The Wonderful Mysteries of Dreams
Monday, February 6, 2023

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Sleep researchers divide up sleep time into stages, mainly defined by the electrical activity of cortical neurons represented as brain waves by an electroencephalograph (EEG). The EEG records electrical activity in the brain by connecting surface electrodes to the scalp. The stages of sleep occur in sequence and then go backward to stage 1 and REM-sleep about 90 minutes later. This cycle recurs throughout the night with the REM period typically getting longer at each recurrence. Typically, a person will have four or five REM periods a night, ranging from 5 to 45 minutes each in duration. There is some evidence, however, that REM-sleep evolved before dreaming and that the two are independent of one another. Nowadays, hardly anyone believes that dreams are messages from the gods. But some parapsychologists, such as Charles Tart, believe that dreams offer entry into another universe, a paranormal universe of OBEs, cosmic messages, and blissful nirvana. His main evidence for this seems to be his personal faith and an anecdote about his baby sitter. He claims the unnamed baby sitter (he calls her "Miss Z") had the power to leave her body during sleep. He claims he tested his flying babysitter in his sleep lab at UC Davis after she told him that she "thought everyone went to sleep, woke up in the night, floated up near the ceiling for a while, then went back to sleep." Other psychologists might have been concerned for the mental well-being of "Miss Z" and the safety of his or her children. Tart was intrigued. He put a number on a shelf, hooked up "Miss Z" to an EEG machine and put her to bed. She claims that even though she didn't read the number on the shelf, she flew around the room the first few nights. She didn't get the number right until the fourth night. Skeptics think either Tart is making up the story or it took the girl four nights to figure out how to trick the scientist. Others have investigated the question of whether the mind is open to telepathic input during sleep and have failed to find evidence of psychic ability while dreaming.  From the 1940s to 1985, Calvin S. Hall collected more than 50,000 dream reports at Western Reserve University. In 1966 Hall and Van De Castle published The Content Analysis of Dreams in which they outlined a coding system to study 1,000 dream reports from college students. It was found that people all over the world dream of mostly the same things. Hall's complete dream reports became publicly available in the mid-1990s by Hall's protegee William Domhoff, allowing further different analysis. Personal experiences from the last day or week are frequently incorporated into dreams.



The visual nature of dreams is generally highly phantasmagorical; that is, different locations and objects continuously blend into each other. The visuals (including locations, characters/people, objects/artifacts) are generally reflective of a person's memories and experiences, but often take on highly exaggerated and bizarre forms.


The most common emotion experienced in dreams is anxiety. Other emotions include abandonment, anger, fear, joy, happiness, etc. Negative emotions are much more common than positive ones.

Sexual Themes

The Hall data analysis shows that sexual dreams occur no more than 10% of the time and are more prevalent in young to mid-teens. Another study showed that 8% of men's and women's dreams have sexual content. In some cases, sexual dreams may result in orgasms or nocturnal emissions. These are colloquially known as wet dreams.

Recurring Dreams

While the content of most dreams is dreamt only once, many people experience recurring dreams—that is, the same dream narrative is experienced over different occasions of sleep.

Up to 70% of females and 65% of males report recurrent dreams.

Color vs. Black and White

A small minority of people say that they dream only in black and white.

Dream interpretations

Dreams were historically used for healing as well as for guidance or divine inspiration. Some Native American tribes used vision quests as a rite of passage, fasting and praying until an anticipated guiding dream was received, to be shared with the rest of the tribe upon their return. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung identified dreams as an interaction between the unconscious and the conscious. They also assert together that the unconscious is the dominant force of the dream, and in dreams it conveys its own mental activity to the perceptive faculty. While Freud felt that there was an active censorship against the unconscious even during sleep, Jung argued that the dream's bizarre quality is an efficient language, comparable to poetry and uniquely capable of revealing the underlying meaning. Fritz Perls presented his theory of dreams as part of the holistic nature of Gestalt therapy. Dreams are seen as projections of parts of the self that have been ignored, rejected, or suppressed. Jung argued that one could consider every person in the dream to represent an aspect of the dreamer, which he called the subjective approach to dreams. Perls expanded this point of view to say that even inanimate objects in the dream may represent aspects of the dreamer. The dreamer may therefore be asked to imagine being an object in the dream and to describe it, in order to bring into awareness the characteristics of the object that correspond with the dreamer's personality.

