The Psychology of Dreams

“Dreams are the royal road to the unconscious.” - Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (1899)


Every night we close our eyes and slip away from the real world, and enter another: the world of dreams. Whether they're terrifying, blissful, inspirational or just plain weird, everyone can give an account of dreams so vivid, they were on the brink of reality. But do dreams mean something? Are they subliminal messages sent from the subconscious mind? Can they help psychologists better understand their patients? Or are they just the random byproduct of a sleeping, hyperactive brain?


[Merriam Webster Online:]

  • Dreams: a sequence of images, emotions, and thoughts passing through a sleeping person's mind. Dreams are notable for their hallucinatory imagery, discontinues, and incongruities, and for the dreamer's delusional acceptance of the content and later difficulties remembering it.
  • REM (Rapid Eye Movement): The interval in the sleep cycle that dreaming occurs but other body systems are active.
  • Amygdala: The part of the brain that induces the fight-or-flight response.
  • Id: (Psychoanalysis) One of the three divisions of the psyche in psychoanalytic theory that is completely unconscious and is the source of psychic energy derived from instinctual needs and drives. [Figure 1]1
  • Ego: (Psychoanalysis) One of the three divisions of the psyche in psychoanalytic theory that serves as the organized conscious mediator between the person and reality especially by functioning both in the perception of and adaptation to reality. [Figure 1]
  • Superego: (Psychoanalysis) One of the three divisions of the psyche in psychoanalytic theory that is only partly conscious, represents internalization of parental conscience and the rules of society, and functions to reward and punish through a system of moral attitudes, conscience, and a sense of guilt. [Figure 1]
  • Manifest Content: according to Freud, the remembered story line of a dream (not a hidden content).
  • Latent Content: according to Freud, the underlying meaning of a dream (as distinct as manifest content.
  • Freud's wish-fulfillment: Dreams provide a "psychic safety valve"-expressing otherwise unacceptable feelings; contain manifest (remembered) content and a deeper layer content-a hidden meaning. But it lacks scientific support; dreams may be interpreted in many different ways.
  • Free association: method use if Freud’s psychoanalytical psychology. The patient is promted to say the first word that comes to their head after the therapist lists a term. This is supposed to give the therapist insight into the patient’s unconscious and stimulate the reveal of any information being repressed.
  • Hall-Van de Castle scale: an empirical method for classifying the dream report a patient gives based on a collection of 16 quantitative scales. Some of these are physical objects, like people and animals, while others are emotional, like emotions and desires.
  • Individuation: part of Carl Jung’s theory. It is when an individual manages to unify their unconscious and conscious to form a “whole” self.
  • Archetype: part of Carl Jung’s theory. They are universal symbols of certain aspects of human thought that often appeared in dreams.
  • Information-processing: Dreams help us sort out the day`s event and consolidate our memories.
  • Physiological function: regular brain stimulation from REM sleep may help develop and preserve neural pathways but it does not explain why people experience meaningful dreams.
  • Neural activation: REM sleep triggers neural activity that evokes random visual memories, which our sleeping brain weaves into stories. The problem with this theory is that the individual`s brain is weaving the stories, which still tells us something about the dreamer.
  • Cognitive development: Dream content reflects dreamer`s cognitive development, their knowledge and understanding and it does not address the neuroscience of dreams.

The Biology of Dreams

Chow, Ming Ho et. al. 2013. Rhythmic alternating patterns of brain activity distinguish rapid eye movement sleep from other states of consciousness. P Natl Acad Sci USA. 110(25): 10300-10305. Web.
Edwards, C. L. et. al. 2013. Dreaming and insight. Frontiers in Psychology. 4: 979. Web.

The human body’s natural “biological clock” is regulated by the feedback cycles of various neurotransmitters and hormones, functioning in the central nervous system:
• Melatonin is released by the brain’s pineal gland, and usually increases in concentration as a response to the triggering of light receptors in the eyes. This basically means that as darkness falls, melatonin is secreted from the endocrinal system, resulting in the gradual depreciation and “sleepiness” of bodily functions.
• Adenosine plays a crucial role in sleep regulation. Throughout the day, the chemical is secreted progressively secreted into the body, and as a result its levels increase and are at a daily high by the end of the day. During sleep, the body functions in the breakdown of adenosine.
• Serotonin is a neurotransmitter whose levels are lowest during dreams. High levels of serotonin negatively affect the brain’s ability to form dreams, and as a result they may be in incomplete and fragmented.


