Are dreams just drivel?
How often have you woken up from a strange dream and thought “what was that trying to tell me”?
You might head to Google and look for advice on what your night-time visions meant, where you’ll probably find that dreaming about teeth is telling you that you’re anxious and lack confidence, while a forest suggests that you’re lost. Falling supposedly means you have no self-control, and being chased signifies cowardice.
Reading this, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the brain is something of a bully, sending us disturbing, cryptic messages to remind us of personality shortcomings of which we’re no doubt already aware. Bizarrely, one of the more positive things to dream about appears to be death, which many analysts say is a sign of change, fresh starts and newfound independence.
Are our subconscious minds really this unkind, though? Do they need to traumatise us with visions of passing away just to tell us that we’re on to something new?
The majority of people do believe that dreams are “portals to the unconscious”, at least in the U.S. In 2009, a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology revealed that more than half of Americans are of this opinion. The research was also carried out among Indians and South Koreans, with an even greater proportion (74% and 65% respectively) believing that dreams are trying to tell us something.
Of course, Sigmund Freud is largely responsible for this. His 1900 book ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ remains a go-to publication for scholars of psychology, and Freud’s work has crept into many art and literature degrees too. His idea of ‘wish fulfilment’ drew a useful comparison between visions during sleep and what’s on the mind, moving on from earlier ideas of dreams being messages from deities or a result of the soul leaving the body.
Today, however, Freud’s dream theory is often thought of as crude, contradictory and somewhat phallocentric, with fellow German psychologist Hans Eysenck being one of its fiercest critics. Indeed, research shows that the subconscious mind is not as mystical as many people think, and that dreams are more likely to be a case of your brain simply repeating some of the thoughts and experiences it had the day before. In short, the mind knows what it’s doing and perhaps we should give it a little more credit.
From personal experience, I believe dreams can also be heavily influenced by what’s going on around you while you sleep. As an example of this, I once fell asleep on the floor after a party at university (something that’s more forgiving on the body in the late teens than the early thirties) and had all sorts of peculiar dreams about cows and meat during the night. It would have been odd and unexplainable were it not for the fact that the first thing I saw when I woke up was a half-eaten burger. While your sight is lost during sleep, your other four senses remain intact. In this case, smell and perhaps taste (since it was probably me who eat half of the burger) affected my dreams.
In other cases, dreams could be affected by what you hear while asleep. At about the same age, I thought I might have a knack for predicting news and world events, often dreaming about news the night before it was announced. I wasn’t really a psychic though, just someone who often fell asleep with the TV on and took in whatever they were talking about on BBC News overnight.
Basically, this suggests that the worse you sleep, the weirder you dream. The most strange and nightmarish visions are usually the result of an overly active mind and a disturbed sleep. By sticking to a schedule, getting a sensible amount of sleep, having a quality bed, and keeping technology to a minimum in the bedroom, your mind is less likely to rebel as your body recharges.
John Murray has a keen interest in both psychology and sleep, for reasons varying between intrigue and downright laziness. He writes articles for HappyBeds.co.uk, one of the fastest growing online retailers of beds and mattresses.
-- Important: The Sleep Blog does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Instead, this website provides general information for educational purposes only. Always seek the advice of a qualified health care provider if you have questions or concerns regarding any medical condition or treatment.