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Sleeping Brain theories: Are dreams fulfillments of unconscious desires?

“The brain, the masterpiece of creation, is almost unknown to us” (Nicolaus Steno, 1669). After decades of extensive study and experimentation, we finally have a better understanding of the human brain, its function, and its significance inside the body. Every single idea, feeling, and action a person takes is controlled by their brain. It functions by receiving and sending electrical and chemical signals to and from several other organs throughout the body. Without our brain, we simply wouldn’t be able to do anything, much less remain alive. Due to the constant use and need of our brain, not even when we sleep our brain is able to shut down. Yes, your brain continues working even when you are asleep, sorting and processing the information received throughout the day.

Despite there being many unanswered questions regarding dreams and sleep, scientists do know that everyone dreams every time they fall asleep for roughly two hours each night, this occurs independently of whether or not they recall it when they wake up. A theory is that while your body sleeps your brain is awake and producing dreams as a method to consolidate memory, process emotions, gain practice for confronting potential dangers, and express its deepest unconscious desires. According to Sigmund Freud’s theory, suppressing thoughts usually leads to dreaming about them and accomplishing - sometimes even unknown - desires.

In Freud’s book “The Interpretation of Dreams”, he provides an in-depth explanation of his interpretation of dreams and their purpose. He describes dreams as “disguised fulfillments of repressed wishes”, and that there are two components which make this description true; the manifest content and latent content. Manifest content includes the actual images, thoughts, and content contained within the dream, these are most usually the contents of dreams which are remembered upon awakening. While the latent content is the hidden psychological meaning of a dream. This content is presented through symbolic means into the dream, containing matters that are hidden from conscious awareness, frequently because they are upsetting or traumatic.

With Freud’s initial research into the area, more scientists became curious and began to execute research and experiments in order to prove Freud’s previously established theories and also come up with their own. Unfortunately, the psychological theories that Freud came up with were disproven, as there is no substantial evidence that demonstrates that the manifest content of dreams disguises their psychological significance. What scientists did establish was that dreams are important for processing emotions and stressful experiences.

A prominent theory to be created was REM sleep. This theory was proposed by J. Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley, through their model of activation-synthesis dreaming. They came to the conclusion that when the brain reaches the state of REM sleep, the amygdala and hippocampus are triggered which causes electrical impulses to be transmitted. Through this action, random thoughts, images and memories appear while dreaming, however, they don’t necessarily make any sense and aren’t coherent with each other, when waking up it is when the brain makes sense out of these details and creates an organized narrative which we remember to be what we dreamed of.

Some other theories that rose relates to, dreams:

  • Evoking creativity as their purpose is to support us while solving problems.

  • Reflecting our livelihoods, collecting fragments of our memory and producing pathways connecting memorable experiences.

  • Presenting real-world dangers, and providing adaptive strategies on how to deal with them.

  • Serving as safe places where emotions and trauma can be dealt with.

  • Being a technique to clean up space in the brain, refreshing it for the following day’s information.

  • Occurring in order to keep the brain active while the body is asleep. This is the continual-activation theory, determined by Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley in 1977.

  • Occurring so that information can be forgotten. According to the reverse-learning theory (Crick and Mitchison, 1983), our brain forms thousands of neural connections between memories which are way too many to be remembered, therefore while dreaming “undesirable interactions of neural networks within the cerebral cortex are removed”.

Moving on from the theories as to why we dream and its role within our brain, let's take a look at dreams interpretations. Below are the most common dreams people have and some interpretations of them will be explored:

  1. Dreams about falling: Have you ever been sleeping peacefully, without a single worry in the world, and suddenly you fall into a deep hole? Well if you have, this most likely means that your life isn’t going in a good direction or that you are stressing too much over your decisions. Instead of becoming desperate and upset with this analysis, because believe me the amount of falling dreams that I have had aren’t few, look at this dream as a sign to either rethink some choice you have recently made or to simply “let yourself go more and enjoy life more” (Russell Grant, in "The Illustrated Dream Dictionary) - now which of these two strategies you should take, is up to you and your analysis of your life recently.

  2. Dreams about being naked in public: Dreaming that you are in a public place - school, shopping mall, etc - without any clothes at all and no way to get yourself out of that situation is not uncommon at all. This dream usually indicates that you are feeling insecure and afraid when having to reveal your imperfections. Yet, you shouldn’t feel bad, everyone is different and unique, if you have been feeling insecure you should probably find new people or environments to be around, where you feel more comfortable and accepted.

  3. Dreams about flying: Flying dreams in which you are flying over entire cities, feeling the breeze on your face, while listening to birds sing, can be extremely exciting and freeing. These dreams can either represent that you have been currently feeling very free and independent, or they could also mean that you consist of an urgent desire to escape from your reality.

  4. Dreams about losing teeth: You are eating one of the most savory meals of your life, and while you chew into it, you suddenly feel a weird sensation and realize that your teeth are uncontrollably falling out of your mouth. This type of dream usually means two things, either you are worried about your appearance and what others think of you, or you are having difficulty when communicating yourself, worrying you may say or have said something you regret.

  5. Dreams about dying: Have you ever dreamed that you or a loved one was in a life-threatening situation? Despite common misconception, dreams of this type don’t exactly reflect a fear of death or that someone close to you is near to being in this situation, what it suggests is that you may have anxiety towards changes or fear of the unknown. The reasoning behind this is "like death, change can be scary because - also like death - we do not know what is 'on the other side' of the change, which is why the dreaming mind equates change with death," (Lauri Loewenberg in her book "Dream on It: Unlock Your Dreams, Change Your Life").

Personally, I am able to understand why all of the theories as to why we dream would be correct. As there is still no definite conclusion, we can carry on believing in any of these theories as dreams most likely consist of more than one purpose and function. Concerning common dream’s interpretations, I am also able to agree with them. Through personal experience and research, the connection between dreams and their interpretation makes great sense. I also find that now that I am more knowledgeable about dream interpretations, I will take these analyses as guidance.



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