The sleep cycle [Figure 2]2 can be divided into a series of two interrelated processes: rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, and slow-wave sleep (SWS), which is more commonly referred to as non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep.

REM sleep, as the name implies, is characterized by the rapid and random movement of the eyes and paralysis of the major muscle groups. It is for this reason that it is referred to as paradoxical sleep. In addition to this, polysomnograms, which are instruments that are used to measure brainwave patterns during sleep, show heightened brain activity during REM sleep. The muscular immobility is caused by the release glycine from the brain stem, to the motoneurons. Somatically, the heart pulse and breathing rate quickens, the blood pressure rises and the individual becomes sexually aroused. It is in this particular state of sleep in which we experience our most vivid and intense dreams.

NREM sleep makes up the bulk of the sleep cycle. During this time, the body is primarily involved in the repair and regeneration of tissues. The immune system undergoes solidification, and there is a significant build up in muscle tone and bones. Dreaming also occurs during NREM sleep, although it is less structured and pronounced. Furthermore, dream recall during NREM sleep is limited, in comparison to REM sleep.

Dreams are the result of a hyperactive brain. Electroencephalographic (EEG) techniques are used to measure the electrical activity of the brain. These recordings display a shocking resemblance in the activity of the brain during wakefulness and during REM sleep. This basically means that, contrary to popular belief, the brain is not “resting” during sleep. In fact, it is absorbed in a process of self-renewal, with the development of new axons and dendrites. Scientifically speaking, the images seen during dreams are irrelevant to any psychological prospects; it is just the brain engaged in the recollection and processing of the previous day’s events and thoughts. Correspondingly, this is why infants are seen dreaming up to four times more than adults; it is an attribute of their crucial brain growth. Biologists conclude dream sleep (REM sleep) to be an essential contributor in brain growth and development.

This brings up a popular question: Do dreams mean anything? From a biological aspect, the simple answer can be concluded as no. There are many myths and theories, especially encountered in religion and culture, that dreams may indicate future events or that they may have underlying or subconscious meanings. However, in the rare occasion that one dreams of an event that does occur in the future, or may relate to the individual in another way, biologists explain this as a result of probability and chance. To put it simply, dreams are merely the indication that the brain is undergoing intense renewal and developmental processes, and nothing else.

Various Psychological Approaches to Understanding Dreams

There are three main fields in psychology that use dreams in therapeutic practices in order to understand more about their patients: psychoanalytical, humanistic and cognitive.

The Psychoanalytical Approach
Forrestar, J. (2008). Psychoanalysis and History. Psychoanalysis and History. Volume 10, Page 145-147 DOI 10.3366/E1460823508000135, ISSN 1460-8235

McLeod, S. (2005). Psychoanalysis. Simply Psychology. Retrieved from

The psychoanalytical (or psychodynamic) approach to psychology was founded by Sigmund Freud in the 19th century. Freud argued that all human problems and neuroses came from one’s inability to bring their unconscious thoughts and ideas into their conscious mind. It aims to confront repressed emotions and bring them to the attention of the patient. This is done through multiple therapeutic methods such as free association, where the therapist states a word and the patient must say the first thing on their mind, and dream interpretation. The idea of Psychoanalytic theory derived from the theory of personality. Psychoanalysis is something that is not used to often today, it requires a lot of commitment on the part of the patient and the therapist. To be able to qualify as a psychoanalytical therapist, the person trying to become this type of therapist must also go through a psychoanalysis because if they do not pass within the test they will not qualify to treat people because they will project their own problems onto their patient. This form of therapy allows one to uncover the problem by retracing the stages of psychosexual development. It brings the problem to consciousness, and allows the patient to gain an understanding or re-experience their repressed emotions. Many aspects of psychoanalysis are very subjective and try to understand what is happening within the unconscious by doing many projective tests that tap into you unconscious. The discovery of certain causes for behaviors is all found within the unconscious, which is notably found within dreams.

