Monday, 26 September 2011

What are Dreams...and What do they Mean?

What are dreams? What do my dreams mean? What are my dreams telling me? These are very common questions we ask ourselves, from early childhood right through our lives in all likelihood. They scare us, they excite us, they inspire us, they can confuse us altogether...but why are dreams such a mystery?

Dreams have been studied and considered for thousands of years, but the truth is there are still not many ‘hard facts’ about dreams as science has not yet found a way to accurately measure their content, and is the reason why we have to rely on theories to explain something that plays such a strange role in our lives. It has been said that we spend around 6 years of our lives in dreaming state, a state often feeling so real we have no idea we are dreaming until we wake up. In dreams we feel pain, pleasure, fear, happiness – in fact every emotion possible in a form as real as we would in our ordinary waking life. The question is why do we feel these things and can these dreams have meaning?

The brain has been studied rigorously when asleep, with brainwaves being recorded through our 8 hours of nocturnal bliss. There have been four main stages identified in sleep when the brain works at different speeds, or cycles. The first three stages are different depths of sleep (N1, N2, N3) while the fourth stage has been names REM (Rapid Eye Movement) due to the quick movement the eyes make at the onset of this level. It is known that dreaming takes place during REM as when subjects were woken up in experimentation during the fourth stage they would always report being mid-dream.

Studies suggest that we dream every single night we sleep (when we reach REM that is, during a short nap not necessarily) and we skip through our sleep cycles every 60-90 minutes, therefore dreaming several times per night for periods as long as 20 minutes at a time. Whether we remember the dream or not is dependent on the stage of sleep we wake up in. Like in the studies those who are awoken in REM remember their dreams, while those awoken in the different stages don’t necessarily and sometimes never at all, although it is reported that you can train yourself to remember your dreams using various different methods (I can account for this myself).

In ancient times dreams were relied upon as interaction with the Gods or the dead, a supernatural world that was some kind of split reality from our own where messages of importance would be delivered (see ‘The Bible’) as well as warnings of the future foreseen. In other times nightmares were connected with contact with the devil while pleasant dreams with Gods or angels. In history dreams were considered highly important and served as messages or instructions to use in waking life, but those feelings towards dreams did not last.

Later, especially in western culture, dreams began to lose importance and became thought of as meaningless until Sigmund Freud wrote about their importance to psychology. Freud thought that dreams represented the innermost desires of the individual and were highly important in understanding the workings of the mind. Fritz Perls had similar thoughts to Freud but believed that every aspect of a dream was a representation of oneself, if someone was having a dream about an angry monster for example, that monster would represent an aspect of their own mind, perhaps anger or fear that was being projected by the subconscious mind.

There are also modern theories that dreams actually have no meaning at all and that they are just some kind of scrambled version of memories and emotions unwinding as we sleep, the brain untangling itself after a day filled of multi-sensory absorption. The one main problem I have with these theories is that they don’t seem to offer explanation to recurring dreams and nightmares, dreams with near identical structure or themes that we don’t seem to have control over and cannot shake off. Recurring nightmares can cause considerable stress and create immense frustration. Are these dreams without meaning and simply a process of memory/emotion? I find that very hard to believe.

Fritz Perls and successive gestalt psychologists/hypnotherapists such as Randal Churchill, have had great success using dream therapy, analysing dreams as projections of subconscious issues in order to fix problems in their client’s lives. Recurring dreams would be seen as subconscious problems that have not been dealt with, perhaps repressed feelings that the conscious mind has not overcome and the subconscious mind is continually pushing to be dealt with. During dream therapy the issues would be explored and dealt with, and after such work the recurring dream/nightmare will typically cease, with the individual reporting a great sense of relief and a feeling of being able to move on in their life. Is this proof enough that dreams are not simply scrambled memories?

I have seen this for myself first hand. I had a recurring dream for a number of years surrounding a childhood friend who would inexplicably enter into my dreams on a regular basic. It wasn’t distressing but it did make me wonder why he was there, and filled me with a sense of frustration. It wasn’t until I fully explored my feelings of guilt surrounding this particular friendship and circumstances surrounding it that the friend disappeared from my sleep! It was actually quite a wonderful experience to have my personal mystery solved. I have since worked with clients myself as a hypnotherapist and have found similar results, and not just with recurring dreams. Every dream has themes that can be explored and these are always of interest and of use to the dreamer so long as they are open and willing to delve deep enough.

In conclusion it is my strong opinion that dreams are a clear view of what is going on in your deepest state of mind; a strong connection to the subconscious. These messages from your subconscious can certainly be worked with to help further understand the mind and the way that it behaves. The subconscious mind works in mysterious ways that we cannot fully explain yet, but we can see the results of dream therapy enough to conclude that key inner feelings are brought to the surface in our dreams, which can then be dealt with to improve our REAL waking lives.

In short dreams can be used to help make us happier. In that respect dreams are very important to our lives and it would be ignorant to pass them off as meaningless without exploring even a little deeper beneath the surface.

What do you think about your own dreams? Is there something you find hard to explain? Please feel free to leave a comment, or if you would prefer email me at

On the internet there are many 'dream translation' guides, such as this one Some people find these interpretations of dreams helpful, and many dreams can have similar symbolic meaning for everyone, ie fear etc, but I think it is important to point out that dreams are immensely personal and so for instance if two people dream about a cat, the cat can represent two very different things to either person. We are all unique and have a unique representation of the world around us, so it is only you who can confirm for certain what different aspects of your dream truly mean, and not a generic description.

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