The interpretation of dreams has always been a subject of interest. Early explanations of dreams included the Greeks and Romans believing that dreams were messages from the gods, and the Chinese thinking our souls left our bodies and entered the dream world. In the early 19th century, dreams were dismissed from the interpretation and regarded simply as noises heard. In contrast, asleep or indigestion, until the late 19th century when Sigmund Freud revived the importance of dreams and the need for them to be interpreted.
In this essay, I will cover explanations of dreams, including Freud’s theory of repressed subconscious, Hobson and McCarley’s activation-synthesis and Crick and Mitchison’s theory that we dream to forget. Freud revolutionized the study of dreams by stating that dreams were “disguised fulfilments of repressed wishes” (Freud, S. (1900) The Interpretation of Dreams). Typical of the Psychodynamic approach, Freud believed that our unconscious desires, primarily sexual, drive us. Those desires or urges which are considered inappropriate are suppressed and are then later represented in our dreams.
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Through dreaming, we are able to gain an insight into our unconscious, which occurs in two ways; the manifest and the latent content. The manifest content is the actual content of the dream, and the latent content is the hidden meaning behind the dream. For example, climbing up a set of stairs or shooting a gun may represent sexual intercourse. Freud stated that elongated objects that appear in our dreams, such as weapons, represent the penis; similarly, hallow objects such as tunnels represent the vagina. Psychoanalysts will always come up with a relevant explanation for the dream content and symbols.
Calvin Hall (1966) agrees that dreams have symbols within them; however he believes these symbols are not hidden and are unique to the individual and the meaning they apply to it. Kohler and Borchers (1996) conducted a study that supports Freud’s theory of our dreams being our subconscious. In contrast with Freud, another explanation of dreaming is Hobson and McCarley’s activation-synthesis (1977). The introduction of this theory changed the perspectives people had about dreams. From conducting experiments on animals, it has been shown that during REM sleep (Aserinsky and Kleitman (1953)) the cortex is highly active despite receiving little external stimulation; however it is isolated due to the spinal cord blocking the signals, which effectively leaves us paralyzed.
As well as the cortex being cut off, there is an inhibition to signals produced by the sensory system. Due to all this activity happening in the brain during REM sleep, we try to interpret the signals and they translate into images. This may explain why we sometimes encounter bizarre features in our dreams. “The fact that the narrative of a dream, though some bizarre, is at least coherent must surely reflect interpretive processes, at higher levels of the brain trying to impose order or plausibility on the chaos of activity in the sensory area of the cortex” (Blakemore 1988).
A reason why we try to interpret these signals could be illusory pattern perception. This means the identification of a structured and meaningful relationship between a set of random or unrelated stimuli. (Shermer, M. (2010) Scientific American Mind Magazine). This could explain why we try to interpret the random signals given off by parts of the brain. Since we aren’t in control of these signals we try to regain control by looking for patterns to explain them.
Although the activation-synthesis theory has more scientific background than Freud’s, it focuses more on where dreams come from rather than why we have them. Crick and Mitchison (1983) expanded on Hobson and McCarley’s theory by explaining that dreams clear up our minds to stop an overload of information. They believe that the cortex comprises connected networks, like a spider’s web, and information is recalled from these networks when required. However, it malfunctions when there is too much information. To stop this overload, the brain needs a system that can clear out unnecessary information and keep important information, such as completing a maths problem.
Therefore dreams are merely just the process of our brains clearing up the mind. Crick and Mitchison (1983) explain that we shouldn’t try to recall dreams as these are what our brains are trying to remove, and by recalling them, they are remaining in our brains. Contrast, psychoanalysts like Freud explain that it is essential to remember our dreams as they could help us understand our subconscious. Alternatively, Dierdre Barret (1970) believes that our dreams aid us with problem-solving. In 1865 Friedrich August Kekulé dreamed of a snake forming a circle and biting its own tail. From this dream, he realized the chemical structure of Benzene which earned him a title of nobility in Germany.
In 1993 Barret conducted a study expanding on a previous study by Dement (1970). It involved asking college students to select a problem to try and solve in a dream. It was found that half of the students had dreamt about their problem and one quarter had even solved it through dreaming. There are many different theories regarding why we dream. Despite Freud’s theory being dated back to the 1900s, it is still considered one of the most dominant theories of explaining why we dream.
The major criticism with dream theories is that they are unfalsifiable as there is no one way yet discovered on how we can explain or interpret dreaming. Hobson and McCarley’s activation-synthesis (1977) theory and Crick and Mitchison’s (1983) theory of dreaming to forget are based on scientific research, unlike Freud’s work. In today’s society, we are more accepting of theories or ideas which have scientific backing to them. In conclusion, all the theories that are presented in this essay have some grounds for truth, however, due to the nature of the topic, it is difficult to distinguish the theories which give the best explanation of dreaming since no theory can be proven or disproven.