Sigmund Freud
Hall, C. S., & Lindzey, G. (1957). Freud's psychoanalytic theory John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Dream Theorists: Sigmund Freud. (n.d.). Dream Moods. Retrieved from


Sigmund Freud [Figure 3]3 was one of the few psychologists to believe that dreams may be more than just a series of images viewed by the sleeper, as science at that time had implied. This is evident from the publication of his book: The Interpretation of Dreams. However, this means that a bulk of the significance of dreams in psychology provides a strictly psychoanalytical approach.

Psychoanalysis is the branch of psychology that focuses on the idea that all actions are based on conscious or unconscious desires of the mind; hence, all occurrences are the result of previous actions and/or desires (i.e. nothing can occur “randomly”). This brought rise to the psychoanalytical approach in therapy, where the psychologists believe that by making the unconscious desires of the patient surfaced to the conscious, they can uncover subliminal motivations, and gain insight on it.

One of the main focal points of Freud’s theory was that, as humans residing in a civilized society, many of our urges and desires must be constantly suppressed. This does not mean that they are completely eradicated, rather they are simply concealed. It is for this reason Freud proposed that the unconscious mind must express these urges in a more subliminal and socially acceptable method.

Freud categorized the various phases of the mind into three distinct terms: id, ego and superego. During consciousness, the superego explicitly withholds the urges of the id. However, during unconsciousness, specifically sleep, the instinctive desires of the id are put into play. Therefore, psychoanalysis suggests that dreams are an indication of fundamental human desires and an attempt at their wish fulfillment.
Another issue that Freud addresses is the difficulty individuals have in dream recall. He states in his theory of repression that the brain blocks out these images, especially those that are unnerving and indecorous, as a form of self-preservation; that humans are not emotionally-equipped to consciously handle what the mind desires for.

With psychoanalysis, it branches off in many ways such as transference and interpretation that Freud had taken account for in therapy relating to dreams. With transference, the patient unconsciously transfers conflictual feelings about significant others onto the analyst. it is the way the patient interacts with the analyst is mainly a good clue as to how the patient feels towards the significant person. Interpretation is the analyst to doing the interpretation of the patient and their dream. The analyst interprets the patients problem, which takes quite a bit of time. When they feel the patient is ready to accept the interpretation that is when they present the information to the patient. When the theory of the patient is heard they are able to re-experience what they had went through. A projective test such as Rorschach Inkblot Test helps with the unconscious and what that person is feeling as well as interpreting a dream because it regards the unconscious thoughts that occurred during the night. It also helps to assess a person’s personality as well as behaviour. Depending on the past experience of a person they interpret the inkblots differently. The test gives the analyst an interpretation of the person, with regards to dreams when the patient does have a dream that startles them they tend to remember it more and when the ink test is being in effect they can see the true meaning of certain situations.

Alfred Adler
Foulkes, D. (n.d.). Adler's Dream Theory. Dream Research. Retrieved from

Adler, A. (1969). The practice and theory of individual psychology . Patterson, NJ: Littlefield, Adams.

Dream Theorists: Alfred Adler. (n.d.). Dream Moods. Retrieved from

Alfred Adler was an Australian psychiatrist who worked with Freud in his early years but separated from him in order to create an alternative to psychoanalysis called individual psychology. Adler was a firm believer in the human need to master tasks that comes from the helpless infant period. The mind develops as a way to begin achieving mastery; thus as mental activities, dreams are also present in the act of mastery. Adler sees dreams as a preparation for future situations, ones that will solve societal dilemmas rather then discharge repressed desires (like Freud assumed).

