Frequently Asked Questions

1. What exactly are dreams? Why do we dream?

There are many ideas about what dreams are, some of which build on Freud’s ideas, and some of which dispute what he thought. There are some researchers who believe that dreams are not constructed for psychological reasons but rather represent random visual images conjured up by the mind during sleep, and in some cases dreams are put together by the brain simply to bring order out of confusion. But other ideas are that dreams are ways of expressing current interpersonal tasks, such as coming to terms with the ground rules of a new relationship. An example would be one in which an employee might have to learn to get along with a new supervisor. A dream about that relationship, or another relationship, might serve that purpose. Another frequently observed purpose of a dream is to work through a past experience of stress or trauma. We see this frequently in soldiers returning from combat who repetitively dream about an experience of combat trauma. Often, in the dream, the situation ends better than it did in actual life, reflecting the wish that things had come out differently. Another type of dream, reflecting a different purpose, may be one in which a person takes stock of where they are in life, a sort of state-of-my-mind dream. So if a person has experienced a loss, such as when a best friend has moved away, that person may dream about how sad he is, repeatedly, and slowly experience less sadness as nights pass, and perhaps new friends appear in dreams.

Another kind of dream involves problem solving, and there are various kinds of these, too. Some dream researchers believe that people dream in order to rethink problems from the day which constitute unfinished business. Some researchers believe that in dreams people can creatively solve problems which have been unsolvable during waking life. These can be, by the way, very complex, intellectually challenging scientific problems. The dreamer, in this instance, actually awakens, having dreamt of the solution to a puzzle. Yet another theory favored by some researchers is that in dreaming information is shifted from one form of memory system in the brain to another: short term memory becomes long term memory. Finally, some researchers believe that dreaming has a clean-up function, during which short term memories which are in reality junk can be processed and discarded from the mind.

The main points here are that dreams seem to serve many psychological purposes, that Freud’s original ideas have not been made irrelevant, and that there is still much to learn about what a dream is.

2. Why do I have nightmares as opposed to good or pleasant dreams?

Psychoanalysts would suggest that nightmares are dreams which are not sufficiently disguised so that forbidden wishes are too directly expressed, and that causes the dreamer to awaken. People who believe that dreams can reflect the process of knowing “who I am right now,” that dreams are ways of assessing the states of our minds, believe that nightmares are ways of representing such unpleasant times of life. And those who believe that dreams are ways of working through past traumas, reprocessing them, trying to gain a sense of control over them, will see nightmares as potential pathways to mastery. Some people have reported a changing repetitive dream, in which over time a nightmare becomes a dream which is more pleasant, in which a potential disaster is averted.

3. Why does it seem that I wake up immediately after a dream, or wake up in the middle of one?

There are many factors that contribute to waking during or after a dream. If the dream occurs at the end of a night’s sleep you are probably rested and ready to arise. The content of the dream can also contribute. At the end of the night dreams are most vivid, and if there is unpleasant material, that will be experienced most vividly and wake you. Then, since dreams can serve all sorts of pleasurable and unpleasant purposes, from painful working through of trauma to triumphant problem solving, dreams can stimulate us to awaken for many different reasons.

4. How much dreaming do I do a night? If I have multiple dreams, why do I not remember all of them?

Everyone dreams about two hours a night, and dreams can last from about five to twenty minutes. As the night goes on dreams become more vivid. So by the time morning comes, most of us are having our most vivid dream, and additionally, we are rested and ready to wake up. For that reason we are likely to wake from a dream toward the end of a night’s sleep, and because we do, along with its relative vividness, we are more likely to remember it than a dream early in the night. However, people can be trained to remember their dreams, and psychoanalysts often have experiences with patients who develop the ability to remember and report their dreams, from throughout the night, more effectively as a psychoanalytic therapy progresses.

5. Can I control my own dreams?

While most of the time we cannot control our dreams, it is actually the case that for some people the experience of dreams is that they know they are dreaming and can introduce characters and behaviors during a dream.

6. Can I only dream when I am asleep?

This is a very interesting question from a psychoanalytic point of view. The answer is yes and no. The neurobiological conditions for dreaming occur only in sleep, yet empirically psychoanalysts observe that when people daydream their mental activities sometimes are very similar to what they report when they are asleep and dreaming. For example, the solving a scientific riddles during sleeping dreams is observed among scientists who go into a state of waking reverie, and experience visual imagery similar to what they experience when asleep.

7. Are dreams influenced by one’s actions or life?

There are many waking experiences which influence us when we construct our dreams. These include processing memories, working out waking relationships, working on creative ideas, and dealing with past traumas. Since recent life experiences also provide us with the background scenery of a dream (the day residue), it is clear that one’s actions or life influence the content of dreams in that way, as well.

8. Do other animals dream?

Yes, there is abundant evidence that other mammals dream, as do birds.

9. Can certain circumstances determine if I dream more, or less? And what is the relationship of dreaming to REM sleep?

Dreaming seems to be an inevitable accompaniment of sleep. We know that at times during sleep the eyes move rapidly, as if they are tracking the visual images of a dream. This phenomenon, known as Rapid Eye Movement, or REM, is related to dreaming, but the exact nature of the relationship is still being explored. We also know that if sleep is disturbed by certain conditions, such as depression or insomnia, dreaming sleep will also be reduced.

10. Can dreams affect my mood and attitude during the day?

As you can imagine, your experience as a dreamer can affect your mood and attitude in many ways during the day. If you solve a problem during dreaming, you may feel better when you awaken, and if you learned about something more effectively when you dreamt, you similarly may feel better all day long. These are just a couple of examples.

11. Can some dreams warn me of something that is going to happen in the future?

Not in some mysterious or supernatural sense. Dreams do not foretell the future. However, dreams are involved in many complex mental activities, so you can appreciate the possibility that a dreamer can awaken with an insight into the likely outcome of a situation, and feel appropriately forewarned about a course of action he was previously considering. In past times some people have believed this is a supernatural phenomenon, but scientific research indicates that is not the case. When dreaming aids cognition it may help us define a successful course of action.

12. Is it possible that I and someone else can have the same dream?

Basically, if that happens, it is a chance phenomenon. The dream work operates in too complex a fashion for more than one person to actually have the exact same dream.

13. There are a lot of newspaper and magazine stories on new discoveries about dreams, and about whether they have any meaning. Can you tell me about whether there is evidence that dreams have meaning?

It is now known that dreams usually, but not always, occur during REM sleep.  REM sleep is casually generated by the pons, a structure in the brainstem.  Certain neurotransmitters generated in this area turn REM sleep on and off about every 90 minutes.

Some dream researchers (e.g., Hobson) argue that all there is to dreaming is the forebrain trying to make sense of random images generated by the stimulation generated in the pons – and that no higher mental or emotional processes cause dreaming.  But Solms argues that this cannot be so, because patients with pons damage still dream, and patients with certain forebrain damage (specifically, the limbic system – the emotion center) do not dream, showing that higher processes are involved after all in generating dreams.  More specifically, it’s the dopaminergic SEEKING motivational system that causes both dreams and hallucinations when this system is overstimulated, as during REM sleep.   Visual processing areas of the brain are also involved in dreaming.

Solms summary of the neurobiology of dreaming is as follows:  dreaming starts with activation of consciousness by the SEEKING motivational system in context of paralysis of action during sleep.  Because action is paralyzed during sleep, the stimulation shifts to perceptual systems resulting in the hallucinations we call dreams.  In Solms’ view, the neuroscientific evidence on dreaming is compatible with Freud’s dream theory that dreams have meaning, although the evidence doesn’t prove or disprove that Freud’s theory is correct.