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Issue 02/24/11 - Vol. 42, Issue 07

Dreams - Why We Dream and What They Mean
By Frederick Gomez

Why are dreams such a globally popular subject matter?  The primary reason is because everyone dreams, and dreams are the stuff of what lies in our inner-most core as human beings:  our fears, our hopes, our cherished loved ones (both living and dead), our sexual urges, our general fantasies in every sense of that term, and more.  In short, dreams are that strange, mystical component of all human life and about which we often yearn to understand and, in so doing, to learn more about ourselves on the deepest, most personal levels.  As Henry David Thoreau put it, “Dreams are the touchstones of our characters.”  For anyone to claim that dreams are not important is to claim that their very own existence is without substance, for dreams make up and reflect who we truly are, uncensored -- deep within ourselves.  If only we can begin to decipher their meanings, and their reason for existing.  

To this very day, dreams occupy our waking and dormant lives and are often a hot topic of debate, not only within the stuffy confines of laboratory studies, but with everyday people, in everyday life, across every hemisphere.  This article will explore the impassioned subject of dreams, and the public's intense interest in this mysterious phenomena that we all -- without exception -- experience nightly.  

CAN DREAMS SOLVE PROBLEMS?

One of the more fascinating aspects of dreams is that the brain sometimes continues to work through complicated problems and ‘projects’ while in the state of dreaming.  Famous Beatle singer/songwriter, Paul McCartney, first heard his hit song, “Yesterday,” (1965) in a dream episode!  The dream experience stunned McCartney, “I liked the melody a lot, but because I dreamed it, I couldn’t believe I’d written it.  I thought, ‘No, I’ve never written anything like this before.’  But I had the tune, which was the most magic thing!”  

German-born scientist, Otto Loewi (b. 1873) had a dream that led him to a scientific solution resulting in Loewi winning the 1936 Nobel Prize for medicine!  A major break-through, solved during a dream cycle!

America’s first patented sewing machine (1846) by inventor, Elias Howe, came about through a dream!  Howe dreamed that he was being attacked by Indians and they were shooting their arrows through cloth wigwams, snagging threads and drawing the threads through with the tips of their arrows!  Howe awoke from his dream and ran to his workshop where he created and patented the world’s first lockstitch sewing machine!  There had been thousands of sewing machine inventions prior to Howe’s, but none of them worked well, and certainly none had the revolutionary lockstitch method which was created in a dream by Elias Howe!  Howe’s ‘dream-designed’ sewing machine could ‘hit’ 250 stitches a minute and became a forerunner of what we employ today.  From this patent, Howe’s dream in (real life) was only beginning:  he became the second richest man in the world!  These mysterious nocturnal visitations we call dreams had changed a man’s life forever, and made a better world!

Golfing immortal, Jack Nicklaus, credits a dream with solving a slump he suffered in his play.  The year was 1964 and Nicklaus was having a bad golfing trend, shooting regularly in the high seventies.  The world of golf was stunned when Nicklaus’ game suddenly and miraculously improved.  “Wednesday night I had a dream and it was about my golf swing,” Nicklaus said.  “I was hitting them pretty good in the dream and all at once I realized I wasn’t holding the club the way I’ve actually been holding it lately.”  The golfing legend was stunned that his dream analyzed his problem swing perfectly; something his conscious  
mind was unable to solve.  “I’ve been having trouble collapsing my right arm taking the club head away from the  ball, but I was doing it perfectly in my sleep.”  When he awoke, Nicklaus remembered his dream golfing technique and applied it to his real-life golf game!  

Numerous examples of dreams are recorded throughout history, helping writers, artists, scientists, and inventors create and solve their individual problems through their dreams!