The obvious issue that comes about when looking at dreams as problem solving methods is that in most dreams there are rarely any clear problems. Adler tackles this by focusing on the mood or feeling of dreams rather then solely on the content. For example, there are many times that the mood of a dream can impact the mood of ones entire day but is quite ambiguous on how much these moods truly provide a solution to an interpersonal issue. He is also quite ambiguous on his opinion of perceptual symbols in dreams, once saying that they do not provide an accurate depiction because the individual is not equipped to solve problems in the state of sleep and once saying that dream imagery is so expressive that it is able to portray ones inner thoughts. Adler was not very fond of using dreams in therapy, because while dreaming, the patient follows the same though process that they do in the real world and therefore wouldn't provide any novel solution. However, modern Adlerian’s still uphold that dreams continue waking dilemmas and that they are consistent with the problems we have while awake but that they could be an asset to understanding the individual as a whole. For example, they can be seen as practice scenarios, showing us the possible outcomes to situations in order for us to repeat or avoid them. Although slightly inconsistent, Adler’s school of thought maintains that dreams are concerned with present and future experiences rather then with past, the process of dreaming is fuelled by ones adaptive need to better themselves rather then ignorant desires and finally that dreams are an overall projection of ones personality rather then a method to conceal it.

Carl Jung
Dotson, M. L. (1996). Jung's Theory of Dreams. Members Core. Retrieved from

Bulkley, K. (n.d.). Jung's Dream Theory. Dream Research. Retrieved from

Dream Analysis. (2013). Good Therapy. Retrieved from

Dream Theorists: Carl Jung. (n.d.). Dream Moods. Retrieved from

Carl Jung was mentored by Sigmund Freud in his youth. The two had a similar foundation for their psychoanalytical views but had various opposing ideas. Jung saw the unconscious as more spiritual rather then instinctive or sexual, like Freud did. Their main distinction however was in their interpretation of the meaning of dreams. Jung had claimed that the purpose of dreams was to compensate for those parts of the psyche that are not fully developed and maintain an awareness in the waking life. Jung regarded dream analysis as the best method for connecting with one’s unconscious and attempting to understand it. Unlike Freud, who maintained that dreams were ways of hiding repressed feelings from the conscious self, Jung saw them as a passage to the unconscious. He thought of dreams as a symbolic projection of the ideas occupying the unconscious, which is why he liked to focus on specific images in dreams rather then “free association”, like Freud did. He also showed great interest in not just the latent content of dreams, like Freud did, but the manifest content as well. He even developed a list of archetypes that were a universal symbol of human thought whom would often appear in peoples dreams in order to guide the individual to uncovering their unconscious thoughts. Jung believed that although dreams are highly personal and subjective to the individual, there were also some common symbols that would manifest like the archetypes, which he classified as "collective unconscious". Jung also believed that dreams consisted of an objective and subjective level: the former represents external relationships, while the latter represents feelings happening within one’s own mind. He thought dreams had two purposes: to compensate for imbalances in ones personality and to show possible events in the future. Ultimately, Jung believed dreams were the way for an individual to unite their unconscious and conscious self in order to complete the most important human process he calls individuation, or the total actualization of a being. He maintained that since dreams were so subjective, one needed to find their own meaning in a dream because that was more important then what anyone else believed. Despite this, he also put great emphasis on the importance of the archetypes and how they were universal symbols.

In Jung's dream analysis, there were three steps to using a dream to aid a clinical patient:

  1. The patient should have a written version on the dream, usually recommended to be done upon waking up. Even if one cannot remember all aspects of the dream, it is important to focus on what they can.
  2. It is necessary for the patient to understand their relationship to the objects in their dream and their function in the dream. Even if something seems like it is void of meaning, it could actually be exciting certain emotions within the patient's current situation.
  3. The most important part is that the patient understands the connection that each one of these associations has and understands how they are relevant to their present dilemmas. Thus by seeing a relationship between a certain dream object and the emotion it enticed in the patient, and comparing that emotion to previous experiences, a therapist can associate the two together and understand the patients unconscious better or find a potential solution to their issues.

