The nature and function of dreams

There is a state of consciousness in which one could be or experience anything imaginable. This state encompasses the ability to dream. The dream state is quite remarkable and incorporates infinite possibilities for the dreamer within each of us. Nietzsche (1844-1900), a German philosopher, points out that dreams were a puzzle since “the ages of rude beginning of culture” when “man believed that he was discovering a second real world in a dream…” The question that human beings were wrestling with since then is: why do we have dreams and what, if anything, do they mean. On the one hand, there are a number of prominent scientists, such as Drs. Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley of Harvard University, who argue that we dream for physiological reasons only and that dreams are nothing more than “meaningless biology” lacking any psychological content. The opposing view comes from a large number of psychoanalysts that follow Freudian thought. They believe that we dream for psychological reasons and that any dream can and should be interpreted because it is a road to our unconsciousness. Following Sir Richard Burton’s observation that “truth is the shattered mirror strown in myriad bits; while each believes his little bit the whole to own,” I will take a middle ground position in regards to current dream theories. This position recognizes that dreams might have physiological determinants, as well as psychological ones. Such an approach lets one explore the problem from more that one angle, thereby allowing a more “truthful” synthesis of the various pieces of our current knowledge of dreams. Before examining any dream theories, we must have some knowledge of the nature of dreams and of the stage of the sleep cycle during which dreams occur.

Dreaming is defined as “a sequence of sensations, images, emotions, and thoughts passing through a sleeping person’s mind”.The two important constituents of dreams are the sequence of perceptions and the presence of hallucinatory imagery, that is visual or auditory in nature. Dreams occur in the stage of the sleep cycle called REM sleep or paradoxical sleep. The subjects who awake from another stage of sleep called NREM sleep (occurs before REM sleep) do not describe their prior experience as dreaming.

According to biologists, consciousness is “an ability to react to the environment.” This ability is temporarily suspended during sleep and thus dreaming can be thought of as an unconscious process (5). Brain waves, eye movements, and muscle tone, are the three major measures of sleep that are used in its study. From the polygraph records of the two major stages of sleep, NREM and REM sleep, it is apparent that eye movement is much more intense during REM sleep (in fact, the letters stand for rapid eye movement). During wake periods, muscle tone is high relative to NREM muscle tone, which can be considered to be moderate. However, during REM sleep there is no significant muscle tone and the sleeper can be considered virtually paralyzed. The central paradox of REM sleep is that there is an increased responsiveness to sensory stimuli in the thalamocortical region of the brain (much like in the awakened state) despite the fact that there is a lack of cognitive responsiveness to sensory stimuli. Basically, our body is intensely responding, we are having all these emotions and images which seem so real….all while we are paralyzed from the neck down.