EARLY DREAMS

Since the dawn of human civilization, sleep and dreams have captured the imagination of every culture that has ever existed on this great planet of ours.  From the ancient cave-dwellers to the present   homo sapiens, dreams continue to be an elusive mystery, like a beguiling temptress who is unwilling to reveal all her hidden secrets.  From the time when our earliest ancestors thought dreams to be special messages from the mysterious Great Beyond or that the soul journeys out of the body to visit and experience faraway places, dreams – even to this day – remain a puzzle to a great extent.
 
It is not a misstatement to say that dreams and dreaming have preceded humankind by countless eons!  How is that possible?  Simply because, humans are not the only creatures that sleep and dream.  Dogs, cats, rodents, and most other mammals that lived millions of years before humans, also slept and stirred in their dream-states.  

DREAM SCIENCE  

The International Institute for Dream Research studies dreams from around the world, including Africa, India, Europe, North and South America, China, Australia, Canada, and the United States.  This fascinating study of dreams is called “oneirology,” and researchers study and monitor dreams with the aid of an electroencephalograph, which calibrates brain activity (EEG).

Electroencephalographs measure the depth of sleep, from Stage 1 through Stage 4, which is the deepest level of sleep.  (Some sources list five stages of sleep.)  Studies have shown that dreams may occur in any of these four or five stages of sleep.  The study of dreams is an expansive, global endeavor with vast, sometimes, over-whelming findings:  the daily volume of dreams and dreaming on planet Earth totals around 27-billion dreams from all people, per day!  Dream science endeavors to study humans on the deepest level.

WHY WE DREAM  

From all these mountains of data and decades of scientific study, there is still no general consensus among dream researchers as to why we dream, or what (specific) significance dreams play in our lives.  There is only a widely-diversified abundance of theories.  At one time, dreams were thought to be of zero importance.  The prevalent scientific viewpoint today has rendered that erstwhile assessment as grossly antiquated.  The modern, sweeping consensus among scientists is that dreaming is as much a “critical survival need,” that is as much a requirement as food, drink, and breathing.   ‘Smart science’ seems to point out that the enormous amount of time the human body/mind spends in a dreaming state would suggest that there must be a critical reason for nature to dictate such a necessity for all humankind.

It is not shocking to state that without sleep, we eventually perish.  It appears equally true that everyone – for reasons that are not always clear – must dream.  This ‘surmised necessity’ to dream has bred intriguing theories.  Ernest Hoffman, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Newton Wellesley Hospital, in Boston, Massachusetts, puts forth one theory:  “A possible (though certainly not proven) function of a dream is to weave new material into the memory system in a way that both reduces emotional arousal and is adaptive in helping us cope with further trauma or stressful events.”  Other theories also accord dreams the same function as “stress-relievers.”  Sleeping and dreaming relieves the human anatomy from accumulated stress, lowering our risks of high blood pressure, hypertension, obesity, and  even cancer!  (Sleep) deprivation, for the workaholic, for example, results in (dream) deprivation, and strong science says this combination may carry fatal consequences.  Replicated studies show – beyond a doubt – a frightening statistic:  not allowing oneself adequate sleep (and subsequent stress-releasing dream episodes) causes a higher level of substances in our blood which warn of inflammation.  This is a large risk factor for a number of fatal conditions, including stroke, and various heart diseases.  Such deprivation makes the body create a “low grade inflammation” which makes you more susceptible to these illnesses.  For example, dreams are viewed as “stress valves” which release excess strain through totally uninhibited fantasies.  Without adequate sleep, which produces adequate dreams, the human body (and psyche) will inherit that much more stress accumulation, which in turn creates problems regulating sugar due to a lack of hormone control.  This, by itself, increases a person's risk for diabetes.

Studies also indicate that less important dreams seem to occur during the first few hours of sleep.  This may be the time when the brain is “dumping” or ridding itself of stress and fatigue that it has collected over the course of a day (or week).  In this regard, dreams seem to replenish and refreshen physiological and mental resources.  In this sense, the dream state allows us to cleanse, then “recharge our biological batteries” in many different ways, while we sleep.  