The Cognitive Approach
Smith, E. E. (2001). Cognitive Psychology: History. International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioural Science. 2140-2147. Retrieved from

McLeod, S. (2005). Cognitive Psychology. Simply Psychology. Retrieved from

The cognitive approach to psychology was born out of psychologist's desire to understand how an individual functions and makes sense of the world through exploring their mind and its internal processes. It was born as an alternative to the behaviourist approach when many became frustrated with how much emphasis it placed on external factors and how it overlooked important internal ones. Cognition is literally translated as 'the process through which knowledge is acquired'. It focuses on how individuals process information, focusing on which variable impact the information coming into them (stimuli) and how the patient responds to this information (response). Such phenomena is often studied using experimentation because it is a largely quantitative approach to psychology. Cognitive psychologist prioritize the internal processes such as perception, thought formulation, memory and dreams. Although dreams are not normally a major area of cognition, there are a few who have taken on the topic and create significant contributions to the way dreams help patients.

Calvin Hall
Hurd, R. (n.d.). Calvin Hall and the Cognitive Theory of Dreaming. Dream Studies. Retrieved from

Hall, C. S. (1953). A cognitive theory of dream symbols. The Journal of General Psychology, 48, 169-186.

Hall, C. S. (1953). A cognitive theory of dreams. The Journal of General Psychology, 49, 273-282. Abridged version in M. F. DeMartino (Ed.). (1959). Dreams and Personality Dynamics (pp. 123-134). Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Dream Theorists: Calvin Hall. (n.d.). Dream Moods. Retrieved from


Calvin S. Hall [Figure 4]4was an American psychologist who focused purely on the images of dreams, giving his dream study technique the name of content analysis. He was a cognitive psychologist who believed that dreams were an extension of the thought process, making them part of cognition as well. He believed, like Jung and unlike Freud, that they give a way into exploring the unconscious and understanding a patients thoughts and behaviours and how they view their own life. In his The Meaning of Dreams (1966), Hall even writes, “The images of a dream are the concrete embodiments of the dreamer’s thoughts; these images give visual expression to that which is invisible, namely, conceptions.” (p. 95).

Calvin Hall believes that the images appearing in dreams can be divided into five sections that each relate to a main part of life:

• conceptions of self: how the patient views themselves and the roles they play in their life
• conceptions of others: the people in the patients lives and how they react in response to them and their desires
• conceptions of the world: the patients environment, more specifically is it desirable for personality cultivation or is it a void of any emotional connection, whether it be interpersonal or intrapersonal.
• conceptions of penalties: how the patient behaves in scenarios when something is forbidden or allowed and how that behaviour is influenced by the penalties present.
• conceptions of conflict: the patient’s inner struggles and problems and how they should act to resolve them.

Since he was a behaviourist, Hall maintained that when analyzing dreams, the encounters with this list of conceptions were direct projections of how one would act in the real world, so dreams were like a way to map out their future actions. He concludes that “with these maps we are able to follow the course of man’s behaviour, to understand why he selects one road rather than another, to anticipate the difficulties and obstacles he will encounter, and to predict his destinations.”

In partnership with Robert Van De Castle, Hall developed an empirical dream content analysis that classifies a dream report based on a collection of 16 quantitative scales. Some consist of more physical conceptions such as people, animals and objects while others are more subjective conceptions, like emotions, frustrations and sexual desires. This was referred to as the Hall-Van de Castle scale and was create in the 1960’s. It was significant because it introduced dreams as relevant to the study of the individual from a cognitive-behavioural standpoint. It has also been widely used to understand dreams, providing a foundation for “normal” dream cognition, allowing therapists to compare dreams found in specific patients (like a child suffering from abuse) to those found in average children. All in all Calvin Hall’s work was a great contribution to psychology because it allowed psychologists to view dreams from a quantitative standpoint that is both measurable and can be retested.

David Foulkes
Hill, Clara E., ed. "Dream Work in Therapy: Facilitating Exploration, Insight, and Action." Choice Reviews Online 41.06 (2004): 115-187. Print.

