Questions About Dreams

Q

Dreams are highly perplexing and we all know all of the questions that people regularly ask about them, those being what do they mean, and why do we have them? The answers to these questions are uncertain and have resulted in a lot of debate on the topic with theories ranging wildly depending on which psychological camp you’re speaking to – psychodynamic theorists believing them to be our unconscious desires, with biological explanations claiming that we are just interpreting the random firing of pons.

However these are only two questions about dreams, and actually there are many other things about dreams that are unexplained or seemingly nonsensical that we simply take for granted in the dream world. Things operate differently in dreams, so the question is, what does this tell us about how they work or what they are? Here we will look at some interesting questions about dreams, and how this dialogue can help shed light on what dreams are and how they operate.

Why aren’t we aware we are dreaming?

In a lucid dream, practitioners will try various techniques to be able to make themselves aware that they are dreaming so that they may freely explore and manipulate their dream state. The question is though, why don’t we already know we’re dreaming? Why when the world is warping around us and giant rabbits fall out of the sky, don’t we notice that something is amiss and we’re actually sleeping? As per usual there is not one answer, but several suggestions. One of these is that our brain tends to accept what it sees as real, even if it is incongruous with our understanding of reality. You can see this when you hallucinate – although you are seeing highly bizarre things, the person having the experience will often still act as though they are real. Another theory, though less supported, is that our dream state is something that we have experienced since childhood and as such our brain thinks nothing of it. We were dreaming in fact before we knew what ‘normal’ was, so it’s no surprise that we never found it alarming or unusual.

How long do dreams last?

Often we are reliably informed that dreams in reality last little more than a few moments. This however seems to make no intuitive sense, as often dreams can seem to last for hours or even more than a day as the sheer epic scale of certain dreams seem to go on for days, weeks or more. So what’s going on?

Interestingly the reason for our loss of a sense of time, is that our brain is making the input as it happens. Our idea of time is based purely on outside events – the ticking of a clock or how long it seems to do things. When we are sleeping however all of these markers are internal and created by your mind, and nothing is limited by speed – you can drive around the world in half a second. This means that your brain can create everything in seconds and show it to you in sequence and you’re thereby left to guess how long it took based on how much happened. Interestingly this demonstrates how the speed at which time seems to pass by is dictated simply by how quickly we process information. It’s not just dreams that cause us to lose track of time either, but other similar experiences such as psychedelic experiences (trips) where it’s possible to have ‘moments of eternity’ where you in fact eel as though you’ve lived for hundreds of years.

Why do we have recurring dreams?

Recurring dreams are not fully understood but many dream interpreters believe that their message is more important than those of other ‘normal’ dreams and that the dream recurs until you understand the message. It is likely that the dream is caused by something that is have a large impact on your waking life and is thereby finding its way into your unconscious, however in some cases it seems that recurring dreams will come out of nowhere with no real warning and for no real reason. This doesn’t mean they’re not based on something important, but there is not necessarily logic either to the when or the why they start recurring. At the moment they remain one of the many mysteries surrounding dreaming.

Why are some dreams more common than others?

As well as our own dreams reoccurring, often it seems as though there are dreams that we all share, and that are almost universal experiences. We’ve all had that dream where we turn up to an exam having done no revision right? And we’ve all dreamed we’ve been naked in front of our friends and family (the very unlucky dream they are naked in their exams). Likewise we’ve almost all experienced dreams where we’ve been flying above the clouds. So where do these dreams come from?

Well actually this is an easy one to answer, and basically this is simply symptomatic of the fact that we all have so many shared experiences in our lives where we’ve experienced high emotion and so the memories make their way into our dreams. We’ve all been in exams, and most of us were terrified. Thus it makes a great metaphor for anxiety for our mind.

At the same time though it might also go deeper than this and could be at least partly to do with the Jungian psychology, or the monomyth. Both of these theories describe constant themes that reoccur in narratives in our dreams, and which are based on some of the most fundamental aspects of the human condition which are cross cultural. Jung often described this as a ‘universal unconscious’.

Why do we have nightmares?

Nightmares are the ‘dreams that go bad’ – the ones with the unfortunate outcomes where we are chased by monsters or by other adults and where we eventually end up moments from death before we wake up. Just like life, it seems that sometimes things go wrong so it seems to make sense that our dreams would also reflect this. However the power of nightmares is so incredibly strong that we wake up often sweating or shaking and it’s a kind of primal fear that we often don’t encounter in our waking lives. It’s easy then to think this must be more than just an ordinary dream and is a phenomenon in itself. The precise reason for these things is unknown, but it could be that all emotion is heightened in our sleep and that that simply includes fear, it could be that its to do with changes in our body temperature and our environment and that its maybe a survival mechanism, it could be to do with our brain producing hormones such as adrenaline in our sleep, or it might alternatively be caused by somehow tapping into some primal part of our brain stem linked with our most basic fears.

Why do we jolt in our sleep?

Many of us do it – just as you start drifting off to sleep you suddenly jolt upright or left or right, and wake again. This is called sleepstart and again isn’t fully understood, but is most likely caused by our brain misinterpreting the relaxation of our muscles as our falling or losing grip. We then jolt awake in order to prevent ourselves from falling – which probably was a very useful survival trait when we used to sleep in trees on branches.

Why don’t we act out our dreams?

When we go to sleep many changes come over our body. Among these are the shutting down of the motor cortex in our brain which is responsible for movement. This then prevents us from moving around in our sleep, and is again something that has happened to protect us and to prevent us from harming ourselves or others. In some rare cases individuals will wake up and be temporarily unable to move still in what is known as ‘sleep paralysis’. In other cases sometimes the sleep paralysis fails and we end up sleep walking and talking. Interestingly when we do act out our dreams in a sleep walking scenario, often they seem to be performed in ‘real time’ which seems incongruous with the fact that we dream ‘super quickly’ (as mentioned earlier). One likely explanation is that the act of moving itself gives us the ability to recognise the actual speed of our dreams.

Do blind people dream?

People who have been blind from birth would have no ability to recognise what sight would ‘look’ like and so wouldn’t be able to conceptualise it for a dream. Does this mean that blind people don’t dream? No, in fact they do dream, but only in sounds, smells and sensations – each of which is more heightened and intense than it would be for us. Of course in theory the eyes are not necessary in order to visualise and imagine images, but this doesn’t help the blind to see as they will likely have experienced their occipital lobe – the lobe used for site – deteriorating through lack of use, and having no experience in how to function.

What language do the multilingual dream in?

Dreams can be in any language and might occur in several. As a general rule the individual will dream in the language they use on a day to day basis and the language they think in. However they will also likely dream in other languages from time to time and this can occur even if their language is not fluent. Interestingly often we will dream not really in a language at all, but in images and sounds that we will interpret as language.

Why do we often not remember dreams?

We generally accept the fact that dreams are hard to remember, but when you think about it this is actually rather puzzling. Often you’re dreaming that you’re flying or running away from an explosion… surely that’s the sort of thing that you’d remember? Again the answers here are unfortunately not terribly forthcoming and there’s no one accepted explanation as to why dreams are so easy to forget. However the theories suggest such ideas as the fact that we don’t remember dreams because we can’t pay attention to them in the same way, or because being in a different mental state robs us of the ability to lay down memories.

These are just a few questions about dreams and many more remain, in particular the huge question of why we dream at all that still hasn’t been satisfactorily answered, or why they are the way they are. Hopefully these few questions and answers have helped to illustrate though just how strange the dream world really is, and how much we still have to learn.

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