People have been writing about dreams for millennia, and yet still today no one knows why we dream, but there are plenty of theories.
Ancient cultures took dreaming very seriously. Tribes all around the globe shared dreams daily, relying on dream insight for survival. Dreaming could literally mean the difference between life and death.
In ancient Egypt people believed their dreams were oracles bringing messages from the divine. People with vivid and significant dreams were considered special and blessed. The ancient Egyptians had dream beds upon which they would sleep, hoping to receive divine messages and healing.
Homer makes reference to the Greek personifications of dreams, the Oneiroi, in the Iliad; and, in the Odyssey he presents dreams as true or false narratives of future events.
The Bible is littered with references to dreams. In Matthew 2:13 we read that an angel of the Lord appeared to Jospeh in a dream telling him to flee with Mary and Jesus because Herod was coming to kill the baby. In Numbers 12:6 the Lord declares he’ll speak to prophets in their dreams: And the LORD said to them, “Now listen to what I say: “If there were prophets among you, I, the LORD, would reveal myself in visions. I would speak to them in dreams.”
Throughout history, we find people taking dreams really seriously. Then, in the late 19th and early 20th century, Freud puts dreams at the centre of psychoanalysis, claiming that dreams are the royal road to the unconscious, revealing the core of a patient’s issues.
Carl Jung rejected many of Freud’s theories, while expanding on Freud’s idea that dream content relates to the dreamer’s unconscious desires. Jung claimed dreams are important messages that can uncover and resolve problems and fears.
Since the 1950s, scientists from the fields of psychiatry, psychology, neurobiology and other disciplines have been researching dreams. Decades later, and still no one knows why we dream. Some say dreaming serves no purpose, while others say dreams are of paramount importance for well-being.
Dreams remain one of life’s great mysteries.
The dreaming brain
The Limbic System
The limbic system is located in the centre of the brain, and is responsible for managing emotions waking and dreaming worlds. It’s most typically associated with fear, thanks to the functions of the amygdala, and is particularly active during sleep cycles and REM sleep. This might explain why we experience intense pleasant or unpleasant dreams, or how a particularly impactful dream can effect our emotions for days, weeks and years later.
The Visual Cortex
We are incredibly visual creatures, relying on our sight for most of our tasks. This is helped by the visual cortex, at the rear of the brain, which is one of the most active parts of the brain during dreams. Maybe this explains why blind and partially sighted people can sometimes ‘see’ clearly in their dreams, depending on when sight was lost. It also explains the complex and visual nature of our experiences during REM sleep.
The Frontal Lobes
The frontal lobes of the human brain are responsible for logic, reasoning and criticism, and they are least active during dreams. This is why we can accept dream visions and impressions that have no logic. At the same time, dopamine is surging and there are often intense emotional experiences.
Daydreaming, mind wandering and sleep dreaming all involve the part of the brain that activates when everything else has quieted down. Mind wandering and daydreams are involving the medial prefrontal cortex and medial temporal lobe. During REM dreams, you’re also the visual cortex so you’re having these more intensely visual experiences.
Dreaming is memory processing, allowing us to consolidate learning and pass information from short term to long term memory. Experiments have shown that memory is less reliable when sleep patterns are irregular, and that the brain-stem, which transfers fluid to and from the brain, is particularly active during REM sleep, and it has, on a number of occasions, been associated with the storing and sorting of long-term memories.
Dreams are a reflection of our waking lives.
Dreams allow the mind to work through difficult and challenging thoughts, emotions and experiences for emotional and psychological balance.
Dreams are the brain’s response to biochemical changes and electrical impulses that occur during sleep.
Dreams are the brain’s way of preparing us for challenges and danger.
Dreams are a form of consciousness connecting past, present and future and, taking information from past and present to help prepare the future.
Dreaming is vital for well-being.
Science is making great strides in catching up with spirituality. Dreams may be all of the above, and more! Whatever science can or cannot prove, there’s no denying that dreams and dreaming have always been a huge part of life.
Whatever your personal view about dreaming and scientific theories, direct personal experience is the best proof of the power of dreams and dreaming. It’s only from working consciously with our dreams that we can begin to unravel the mystery of dreaming and dreams, and truly benefit from their potential and power.
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