David Foulkes was another one of few psychologists that had followed under Freud's wing. He agreed with Freud's idea about REM sleep and progressed to present his own theory. Foulkes believes that the idea of dreaming is progressed and developed through age and cognitive achievement, leaving a thought that we develop the idea to dream. Foulkes came to the conclusion that REM sleep and dreaming are not the same thing. With that being said REM sleep functions can not be taken as dreaming and dreams. Freud assumed that "wish-fulfillment" was the reasoning behind every dream which Foulkes did not agree with but branched off with his own reasoning and studies. At first coming across the idea of wishful dreams he had concluded that Freud was right. But as he progressed with studying children Freud's theory became irrelevant because he collected from young children to provide strong evidence for Frued's original theory. Foulkes's five-year longitudinal study in the sleep laboratory of 14 children from the ages 3 to 8, which also came out with the same results of a study of 80 children from the ages of 5 to 8, which demonstrated that the amount of awakenings that occurred showed that the children all had bland dreams, unlike what Freud had concluded. Foulkes came to the conclusion as he had done most of his major testing on children that are brains are constantly growing and progressing where new ideas are developed and new images are engraved within the mind allowing cognitive development to progress. His theory as of many other psychologists, was that dream analysis is the window to the unconscious and can be subdivided into two levels; manifest content which is what the dream seems to be about, and latent content which is the unconscious, the hidden meaning or moral of the dream because it plays a symbolic and important role in determining what the dream symbolizes.

Foulkes came up with the idea of dream journals and how writing down what you had previously dreamed of allows one to tap into their unconscious. He explained that every part of a dream had a specific role of it being there. Dreams show a sequence of imagery, thoughts (subconscious and conscious), and emotions that pass within the mind during sleep. Foulkes came up with a known metaphor that explains the process of the brain and dreaming. The metaphor was that our mind works as a computer and at the end of the night the dreams are simply cleaning out the software of a busy day with the mind, it allows the brain to go "offline" and remove the excess information and store the useful parts within dreams in which the brain is subconsciously remembering. He had made a conclusion that many parts of our dreams were not mainly about the day but past memories that had taken place and only a bit of material that dealt with the previous day. Freud had noticed Foulkes' flaw about his technology example and named it "day residue", which the dreamer would eliminate what they assumed was not relevant to their current emotions and imagery which does not deal with actual events. Foulkes' made the conclusion that although some dreams do contain the most important people and concerns the dreamers life, it is nothing more than a story or memory created.

The Humanistic Approach
Giorgi, A. (1994). The idea of human science. In F. J. Wertz (Ed.), The humanistic movement: Recovering the person in psychology (pp. 89-104). NY: Gardner Press.

Association for Humanistic Psychology. (2001). Overview of humanistic psychology. Retrieved from

McLeod, S. (2005). Humanism. Simply Psychology. Retrieved from

The humanistic approach was created in response to Freud’s Psychoanalytical theory and B.F. Skinner’s Behaviourism. It focuses on each persons innate drive to self-actualization and unique characteristics. The humanistic approach uses a holistic method, which studies the individual as a whole rather than a collection of smaller parts that function together. It also puts great emphasis on personal agency, claiming that humans have free will and an innate desire to better themselves and the world. Thus the humanistic approach believes that individuals strive towards self-actualization, which is a form of psychological growth and enrichment.

When using a humanistic approach to therapy, psychologist work with the patient in order to create a healthier sense of self. This could be done through various therapeutic methods, some of which include Carl Rogers method of client centered therapy, existential psychotherapy, and Gestalt therapy. All of these approaches strive to allow the patient to see himself as an active agent completely in control of their own minds, bodies and lives. However, Gestalt therapy is the only one that put an emphasis on the importance of dreams in therapy

Frederick Perls
Humanistic Therapies. (n.d.). Counselling Directory. Retrieved from

Dream Theorists: Frederick Perls. (n.d.). Dream Moods. Retrieved from

Beck, B. L. (n.d.). Magill's Encyclopedia of Social Science: Psychology: Gestalt Therapy. Salem Press. Retrieved from

An introduction to Fritz Perl's dream interpretation techniques. (n.d.). Gestalt Annarbor. Retrieved from

The use of dreams in humanistic therapy is commonly seen in the Gestalt approach. Gestalt therapy was coined in the 1960’s by a German psychotherapist named Frederick Perls, as an alternative approach to psychotherapy and behavioural therapy. It focuses on all of the experiences an individual undergoes like thoughts, feelings and actions as a whole and puts emphasis on the present conditions. Perls mainly believed that dreams were the most spontaneous form of human expression and thus contained projections of ones own personalities and emotional issues. He argued that every person has a set of unresolved psychological issues that derive from ones inability to come to terms with their own feelings. Each of there issues are grouped into a hierarchy, with the most significant ones at the top and the least at the bottom. The ones at the top would often make their way into dreams in various forms and thus dream therapy was the was the best way to gain access to the issues each patient is facing and transform them into a unified whole.