Neuroscientist, Mark Solms, gives additional reasons for dreams.  He theorizes that, “Dreams protect sleep.”  According to Solms, we need sleep to replenish ourselves, so dreams might be a way to let you sleep by distracting our brain from the outside world, allowing the body to rest, undisturbed.  According to Solms, “In other words, dreaming does for the brain what Saturday-morning cartoons do for the kids:  It keeps them sufficiently entertained so that the serious players in the household can get needed recovery time.  Without such diversion, the brain would be urging us up and out into the world to keep it fully engaged.”  

It is amusing imagery to see the analogy of dreams serving as a kind of “rodeo clown,” diverting the attention of the brain (the bull) by showing it images (dreams) so that the brain will ‘look’ at these images and not urge the body to get up out of a sound sleep and “do something.”  The necessity to dream is a very real one, for many profound bio-chemical reasons all of which the body requires to live.  We must sleep or we die; and dreams protect our need to sleep, by allowing us to do so, unperturbed.

Some dream scientists believe that our dreams are of a great necessity because it may also be the way our brain protects itself from completely “shutting down” when we are asleep.  Many of our essential body parts (heart, brain, nervous system, etc.) must constantly function if we are to survive.  So, when we are unconscious, the brain manufactures and creates “mental pictures and sound” during dreaming so that it (the brain) can remain fully active and remain stimulated while in a dormant state.  In a sense, the brain goes into a “survival mode.”  

DO WE GO CRAZY EVERY NIGHT?

On the surface, the following may cause some discomfort.  Almost all dream researchers are in absolute, total agreement that during the dream state, we hallucinate.  As Dr. Solms (Ibid) puts it,  “Dreams are a delusional hallucinatory state.”  And because dreams are of a hallucinatory nature (often bizarre, irrational, and sometimes nightmarish), it has been conjectured by some dream researchers and
neuroscientists, that when we dream, we may very well go “temporarily mad,” or to use the legal term, “insane.”  If this theory holds water, then this transient state of mind could very well serve as another “release valve” for all of our accumulated daily pressures, stress, emotional traumas, near-death experiences, and personal tragedies such as mourning a lost loved one.   According to this theory, events that are near-impossible to deal with on a normal  conscious level, can be coped with better through our dreams, which allow us to hallucinate and “blow off steam” in a most irrational manner!  There are many other reasons as to why we dream, and science is still trying to find answers for this enormous phenomena that lives within all of us.

DO ALL OF US DREAM?
           
One thing that dream research is in total agreement on is that we all dream.  (Some medical conditions may amend this statistic, such as those in a coma or vegetative state, etc.).

All vertebrates (animals with a segmented spinal column) sleep, to some degree, and most must dream as well.  In all normal human life, we all dream, and our dreams are uniquely our very own.

One of the most common fallacies is that some people rarely, or never, dream.  This misconception is commonly repeated today.  The primary reason some people believe they rarely (or never) dream is because they may not remember dreaming and, therefore, will assume dreams never occurred.  It is an
irrefutable scientific fact that all people dream, multiple times, every night.  Since dreams occur in the subconscious level of our minds, they sometimes “evaporate” before they are picked up by our (conscious-level) memory when we awake.  Test subjects in dream laboratories can better remember their dream content if they are awakened during an actual dream cycle, or close to it, or if their dream is particularly vivid or intense.  Otherwise, at least 95% of all dreams are not remembered.  

One particularly intriguing finding is that women tend to have better dream-recall than men.  Also, according to a recent article in Newsweek magazine, your ability to remember your dreams may depend on your personality type.  Research indicates that introverts seem to remember their dreams better than extroverts.  Why this is so is not exactly clear, except that introverts have the tendency to be more introspective (reflecting on one’s own thoughts and feelings), perhaps enabling them more apt in retrieving inward reflections, such dreams, which arise from the innermost subconscious level.