Relationship with Medical Conditions

  • There is evidence that certain medical conditions (normally only neurological conditions) can impact dreams. For instance, some people with synesthesia have never reported entirely black-and-white dreaming, and often have a difficult time imagining the idea of dreaming in only black and white.
  • Therapy for recurring nightmares (often associated with posttraumatic stress disorder) can include imagining alternative scenarios that could begin at each step of the dream.

Dreams and Psychosis

A number of thinkers have commented on the similarities between the phenomenology of dreams and that of psychosis. Features common to the two states include thought disorder, flattened (i.e. diminished) or inappropriate affect (emotion), and hallucinations. Among philosophers, Immanuel Kant, for example, wrote that "the lunatic is a wakeful dreamer." Arthur Schopenhauer said: "A dream is a short-lasting psychosis, and a psychosis is a long-lasting dream." In the field of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud wrote: "A dream then, is a psychosis," and Carl Jung: "Let the dreamer walk about and act like one that is awake and we have the clinical picture of dementia praecox."

McCreery has sought to explain these similarities by reference to the fact, documented by Oswald, that sleep can supervene as a reaction to extreme stress and hyper-arousal. McCreery adduces evidence that psychotics are people with a tendency to hyper-arousal, and suggests that this renders them prone to what Oswald calls "microsleeps" during waking life. He points in particular to the paradoxical finding of Stevens and Darbyshire that patients suffering from catatonia can be roused from their seeming stupor by the administration of sedatives rather than stimulants.

Griffin and Tyrrell go so far as to say that "schizophrenia is waking reality processed through the dreaming brain."

Lucid Dreaming

Lucid dreaming is the conscious perception of one's state while dreaming. In this state a person usually has control over characters and the environment of the dream as well as the dreamer's own actions within the dream. The occurrence of lucid dreaming has been scientifically verified. Oneironaut is a term sometimes used for those who lucidly dream.

Dreams of Absent-Minded Transgression

Dreams of absent-minded transgression (DAMT) are dreams wherein the dreamer absentmindedly performs an action that he or she has been trying to stop (one classic example is of a quitting smoker having dreams of lighting a cigarette). Subjects who have had DAMT have reported waking with intense feelings of guilt. One study found a positive association between having these dreams and successfully stopping the behavior.

The "Dream World" and the "Real World"

During the night there may be many external stimuli bombarding the senses, but the brain often interprets the stimulus and makes it a part of a dream in order to ensure continued sleep. Dream incorporation is a phenomenon whereby an actual sensation, such as environmental sounds, are incorporated into dreams, such as hearing a phone ringing in a dream while it is ringing in reality or dreaming of urination while wetting the bed. The mind can, however, awaken an individual if they are in danger or if trained to respond to certain sounds, such as a baby crying. Except in the case of lucid dreaming, people dream without being aware that they are doing so. Some philosophers have concluded that what we think of as the "real world" could be or is an illusion (an idea known as the skeptical hypothesis about ontology). There is a famous painting by Salvador Dalí that depicts this concept, titled "Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening" (1944). 


"Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second

Before Awakening."    Salvador Dali, 1944

The bayonet, as a symbol of the stinging bee, may thus represent the woman's abrupt awakening from her otherwise peaceful dream. This is an example of Sigmund Freud's influence on surrealist art and Dali's attempts to explore the world of dreams in a dream scape. The bee around the smaller pomegranate is repeated symbolically. The two tigers represent the body of the bee (yellow with black stripes) and the bayonet its stinger. The fish may represent the bee's eyes, because of similarity of the fish's scaly skin with the scaly complex eyes of bees. The elephant is a distorted version of a well-known sculpture by Bernini that is located in Rome. The smaller pomegranate floating between two droplets of water may symbolize Venus, especially because of the heart-shaped shadow it casts.  It may also be used as a Christian symbol of fertility and resurrection. This female symbolism may contrast with the phallic symbolism of the threatening creatures. It has also been suggested that the painting is a surrealist interpretation of the Theory of Evolution.  Enjoy more of the Magic of Dali in our Art section.


