dreams are the royal road to the unconscious mind” (Lombardi, 1997) has been studied the most extensively. “These theories are based more on conjecture rather than solid evidence…because the private, subjective nature of dreams make it difficult to put the theories to an empirical test” (Weiten, 2007). Although there are many perspectives on how dreams originate, each psychologist will agree that the purpose, interpretation, and context of dreams and the unconscious mind are a complex thing.

Freud has been an extremely influential figure in the understanding of the unconscious mind. Such has lead to advances in the concept of dreams and their purpose with the expansion of further research. To help simplify, “Freud (1900/1953) grouped dreams into four categories:

  • external (objective) sensory excitations
  • internal (subjective) sensory excitations
  • internal (organic) somatic stimuli
  • purely psychical sources of stimulation

Some examples of these are body temperature, stress from possible previous confrontations, and touch. Freud (1900/1953) also describes dreams as “a disguised fulfillment of a repressed wish” (Lombardi, 1997). Therefore, he proposes that peoples “ungratified needs” while awake are fulfilled through wishful thinking in dreams. Clarke (1878) who supports Freud’s theory, expanded the thought that “dreams as ‘the unconscious celebrations of that portion of the brain over which sleep has no power.

Sleep affords the opportunity, within certain limits, for the brain to act on itself, and dreams are the result” (pg. 303). “For Freud, a dream never creates, it only repeats or puts together” (Benjamin & Dixon, 1996). There are many expansions from Freud’s original idea of dreams, and much credit can be given to him, but over time, one must examine other research to truly gain a broad understanding of other possibilities of origins.

Hobson & McCarley (1977) who developed a more scientific approach to the sources of dreams explains, “dreams are of the neural activation that produces ‘wide-awake’ brain waves during REM sleep” (pg. 213). Together they designed several models to help clarify their concepts such as the “activation/synthesis model (Hobson, 1988; Hobson & McCarley, 1977) called AIM (A = activation; I = input source; M = modulation)” (Occhionero, 2004). 

This model can explain brain-mind functioning in the various states of awareness. The amount of activity during REM sleep results in the frequency at which brainstem reticular neurons fire. This activation relies on the ponto-geniculo-occipital pathway (PGO) and is responsible for triggering the eye movements, which constitute one of the endogenous inputs of dream imagery (Occhionero, 2004).

Therefore, Hobson and McCarley conveyed that the more activity and the type of activity that the brain receives while asleep, helps determine the vividness of the images one sees while dreaming. The basis for their research was brain activity and peripheral cortex involvement.

In comparison to the ideology of Hobson and McCarley and the scientific approach is that of Cartwright and Lamberg. They developed a more methodological interpretation proposing “that dreams provide an opportunity to work through everyday problems” and that “there is considerable continuity between waking and sleeping thought” (Weiten, 2007 pg. 212). Cartwright et al (1978) define “the key characteristic of dreams are the experience of vivid, symbolic-representational imagery, sometimes described as ‘hallucinatory’ in quality, in which the dreamer may be both an active participant and observer”.

With this notion, Cartwright is prompting that solutions to problems that may constrict us in reality, are attainable within ones dreams, because of the availability to look at it from multiple perspectives. Brown quotes Weiss (1964) expressing that “there is consensus that recurrent dreams repeatedly challenge the dreamer with the vital problems of his life, until these are confronted and solved” (p. 23).

Although there is no solid proof that dreams develop solutions to ones problems in life, “research showing that sleep can enhance learning (Walker and Stickgold, 2004) adds new credibility to the problem solving view of dreams” (Cartwright, 2004, as cited in Weiten, 2007 pg. 213).

Dreams vary depending on culture and beliefs, and can be strange, frightening, exciting, illogical, or even discerning. After researching various ideas, it is apparent that only the dreamer can truly comprehend or interpret the true meaning behind his/her own dream. That being said, because of the studies done by multiple psychologists, neurologists, and philosophers, these conceptions have become easier to understand, and has broadened ones mind into the complexity of the brain.

Whether it be the concept of dreams as a gateway for wishful thinking theorized by Freud, or as a way to help gain insight into some sense of problem solving in ones life thought by Cartwright & Lamberg. Or even the most complex and systematic explanation that dreams are bursts of activity in parts of the brain, developed by Hobson & McCarley, it is clear that dreams can be interpreted in more ways than one can comprehend, it all depends on what one wants to believe.

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An Analysis of Dreams Using the Different Psychological Theories. (2023, Mar 16). Retrieved from

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