To better study dreams, subjects are monitored with sophisticated attachments, such as electrodes from electroencephalographs.  These devices can detect exactly when a dream is in process, and the duration.    Dreams almost always occur during a stage of sleep known as REM (rapid eye movement)
during which our eyes move involuntarily.  

HOW LONG DO DREAMS LAST?  

Another very popular misconception is that all dreams only last a few fleeting seconds.  According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the average person may dream a total of one to two hours per night!  And our individual dream episodes may last anywhere from a few fleeting seconds to 45 minutes or longer!  Since one-third of our lives are spent in sleep, that is a large chunk out of our (conscious) existence!  And the elusive dreams comprise a good portion of that time.

DREAM
INTERPRETATION. 

This is a realm of great controversy and heated discussion, among laypersons as well as the scientific community at large.  It must be made clear from the onset that there is no specific methodology of dream interpretation that can be construed (reliable) for each and every human being on the planet.  A
particular dream episode may mean different things to different individuals.  There is no such thing as “one dream-interpretation fits all.”  That is the unanimous opinion from the most august members of the scientific world.  Mountains of books on the interpretation of dreams are to be found almost everywhere, and not all sources are in synch as to how dreams should be analyzed.  

The earliest interpretations were obviously made by various cave-dwellers.  More modern theories were begat by such luminaries as Sigmund Freud (Sigismund Schlomo Freud, b. 1856) in his celebrated book, “The Interpretation of Dreams” (1899 original title:  “Die Traumdeuntung”), and Carl Gustav Jung (b. 1875), and many subsequent figures too numerous to mention.  
       
In the realm of dream interpretation, one cannot always minimize or disregard its significance. Especially if one is of a Christian persuasion.  The Bible is replete with dreams which carried divine meanings.  So much so, that a whopping one-third of the holy Bible pertains to visions and dreams. In the Gospel of Matthew, the first two chapters contain five dreams, all of which have essential advice or warnings.  For global Christianity, dreams and their interpretations can never be ignored; it is an integral part of their religious faith.  Dreams are so overwhelming within the Christian faith that  exaggeration is hard to come by.  For example, Scriptures mention dreams and visions no less than 224 times!  The Christian God consistently spoke to man through dreams, and the alleged Son of God (Jesus) was foretold in a dream.  Many of the world’s religious faiths lay claim to divine dream interpretation.

DREAMING IN COLOR
 
Dream content shows that 70% to 80% of our dreams contain color, though we may not always remember the color aspect when we awake.  That may be the reason why many people claim to dream mostly in black and white.  In the mid-20th century, Sigmund Freud’s research showed that most people he studied claim to only dream in black and white.  Part of that finding is faulty due to the ‘evaporation of color recall,’ that modern researchers discovered (as mentioned above).  Also, in Freud’s time, media images were often in black and white, impacting – to some degree – the dream content of the time.

PHYSICAL CHANGES
DURING DREAMS

Odd findings occur during our respective dream states.  For example, all men experience penile erections while dreaming (regardless of dream content, sexual or non-sexual).  

In the normal sleep mode your hair and fingernails grow slower, because the heart rate slows down and body functions shift into a near shutdown level.  Skeletal muscles relax, body temperature drops, our nervous system restricts our range of sensory perception.  Alertness is greatly diminished.  Our body and brain are now ready to get a “tune-up.”  Our body’s immune system goes to work on repairing the day’s damage (wear and tear).  The endocrine glands – like auto repair mechanics – also go to work:  they start to secrete growth hormones in the case of children and young adults.  Blood is sent to the muscles to be reconditioned.  But as part of our overall “tune-up” and “servicing,” dreams must come into play as “stress relievers” and to serve countless other functions (as previously described).  When we transition  
into REM sleep and begin to dream, our eyeballs suddenly start to move and jerk erratically back-and-forth as if we are watching something underneath our closed eyelids (and we are!).  Blood pressure rises, heart rate speeds up, respiratory functions become irregular, and our brain activity livens up as a car that is given new sparkplugs!  While in this dream state our involuntary muscles start to become paralyzed (or immobilized).  This stage of dreaming is when the body and mind is restoring itself most efficiently.  The body is also maintaining our chemical balance, as well.  
     
