On why we have dreams and the functions of dreaming
The psychology of dreams has been explained either with the psychoanalytic interpretation of dreams or with the psycho-physiological process of dreaming. Thus there are two distinct schools in the psychology of dreams – one school of thought believes in the relation between REM sleep and dreaming, the role of dreams in learning and as a result of random neural firings further leading to random images that may not have any significance; and the other school of thought believes that dreams occur as a result of unconscious and repressed impulses and could be explained with psychoanalytic symbolism and in turn also explain psychic phenomenon or even lead to understanding the causes of mental illnesses.
According to Freud, ‘dreams are the royal road to the unconscious’, in the sense that they could be analyzed in a way that will reveal the hidden impulses in the unconscious. Dreams may thus reveal who we ‘really’ are, what we ‘really’ want and how we want to attain these desires. Yet many contemporary psychologists have moved away from this ‘semantic’ view of dreams that emphasize on repressed desires and ‘meanings’ of dreams, and have suggested that dreams occur simply due to random neural firings in the brain when the body is at rest and these random firings produce images in the brain.
There are several stages in sleep and the REM sleep is the final stage. Dreams are related to this REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep and we tend to have several dreams in one night although we forget almost all these images. We don’t act out these images because during the process of dreaming, the body undergoes temporary paralysis which is a protective or bodily defense mechanism against any external injury.
Dreams according to psychology is also a defense mechanism as all repressed desires which could have harmful effects on our psyche are released through the process of dreaming, so both physiologically and psychologically, dreams have defensive or protective functions helping in release of excessive stress, traumatic thoughts, repressed impulses as also protect the body from external injury. Dream recollection and control through the process of lucid dreaming and hypnosis as used more frequently by traditional psychotherapists are not too popular any more although these processes provide more insights into images in dreaming and how these could be evoked or elicited in psychotherapeutic sessions or could be remembered and interpreted to provide more access to the unconscious.
The physiology of REM stage of sleep may be able to provide answers as to why we dream of certain images yet this mechanism would be unable to explain exactly why these specific images occur. Some theories have suggested that certain repressed thoughts and desires or repeated occurrences could manifest in dreams through images. Sometimes trauma or any event with significant emotional value could lead to repetitive dreams with the same images. Considering existing literature, I suggest that dreams could have five principal functions – a clinical function of explaining mental illness, a cognitive function of aiding learning, an adaptive function of restoring body mechanisms, a cathartic function of releasing traumatic or repressed feelings and a defensive function of providing a protective shield to the mind and the body.
So dreams could actually be explained both from psychoanalytic and psycho-physiological perspectives. In fact we have to understand psychoanalysis and psycho-physiology and integrate findings about dreams from both these fields to reach a comprehensive understanding of these mental processes.
The five functions of dreams are given here and the basic thesis of a comprehensive dream theory should be based on all these five functions.
Clinical Function of Dreams – Some psychologists believe that dreams are closely related to mental illness and that many post traumatic dreams represent anxiety and prolonged or repetitive traumatic dreams could suggest initial symptoms of mental disorder or failed physiological functions in the body. In fact many mental illnesses could be traced back to certain dreams and we can even understand the roots or causes of mental illness by studying why certain dreams occur in certain people. The clinical value of dreams has been recognized in psychoanalysis although the full potential of this function has not been very clear in physiology. Further scientific research is required to understand the role of dreams in explaining, preventing or even curing mental or physical illnesses. Dreams could highlight issues of brain disorder, brain ailments and hormonal changes in the body and could have clinical value in identifying many diseases and abnormal conditions in the body.
Cognitive Function of Dreams – Dreams are useful in learning and scientific studies have proved that they play a cognitive role in children who have many more dreams and increased REM sleep than adults, thus children tend to learn while dreaming and dreaming and REM sleep could also have a positive effect on learning physical skills. This might explain how dreams could also provide insights into problems as solutions and many discoveries, inventions and novel ideas emerge in dreams. Dreams show various possibilities in our thought process and through permutations and combinations provide cognitive solutions to some of our life goals. Dreams could thus be very effective learning tools, help in self understanding and realization and improve and consolidate cognitive abilities.
Adaptive Function of Dreams – Dreams help us to adapt to our surroundings and although the evolutionary advantage of dreaming is not clear or has not been studied extensively, the fact that we continue to dream and even learn and defend ourselves through dreams makes dreaming an important part of our passive and active life. The adaptive function of dreams is however physiologically advantageous as it helps restore bodily mental and physical balance. Although this remains a controversial viewpoint, the complete psychological and physiological advantages of dreaming will have to be studied from an evolutionary perspective.
Cathartic Function of Dreams – Dreams are highly cathartic. They release stress, and through symbolic representation of images, purge out our fears, our impulses and urges and help us to confront our own mental lives. Dreams are more than the ‘royal road to the unconscious’, they are basic shields for our own defense and release. The thoughts and emotions that may be too dark, traumatic, shameful or dangerous for real life are manifested in dreams and help us to confront realities. Psychoanalytically dreams represent wish fulfillment and many images in dreams like elongated objects for example, are considered symbolic of sexual organs. It is however controversial whether all dreams are a type of wish fulfillment and some dreams could simply be a release of anxiety or completely the opposite of any wish fulfillment. If you repeatedly dream of your own injury or injury of close ones, you are simply releasing your unconscious anxiety through the dreams which in turn may help you to function better and be more cautious in reality.
Defensive Function of Dreams – This is related to the cathartic and adaptive functions of dreaming as when we release through catharsis, we also adapt to situations and this in turn provides a defense or protection for the mind and body to continue functioning without harm or hindrance. Although this concept is unpopular among many psychologists, dreams may have strong defensive functions. While we dream, the physiological changes in the body such as release of glycine, an amino acid highlight a defensive mechanism and both physical and mental irritations could be released through dreaming, providing in turn a shield for the body and mind. Dreams are thus not just the ‘royal road to the unconscious’, they are essential covers or shields to protect the mind or body against excess stress. Just like your boiling kettle has provisions to release excess steam, dreams too serve as a regulatory mechanism to release all excesses from the mind and body.
Dreams are finally mind’s excretions. The view that dreams have no evolutionary advantage and that they have no functions has been endorsed by many scientists, yet if we look deeper into the annals of psychology, the significance of dreams in explaining mental life cannot be overlooked. Only further research in physiology, imaging techniques and psychotherapy delving into the psychology of dreams would be able to tell us why we dream and whether dreams are rudimentary or regulatory.
Contributed by guest blogger Saberi Roy