Dream Interpretation: Myth or Science?

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PET scan of a normal brain: Image by Maryana Pinchuk

The innerspace of our mind is just as mysterious and amazing as outer space, and the unconscious nature of dreams adds to the intrigue. Recent research into neuro-plasticity and unconscious processes is refuting some old assumptions about the meaning and purpose of dream states, and providing new evidence that some old theories were remarkably predictive.

Frequency of Dreams

We are unlikely to question the need for, or existence of, conscious thought, as we are aware of our conscious thoughts.  But we have often heard someone say, “I never dream!”  What we don’t consciously remember, we assume our brain hasn’t processed.  Quite the contrary:  in the past 50 – 60 years scientists have discovered that we remember a mere fraction of our dreams.  Two researchers at the University of Chicago (E. Aserinsky and Nathaniel Klietman), in the 1950s discovered that everyone cycles through repetitive sleep stages approximately every 90 minutes, with each cycle including an episode of Rapid Eye Movement (REM).  When the researchers woke participants during REM, they reported about five dreams per night on average.  This clarified that REM was the dream stage of sleep, and that dreams are best recalled through short-term memory.  This new information resulted in a flurry of research to determine the purpose of all this unconscious brain activity.

Dreams and Unconscious Thought:  Jung’s Ideas

Prior to brain imaging technology, subjective reports of memories of dreams were the only means to examine them, so speculation came from various spiritual and scientific directions.  Carl Jung, in a lecture to the Institute of Medical Psychology in London, in 1935, spoke of consciousness as the product of sensation and perception and our orientation to the external world, with unconscious processes such as memory consolidation and personality differences affecting conscious thought.  Jung believed that dreams were the most accessible source of the individual’s symbolic self, and that they held valuable information for understanding individuals and their personalities.  He believed that our dreams provide a valuable link between our abstract, complex, and symbolic thought and more primitive, pictorial, or concrete thought.  These ideas are very close to those emerging through the hard science of today.

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