Like animals, human beings sometimes experience twitching in their extremities while dreaming. Though our legs may twitch, we do not move them while in a dream state.  This temporary physical paralysis (when dreaming) is a radical and astonishing physiological change while in REM sleep that has proven to be a pivotal point of intense worldwide study by neuroscientists and dream researchers!  To this day, it remains – by and large – a great puzzlement.  Science can explain the general process, but it does not know the “why” and the “how” in scientific detail.  
 
Evolution may have eliminated most early humans, as well as animals, that twitched or thrashed about too much during their dream cycles.  Such actions would certainly have alerted any predator of the time, jeopardizing the life of any animal or human who did so.  Animals and humans are most vulnerable during their dream states to any outside attacker.  Therefore, it is suspected by scientists that, eons ago, evolution made extinct those animals (including humans) who exhibited too much physical movement during their dream patterns.  Nature’s ‘pruning’ of extreme body-twitchers (that may have once been in great numbers) would fall under Charles Darwin’s ethos:   Survival of the Fittest (aka Natural Selection).
However, all in life is never perfect.  We still have the rare occurrences of sleepwalking, known as somnambulism (aka noctambulism).  However, sleepwalkers (somnambulants) are not in the dream state (REM) at all, but only in deep sleep (usually stages 3 and 4).  One of the biggest public misconceptions is that sleepwalkers are dreaming – they are not.  This erroneous belief is so prevalent, on a global scale, that I thought it necessary to mention it here (as a non-dreaming episode).  Though I am certain there will be those who will persist (either from alleged personal experience or urban legend) that sleepwalkers are in a state of dreaming.

HOW MUCH SLEEP/DREAMS DO WE NEED?

One of the most popular questions asked is, how much sleep does a person need, and how many dreams do we require for a healthy life?  This is a critically important question, and one should always consult their personal physician, as each person differs, according to their individual needs, etc.  And since sleep and dreams are inextricable, we shall discuss them both together.  

Scientists cannot give an exact formula for every person, pertaining to their required amount of sleep/dream time.  However, it is of vital importance that one should know that serious lack of sleep has been associated with increased risks of diseases because our immune system is lowered.  Studies reported in the journal “Current Biology” in 2008, found that increased medical risks are associated with  lack of adequate sleep, including stroke.  As far as the recommended amount of sleep, experts say many factors come into play, including a person’s health and age.  A convenient breakdown (on average) has infants requiring about 16 hours of sleep per day; teenagers, 9 hours; most adults from 7 to 8 hours nightly.  According to a study in the journal “Sleep,” (Feb. 1, 2010), older people need less sleep, about 7.5 hours nightly (on average).  Roughly half of all people over the age of 65 have some sort of sleeping problem, such as insomnia, etc.  Researchers are not clear if this is due to aging, or an admixture of medical problems in elderly people, combined with medications and other treatments they may be  undergoing.  Taking occasional naps is strong science for maintaining good health.

While sleeping, dreams automatically ‘kick in’ to replenish the mind/body (as needed).  So, while sleep may be a problem (insomnia, etc.), dreams will be portioned out once an individual is in the sleep mode.  

Bottom line:  adequate sleep will trigger adequate dream episodes.  

There are many untapped topics of dreams and sleep, such as narcolepsy, night terror (aka “pavor nocturnes,” a dream state), insomnia, and sleep apnea – to name but a few – that cannot all be covered in the space allotted.  Perhaps this article will serve as a starting point for one to continue any further quest regarding dreams and sleep.

Health education articles, such as this one, are given in the hope that many people might benefit from them, and live a better, more productive life.