The “dreamwork” technique required the patient to recall a dream in the present tense and reenact it while focusing on how each object made them feel. Since objects in dreams are believed to be rejected parts of the self, it is meant to give the patient a external view on their encounter and provoke them to acknowledge something they may have over looked before, while coming to terms with their own underlying issues.

Other Modern Dream Theories

The Threat Simulation Theory
Valli, K, Lenasdotter, S., MacGregor, O., Revonsuo, A. (2007). The Test of the Threat Simulation Theory. Internaltional Journal of Sleep, Dream, and Hypnosis. 9(1), 30-46

Simons, I. (2009). Why Do We Dream? . Psychology Today. Retrieved from


Antti Revonsuo, a Finnish cognitive scientist created the threat simulation theory on the evolutionary function of dreams. His theory suggests that dreams are the body's mechanism for simulating a threatening situation in order practice how a person handles it. Revonsuo demonstrated this by showing the amygdala [Figure 5]5 is more active then usual during REM sleep and it harbours a similar activity to when the brain senses a survival threat. Similarly, the brain employs form of motor activity in REM sleep such as running while the body remains still. These observations lead him to believe that dreams were simply the body and brain's way of creating a fight-or-flight response which would allow people to be better equipped to handle life threatening situations in the real world. Thus, dreams serve an evolutionary purpose, to give us a better chance at surviving any possible dangers.

Crick and Mitchison’s Dream Theory
Crick F, Mitchison G. The function of dream sleep. Nature 304 (1983): 111-114.

Crick F, Mitchison G. REM sleep and neural nets. Behav Brain Res 69 (1995): 147-155.

Simons, I. (2009). Why Do We Dream? . Psychology Today. Retrieved from

This theory was founded by Francis Crick and Graeme Mitchison in 1983. The main idea was that people dream in order to forget. The brain is consistently connecting and associating data into various relationship and so there could be many cognition pathways that aren’t very efficient to cognitive development and behaviours. However, when asleep, the brain fires its neurons much more randomly, not following the pathways that are already established in the neural region but make new ones. This novel exploration provides the brain with chances to create new pathways that will be more useful to the individual

The Contemporary Dream Theory
Hartmann, E. (1996). Outline for a Theory on the Nature and Function of Dreams. Dreaming, 6(2)

Ernest Hartmann, a professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine, developed a theory that on how dreams in themselves are therapeutic. He believed that through dreaming, we are dealing with troubling emotions through projecting them into images. In the disengaged state of dreaming, the individual is free to handle emotions without any external or internal obstacles and make connections that our rational conscious brain wouldn't normally make. Hartmann was suggesting that dreaming instigated a person to deal with stressful situations in a less critical state through which they are stimulated to understand a truth they had repressed. He found this connection through monitoring the dreams of people having just undergone a trauma and measuring their dream image intensity and how real the experience felt. When noticing that most of his cases showed an increased dream intensity, he was able to propose that dreams can serve as an emotional discharge.

External Factors That Affect Dreams

Punamäki, R., & Joustie, M. (1998). The role of culture, violence, and personal factors affecting dream content. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 29(2), 320-342.

The location of the environment in which an individual resides may contribute to the certain dreams they have and represents their true feelings towards life itself. A 7-day dream diary was given to 3 groups of children: 80 Palestinians living in a dangerous environment and 125 Finnish and Palestinian children living in a peaceful area. After these 7 days, it showed that the violent areas affected the children’s dreams more then children from the peaceful area. Many of the dreams possessed themes of aggression and persecution, which results from the viewing of every day dangers occurring in the environment. The dreams represent the children’s anxiety towards everything beyond themselves and remind them of the cruelty of the world. Children from the peaceful area showed more awareness towards them and created anxiety’s interpersonally as they lack experiences from outside interactions. Overall, the dreams give a primary focus of what the children are most fearful and what is commonly going through their heads.

