What Is the Point of Our Dreams?
“Yes: I am a dreamer. For a dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.”
― Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist
Daylight rescues me daily. From the inferno of my dreams.
The wisteria watches over me lazily as it sways in the afternoon breeze of Tuscany. The sky has a few curious clouds hanging around but for the most part, we have what I would mark as the perfect day to write about haunting dreams.
Last night the dream was spectacular. I saw a volcano suddenly erupt and I was standing right under it as the ball of fire shot up like a skyscraper into the sky. The colors were vivid, the force of the blast was magnificent and the fear was palpable. The heat from its blaze woke me up. Thankfully, It was dawn. I got out of bed and for a few minutes could not get the memory out of my mind. This was not one I wanted to repeat but It was one of a kind. I had never seen a volcano erupt in my dreams.
Curious, I looked up the news and I saw that a volcano had just erupted in Congo. The Mount Nyiragongo volcano outside Goma in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo has started to erupt, according to the DRC government and the Goma Volcano Observatory. Nyiragongo’s last eruption in 2002 killed 250 people and left 120,000 homeless. It is one of the world’s most active volcanoes and is considered among the most dangerous.
It was uncanny to know that I had dreamt of this without having seen or heard about this before. It has happened to me a few times when I have dreamt of natural disasters and then read or watched them unfold in real-time.
The mystique of our dreams deserves some respectful investigation. Let's step back and set them in the context of what happens when we sleep.
What are the stages of sleep?
When you sleep, your brain goes through natural cycles of activity. There are four total stages of sleep, divided into two phases:
- Non-REM sleep happens first and includes three stages. The last two stages of non-REM sleep are when you sleep deeply. It’s hard to wake up from this stage of sleep.
- REM sleep happens about an hour to an hour and a half after falling asleep. REM sleep is when you tend to have vivid dreams.
As you sleep, your body cycles through non-REM and REM sleep. You usually start the sleep cycle with stage 1 of non-REM sleep. You pass through the other stages of non-REM sleep, followed by a short period of REM sleep. Then the cycle begins again at stage 1.
A full sleep cycle takes about 90 to 110 minutes. Your first REM period is short. As the night goes on, you’ll have longer REM sleep and less deep sleep.
1. How do dreams develop?
Most dreaming occurs during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which we cycle through periodically during the night. I was surprised to learn that our brainwaves are almost as active during REM cycles as they are when we’re awake. Experts believe the brainstem generates REM sleep and the forebrain generates dreams. As we dream our body also undergoes some specific physical changes.
1a. During REM, you lose muscle tone so that you don’t act out your dreams and hurt yourself.
1b. You can’t regulate temperature by sweating or shivering, so your body temperatures drift toward the temperature of your room.
1c.Your breathing and heart rate become irregular. Men can get penile erections during this phase.
1d. Your pupil constricts, possibly serving to protect your eyes if you’re exposed to brighter light.
2. Why do dreams seem so bizarre?
This may have to do with neurotransmitters or brain chemicals. Some are more pronounced, while others are suppressed, during REM sleep.
Acetylcholine (which maintains brain activation) is more prominent, as is dopamine (which some researchers link to hallucinations). Dopamine may help to give dreams their surreal quality.
In addition, testosterone levels begin to rise on falling asleep, peak at about the time of first REM and remain at the same levels until awakening. Several studies have indicated strong testosterone levels help preserve brain tissue as people grow older, and have also been linked to better memory retention in older men. Another study, from 2014, found increased testosterone had a “profound effect” on the brain’s ability to quickly identify and react to threats.
This testosterone surge can be useful to explain the theory about recurrent bad dreams and is called the threat simulation theory. According to this theory, dreams are an ancient biological defense mechanism that aims to repeatedly simulate threatening events, presumably to prepare people for threats they might face in their waking life.
The relationship between space and time also changes when we dream. Time may seem to last forever — or pass by very quickly.
Meanwhile, REM sleep suppresses the neurotransmitters that usually keep us awake: histamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. Thus, we’re less conscious of our environment.
3. Do dreams mean anything?
This is where Dream analysis giants like Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud become invaluable sources of insight.
“Dreams are impartial, spontaneous products of the unconscious psyche, outside the control of the will. They are pure nature; they show us the unvarnished, natural truth, and are therefore fitted, as nothing else is, to give us back an attitude that accords with our basic human nature when our consciousness has strayed too far from its foundations and run into an impasse.” — Carl Jung
Whilst Freud thought that dreams expressed forbidden wishes that had to be disguised (he differentiated the manifest content of a dream — what was on the surface, from the latent content — what was hidden), Jung saw dreams as the psyche’s attempt to communicate important things to the individual, and he valued them highly, perhaps above all else, as a way of knowing what was really going on. Most critically, dreams for Jung were also an important part of the development of the whole personality — a process that he called individuation.
Our dreaming mind is a cauldron of neurochemical cocktails that contains a lot of secrets that we have yet to fully discover. They might be serving a biological purpose keeping us alert to dangers or serving a more psychological role of manifesting hidden facets of our psyche. In either case, they are exposing the truth that there is so much more to learn from looking inside ourselves. I will let Carl Jung have the final word when he regards dreams as a little bit ahead of the dreamer’s consciousness.
“I have noticed that dreams are as simple or as complicated as the dreamer is himself, only they are always a little bit ahead of the dreamer’s consciousness. I do not understand my own dreams any better than any of you, for they are always somewhat beyond my grasp and I have the same trouble with them as anyone who knows nothing about dream interpretation. Knowledge is no advantage when it is a matter of one’s own dreams.”