After years of observation and the discovery of an alternate domain of human unconscious, the renowned psychologist Sigmund Freud decided to take a chance and appeared before medical professionals to tell them what he had discovered. He modestly revealed some facts that would continuously occur in his patients’ dreams and awaited his colleagues’ acceptance. This acceptance did not surface; rather Freud’s colleagues found extreme humor in his concepts and then labeled him as a crank. The words “dream interpreation,” a phrase coined by Freud are still met with skepticism.
“They remind one of all sorts of childish, superstitious notions” and those who believe that these mental pictures have meaning are often met with an opposing view. (Freud & Tridon, 1920, p. 2)
Dreams and their relationship with mental functioning is a study that challenges professionals and the inability to thoroughly study these unconcious occurances has led many researchers to deem them “random neuro activity.” (Franklin & Zyphur, 2005) However, looking at the characteristics of dreams it is not surprising that some professionals take this stance.
We all have different experiences when dreaming, for example, some have dreams that are filled with vivid imagry and emotional intensity, others have dreams that contain confusing events, while many experience smooth story lines. Many individuals can control their dreams while others are merely by standers. It is this variation of experiences that feeds the view opposing the psychological importance of dreaming. (Franklin & Zyphur, 2005)
Sigmund Freud, often called father of Psychology, opened the door to the study of dreams during his career.
As he delved into the research prior to his studies he found of course the medical theories that defined dreaming as merely a physical reaction without any psychological meaning as well as the various superstitious theories. After spending a lengthy amount of time studying the dreaming process he came to believe that “the popular view grounded in superstition, and not the medical one, comes nearer to the truth about dreams.” (Freud & Tridon, 1920, p. 9)
Freud believed that dreams were the attempt of the unconscious to forcefully impose its desires on the upper consciousness and that these mental pictures are vehicles of the human thoughts and desires. (Pillsbury, 1927, p. 448) Sigmund also believed that dreams could be interpeted and that this process could be difficult because the desire could be expressed directly or in reverse as well and mean something different than what it might seem. (Pillsbury, 1927, p. 450) Because Freud believed that the dreamer was not often aware of the dream’s meaning and that often events of the dream were confusing. Interpretation could take place if you “break up the dream into its elements” and “search out the ideas that link themselves to each format.” (Freud & Tridon, 1920, p. 11)
Carl Gustav Jung, another psychologist who actively persued the study of dreams, conducted his research under Sigmund Freud until their opposing views caused tension within their relationship and they parted ways. Jung believed that dreams were a “manifestation of psychic activity” and that they should “be regarded with due seriousness as an actuality that has to be fitted into the conscious attitude as a codetermining factor.” (Fordham, 2002) Jung’s theory was similar to Freud’s however the ultimate difference was that Carl saw the unconcious as spiritual. Identical to Freud, Jung believed that dreams were not entirely cut off from our consciousness and that dreams have “their origin in the impressions, thoughts and moods of the preceding day or days.” (Jung, 2001, p. 26)
Jung took his theory of the psychology of dreams to another level, however. He believed that even though dreams surfaced from a past experience that they also have a “continuity forwards.” In other words, dreams “exert a remarkable influence on the concious mental life even of persons who cannot be considered superstitious or particularly abnormal.” (Jung, 2001, p. 26)
Carl believed that dreams were difficult to understand because they express themselves in symbols and imagry and he developed a method of interpretation in an attempt to understand the “dream language.” (Fordham, 2002) The first step to interpreting the psychological meaning of a dream in Jung’s theory was to establish the context, or discover the significance of the images presented and the relationship with the dreamer’s life. Each image must be carefully studied and associated with the dreamer as nearly as possible before the dreamer is in a position to fully understand what the dream might mean. A series of dreams offers a more satifactory interpretation than a single dream, as the important images are identified by their reptition and any mistakes can be corrected when the next dream manifests. Jung believed that every dream should be taken as “a direct expression of the dreamer’s unconscious, and only to be understood in this light.” (Fordham, 2002)