The first recorded mention of the idea of the real world being an "illusion" was by Zhuangzi, an influential Chinese philosopher who lived around the 4th century BCE.  It is also discussed in Hinduism makes extensive use of the argument in its writings. It was formally introduced to Western philosophy by Descartes in the 17th century in his Meditations on First Philosophy. Stimulus, usually an auditory one, becomes a part of a dream, eventually then awakening the dreamer. The term "dream incorporation" is also used in research examining the degree to which preceding daytime events become elements of dreams. Recent studies suggest that events in the day immediately preceding, and those about a week before, have the most influence.

Recalling dreams

The recall of dreams is extremely unreliable, though it is a skill that can be trained. Dreams can usually be recalled if a person is awakened while dreaming.  Women tend to have more frequent dream recall than men. Dreams that are difficult to recall may be characterized by relatively little affect, and factors such as salience, arousal, and interference play a role in dream recall. Often, a dream may be recalled upon viewing or hearing a random trigger or stimulus. A dream journal can be used to assist dream recall, for psychotherapy or entertainment purposes. For some people, vague images or sensations from the previous night's dreams are sometimes spontaneously experienced in falling asleep. However they are usually too slight and fleeting to allow dream recall. At least 95% of all dreams are not remembered. Certain brain chemicals necessary for converting short-term memories into long-term ones are suppressed during REM sleep. Unless a dream is particularly vivid and if one wakes during or immediately after it, the content of the dream will not be remembered.

Déjà Vu

One theory of déjà vu attributes the feeling of having previously seen or experienced something to having dreamt about a similar situation or place, and forgetting about it until one seems to be mysteriously reminded of the situation or the place while awake.

Apparent Precognition

According to surveys, it is common for people to feel their dreams are predicting subsequent life events. Psychologists have explained these experiences in terms of memory biases, namely a selective memory for accurate predictions and distorted memory so that dreams are retrospectively fitted onto life experiences.  The multi-faceted nature of dreams makes it easy to find connections between dream content and real events. In one experiment, subjects were asked to write down their dreams in a diary. This prevented the selective memory effect, and the dreams no longer seemed accurate about the future. Another experiment gave subjects a fake diary of a student with apparently precognitive dreams. This diary described events from the person's life, as well as some predictive dreams and some non-predictive dreams. When subjects were asked to recall the dreams they had read, they remembered more of the successful predictions than unsuccessful ones.


Jacob's dream of a Ladder of Angels, c. 1690, by Michael Willmann

Popular Culture

Modern popular culture often conceives of dreams, like Freud, as expressions of the dreamer's deepest fears and desires. In films such as Spellbound (1945), The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Inception (2010), the protagonists must extract vital clues from surreal dreams. Most dreams in popular culture are, however, not symbolic, but straightforward and realistic depictions of their dreamer's fears and desires.  Dream scenes may be indistinguishable from those set in the dreamer's real world, a narrative device that undermines the dreamer's and the audience's sense of security and allows horror movie protagonists, such as those of Carrie (1976), Friday the 13th (1980) or An American Werewolf in London (1981) to be suddenly attacked by dark forces while resting in seemingly safe places. In speculative fiction, the line between dreams and reality may be blurred even more in the service of the story. Dreams may be psychically invaded or manipulated (Dreamscape, 1984; the Nightmare on Elm Street films, 1984–1991; Inception, 2010) or even come literally true (as in The Lathe of Heaven, 1971). Peter Weir's 1977 Australian movie "The Last Wave" makes a simple and straightforward postulate about the premonitory nature of dreams (from one of his Aboriginal characters) that "...dreams are the shadow of something real".


"The Knight's Dream", 1655, by Antonio de Pereda

Such stories play to audiences' experiences with their own dreams, which feel as real to them. If the dream-state is a gateway to anything, it is probably a gateway to current personal fears and desires, rather than to ancient ones of other people. We assume dreaming has a purpose, but that purpose is more likely to be rooted in this life than in some other one. Any decent theory of dreams must try to explain why the brain stimulates the memories and confabulations that it does. It is most likely that dreams are a result of electrical energy that stimulates memories located in various regions of the brain. Why the brain stimulates and confabulates just the memories it does remains a mystery, though there are several plausible explanations. Explanations in terms of the paranormal and supernatural are not as likely to have merit as those that limit themselves to biological and emotional mechanisms linked to brain activity.

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