Do dreams have any real meaning for us?

Dreams are mental activities which occur when we sleep. Everybody has them, although we may not always remember them. The question is, do our dreams actually mean anything to us? The two main theories of why we dream are psychological theories and neurobiological theories.

Psychological theories offer an explanation of the meaning behind our dreams. Freud (1900) produced a psychoanalytic theory which suggested that the unconscious mind expresses itself via dreams and so, as a result of this, the content of a person’s dream can uncover their unconscious thoughts. One reason to suggest why we dream is due to the need to repress our unconscious mind. Our primary-process thought (irrational unconscious thought- the id) is unacceptable to the conscious mind and so must be relegated to our dreams (repression). Therefore, without dreaming, levels of unconscious thoughts would become intolerable and would threaten our sanity. Another meaning dreams have for us is to fulifl our wishes. Freud thought that the reason for dreaming was to fulfil our wishes which could not be satisfied within the conscious mind. Dreams therefore allow us to complete wish fulfilment while protecting us from the content (primary-process thought). Furthermore, Freud believed that the content of our dreams is represented through symbols. Through dreamwork, the latent content is converted into a more discrete form known as manifest content. Dreamwork therefore carries out symbolism which replaces ideas or actions with symbols while we sleep.

On the other hand, the neurobiological theory provides that the experience of a dream is an epiphenomenon, in other words, a by-product of neurobiological processes within the brain. The majority of dreams take place in conjuction with rapid eye movements; therefore, they are said to occur during REM sleep (taking up 20-25% of total sleep period). Hobson and McCarley (1997) proposed that the neurobiological activity associated with REM sleep can account for what we experience as dreams. During REM sleep, the brainstem generates random signals that are indistinguishable from external stimuli. During the synthesis part of the process, dreams are produced. This happens when electrical signals from the brainstem (activation) reach the prefrontal cortex in the brain, essentially, these areas in the brain try to make sense of stimuli which is recieved. Electrical signals are mixed with images from our memory which is the reason why our dreams are often bizarre. Hobson (1988) stated that the dreams we experience, according to the neurobiological theory, have no inherent meaning yet they may hold meaning to the dreamer due to the fact that they are derived from our memories. Thereofore, the activation-synthesis hypothesis assumes that the dreams we experience are as meaningful as they can be, taking into the account that they are generated by random impulses.

Many reserchers have argued in favour of each of these theories, making it difficult to decide on the greatest approach. Zhang (2005) suggested that a combination of the two theories provides the best explanation of the nature of our dreams, therefore the continual-activation theory was proposed by Zhang offering a bridge between both of the approaches. Zhang states that the brain must remain constantly active. Activity levels drop during sleep and once this happens, the continual-activation mechanism is triggered in order to generate a stream of data (similar to activation). As well as this, other activities occur during sleep at the same time; data is transferred from temporary to long-term memory, and the unconcious mind processes memory. Zhang believed this aspect of the theory possibly fits with Freud’s psychoanalytic theory.

In my opinion, I believe Zhang’s theory of continual-activation may be the best approach to explaining the nature of dreams, what do you think?


Nathalie :]


About Nathalie Lauren Joyce

19. First year @ Bangor University. Psychology Blogger.

18 responses to “Do dreams have any real meaning for us?

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  3. Pingback: Q&A What are dreams/nightmares? | Dream On Dreamer

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  5. elsa

    Want symbols of dreams and why we dream things that is upsetting us

  6. Many researchers have been trying to find out the functions and symbols of dreams. Though there are many theories, researchers have not exactly found out the reasons we dream and whether the contents of dreams have directly something to do with our everyday life. The first theory came up by a psychologist, Sigmund Freud. Freud explained that what is in our dream is the “repressed longing”: the suppressed thoughts and desires that we are usually unable to express socially (1) . Carl Jung also supports Freudian ideas especially the origin of dreams, but except for one important principle. What Jung sees different is that dreams enable us to see ourselves as well as solve our problems (1) . The third theory, “activation-synthesis hypothesis”, proposed by Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley in 1970’s takes a very different view compared to Freud and Jung. They claim that dream consists of random images which are stored as a memory in our head. These random images, dreams, are created by “nerve signals sent out during REM sleep from a small area called the pons” (4) .Though there are many theories to solve the representation of dreams, the recently study in 1997 by Mark Solms using fMRI and PET seem to lean toward Freudian theory. Solms studied people with a brain damage, and concluded that the most active place during sleep was the part which controls emotion regardless of the differences in brain damages (4) . Though many researchers including Solm do not necessarily see Freudian ideas as completely valid, they do believe that unconscious thoughts may be projected on our dreams (4) .

