Dream Interpretation: Myth or Science?


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Dickens' Dream: A painting by Robert William Buss

Hard-Working Brain, Resting Body

We are resting physically while we dream, and are partially paralyzed. Our eyes, however, are moving back and forth, and our brains are hard at work.  Positron-emission tomography (PET) scans are used by researchers to observe which brain areas are active during the REM part of our sleep cycle.  Some areas of the brain are more active during dreams than during wakefulness.  Cortical areas responsible for visual imagery and perceiving movement, and the deep areas responsible for emotion, are more active during dreams.   Our bodies are virtually paralyzed while we dream, as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is partially deactivated, reducing the censorship inherent in logical thought and social judgment.  Thus we don’t usually react physically to threatening dream images, and we are freer to react from an emotional perspective than when awake.

The Brain’s Dream-Work

Today, psychological researchers tend to see dreams as another form of thought.  During sleep, brain chemistry changes and some areas of the brain are more active than others. This different kind of consciousness provides another way of perceiving the same issues that we are conscious of during our waking hours.  The logical, rational thinker accesses a more intuitive, emotional, perhaps spiritual part of their mind, and a different perspective on the day’s problems can emerge, producing new solutions.  This could also mean horrifying nightmare images emerge, without the cortical censorship’s safety measures of intellectualization and emotional denial.  Many examples exist of scientific or creative insights coming out of dreams, including Emitry Mendeleyev’s periodic table of the elements, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  This hard cognitive work is essential to our well-being in a practical sense, and also delves deep into our abstract, symbolic self, integrating new learning with old, and freeing our creativity.


Jung, C., Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Vol. 18. The Tavistock lectures: on the theory and practice of analytical psychology. Lecture 1. Princeton University Press. (1976). 904 p. (p. 5-35).  Accessed December 14, 2011.

Dierdre Barrett.  The Committee of Sleep:  How Artists, Scientists, and Athletes Use Dreams for Creative Problem-Solving – and how You Can Too.  (2001). Random House.

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