Research has been conducted since Freud and Jung created their original theories that support the fact that dreams are a state of consciousness that has continued throughout the development of the human species; therefore, this process is a necessary aspect to the human congnitive development. (Franklin & Zyphur, 2005) Though contemporary research exists, the theory developed by Sigmund Freud in the early 1900s holds true. In his book The Interpretation of Dreams Freud stated in its opening that dreams were “a psychological structure, full of significance, and one which may be assigned to a specific place in the psychic activities of the waking state.” (Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, 1931)
Sleep is made up of “behavioral, functional, physiologic and electrophysiologic traits.” (McNamara, 2004) The human body has a biological need for sleep and the physical process of sleep takes place through stages. This need accumulates the longer we are awake and can also be determined by the amount of energy used while we are awake. The process of sleep begins with the body’s signal that sleep is required, this signal is realized when the brain releases a neurochemical substance. Once asleep the next cycle is activated, which is the control function that allows the human body to alternate between REM and NREM sleep stages. Upon sleep, an adult will usually experience sleep onset through NREM and sleep offset through REM. The NREM predominates the first third of the night and REM predominates the last third of the night. (McNamara, 2004)
Researchers have attempted to study the brain’s physiological reaction during the act of sleep through a variety of methods, many of which set out to prove that dreaming was merely the body’s reaction to specific chemical and brain activity. The EEG and the H2150 PET scan have been used to measure brain activity during the process of sleep and scientists have determined the brain’s physcial reaction as it transitions to REM sleep as well as other stages. While dreaming, the brain is controlled by the “meditating influence of the cholinergic system.” (Barbee nd, p. 2) Researchers were also able to determine that the visuo-motor systems were activated as well as the limbic system. (Barbee nd, p. 2) Even though these studies proved the brain’s physical reaction to the stages of sleep, it was determined that the “mind is a mysterious dimension of the self and when coupled with biochemical fulctuations and alterations it becomes an unfamiliar domain.” (Barbee nd, p. 2)
Antti Revonsuo’s hypothesis about the psychology of dreaming is that “Dreaming is a state of consciousness consisting of complex sequences of subjective experience during sleep.” (Revonsuo & Valli, 2000) He believes that the biological function of dreaming, when experiencing nightmares, is the human’s ability to simulate threatening events and repeatedly rehearse the threat perception and avoidance responses. In other words, we choose threatening waking events and rehearse these events again and again – even years after the original trauma was first experienced. (Revonsuo & Valli, 2000) Revonsuo performed and in depth study of 52 students that produced 592 dream reports that were created and analyzed in two stages. Upon completion of the study he concluded that his theory of nightmares was correct. He also concluded that “dreaming as a phenomenal experience causually contributes to a complex biological process.” (Revonsuo & Valli, 2000)
Dream psychologists N. H. Pronko and J. W. Bowles believe that dreams are images that are “being constantly replenished from current experience.” (Pronko & Bowles, 1999, p. 4) This replenishing process is unobserved in the dream state and is illustrated by the fact that dreams reproduce elements of our own experiences. Bowles and Pronko believe that in infancy we learn to define our lives through the rapid accumulation of images coupled with emotions. Through this process we develop the tendency to “create dramatic situations which express past emotional situations.” (Pronko & Bowles, 1999, p. 20) Nightmares are merely the expression of someone who disregards anxiety in the waking world. If a person ignores anxiety issues while awake, then upon sleep the “emotions we can not project meet us in dreams.” (Pronko & Bowles, 1999, p. 32)
Many theories surrounding dreams exist and those supporting the psychological importance of dreams are contemporary theories built upon the foundation of psychologists such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. These studies have sparked many others that focus on the physiological reaction of the brain during the dreaming state and though a physical reaction can be found within the human brain while sleep and dreaming occurs – researchers can not say for certain that dreams are merely a manifestation of some physiological experience. The study of dreams must continue as evidence exists that provides proof of the fact that dreams are a key to our mind’s unconcious state. Sigmund Freud stated in his book The Interpretation of Dreams, “If I were asked what is the theoretical value of the study of dreams, I should reply that it lies in the additions to psychological knowledge and the beginnings of an understanding to the neuroses which we thereby obtain.” (Freud, 1931, p. 325)