  7. Pingback: Deciphering dreams – different perspectives «

  8. I like the idea that dreams are a way of encoding the information that was picked up throughout our conscious time in the day. I can also agree with Zhang when it is stated that the brain is converting short-term to long-term memories. According to the multi-store model of memory (Atkinson & Shiffrin, 1968, 1971) the way to transfer memories between short and long term is to rehearse the information. This may be the way that long term memories are created as the brain is replaying the events in the short term memory that were created the previous day. However if this were true then in the morning the dreams would be strongly remembered as they are all in the long term memory. As I can now see that the idea of dreams and their purposes can have many alternative explanations and as yet there is no sure way of knowing their purpose. Very interesting topic I feel.

  9. PsychThoughts

    I too agree with Zhang’s theory, i believe that during the day, so much happens to us and there is so much stimuli processed by the brain that when we close our eyes and put our body to rest, the brain takes this time to sort out all the information absorbed during the day. Its sort of a filing technique where it takes all the useful information and stores it in different components of the brain. During this very active time in our brains, the electrical signals may convert the most significant memories into dreams. And as Freud pointed out, we have subconscious thoughts which may also be fired up by the electrical signals and be converted into dreams too. This may be why we sometimes dream about things that were on our mind during that day or things that happened a long time ago. The more peculiar dreams may be made out of distorted memory or memories which are not coded into proper ‘files’.

  10. I also agree that the theory by Zhang does provide a good bridge between the other two theories. It would be obvious that the brain continues to be active during sleep showing in the form of dreams. Its fascinating the way images from the unconscious, may be presented in confusing and sometimes bad dreams. The fact that some times we remember dreams and other times we cant remember any of them is a difficult one to explain, could it be said that this means we didnt have any dreams/REM sleep, or would it be that we had dreams of the thoughts that were described as being repressed by the unconcious mind. Overall I think dreams don’t have any particular meaning to us. Also the theories that Freud created about the interpretations of dreams cannot be falisfied, yet the neurobiological theory described can be tested by analyising the brain during sleep and is therefore more scientifically valid.

  11. Zhang’s research is clearly written and the theory makes sense. However it seems apparent that no primary evidence is provided of the theory. He is seldom referenced in academic literature, indeed I only found him in a page on dreams in Wikipedia, and some casual dream interpreting websites.
    Domhoff (2001) conducted research on different areas of dreams, using cognitive tests and introspection to measure dream recall and other cognitive variables, collected data to find correlations. This research found that wish fulfillment was not present in dreams, and also surprisingly an absence of dreaming during rapid eye movement phases.

    Domhoff (2001)

  12. I also believe that Zhang’s theory seems like the more reliable theory. I believe that we dream about the things that have happened that day, and the things that we are thinking about before we go to sleep. For example if we were to watch a nature program before bed and we were still thinking about this when before we fall asleep then it is likely that we will dream about animals. Things that happened during the day or things that have been on our mind for a while then start to appear in the dreams, we try and work out what has happened and why it is happening yet, we cannot seem to do so as we either wake up or a new dream starts. If something is troubling us and we do not know what to do to resolve the issue, I believe that it is best to sleep on the matter to be sure that the correct decision is made. As I believe that sleeping on the matter allows you to review the situation from a different perspective when you are sleeping, allowing you to come up with a better answer in the morning.

    • I have no comment as far as the blog goes; but:

      I dream of flying/levitating high in the sky over buildings and fields going to different places. When a dream is in one place, and if I close my eyes (in that dream) I can be transported to a different place in that dream. If I’m having a bad dream, I can take myself out of it by waking myself up; but, if it’s a nice dream and I’m waking up, but want to stay in it longer, I can’t stop myself from waking from it. I hear songs/melodies/words to songs in my dreams that I’d never heard before. And I can also have “a dream within a dream”. I wonder if psychological theories can offer an explanation of the meaning of my dreams!?

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