Rofé, Y., & Lewin, I. (1982). The effect of war environment on dreams and sleep habits. Series in Clinical & Community Psychology: Stress & Anxiety, 8, 67-79

The idea of war breaking out may also affect a person’s mentality for better or worse and cause disturbances in both sleep cycles and dreams. In 1976, high school students from Israel were given a questionnaire on the content of their dreams and divided it into four different types of dreams; horror, sexual, positive attitude, and aggressive. 216 patients resided in an Israeli border town, which has a history of terrorists attacks while 270 resided in an Israeli town with no history of terrorist attacks. The majority of individuals from the Israeli town with no history of terrorist attacks experienced horror dreams while the individuals in the war environment experienced less dreams in general and lower percentage of the four factors above. They have also developed a sense of tolerance towards life and see’s life as more tolerable. Although war in itself is a bad thing, individuals who experience it actually receive fewer nightmares and build character while people who have no experience of it may have less awareness of their surroundings and may be fearful of the unknown and the world surrounding them.

Punamäki, R. (2007). Trauma and dreaming: Trauma impact on dream recall, content and patterns, and the mental health function of dreams. (pp. 211-251)

Fieldwork was done in the Middle East among war-traumatized families. When analyzing the children during the day time in the school yard, they all seemed perfect normal individuals and simply wanted to have fun. However, night after night, screams would be heard from children having nightmares about the war, violence etc. The nightmares inflicting harm on the mental state of these children show their true emotion and fear behind the location that they live in. Despite being “happy", the vivid images of the nightmares may affect the health and wellbeing of these children growing up. The location where an individual grows up in affect the sleep habits of the individuals and in still fear into the night.

Mental State
Semix U., Basoglu C., Ebrinic S., & Cetin M. (2008). Nightmare disorder, dream anxiety, and subjective sleep quality in patients with borderline personality disorder. Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences,62, 48-55.

Post traumatic stress disorder is a mental health condition, which is caused by a terrifying event from the past leading to recurring injuries to the mental state of an individual which can include shock, recurring anxieties and nightmares (mayo clinic). Nightmares start getting formed and an individual may experience it for months or even years until the individual learn to cope with the event. An experiment was conducted in order to examine nightmare disorders and dream anxiety and what the causes are behind it. 88 individuals possessed borderline personality disorder, which is where the interactions between individuals have an unreadable pattern and have instability in interpersonal relationships. The other 100 individuals were perfectly healthy men and women. The study showed that individuals with unstable emotions and interpersonal skills have greater amounts of nightmares. It was also showed that the dream anxieties were related to traumatic experiences in their earlier life. This shows that mental state/health of an individual may directly be represented in their dreams as it shows what the individuals are constantly worried about and the problems they may possess.

Wilmer, H. A. (1982). Vietnam and madness: Dreams of schizophrenic veterans. Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis, 10(1), 47-65.


By having recurring vivid images in the head on a certain scenario, dreams can provide valuable information to both researchers and therapists. A study was conducted on three war veterans who suffered from post traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia from the Vietnam war. Because of this, they had many reoccurring nightmares as often as every night and required extensive “dream therapy”. Looking past the nightmares, the therapists discover that the dreams possessed history of Vietnam, the conscious motivations and information behind what happened in the war itself from the perspective of the patients. The dreams gave valuable information about the scenario that the veteran soldiers got put into and may serve to be more accurate information then that of other sources. Although the nightmares and mental state of “loss”. The therapists can feel the emotion and history behind dreams as they provide significance of the life events that were occurred. By repetitively experiencing these dreams, the patients were also given the opportunity to retell their story, as the images were vivid and provide information to those who wish to look at the history behind the war.

Summit Medical Group (2012). Alzheimer’s Disease: Difficult Behaviours. Retrieved from:

Alzheimer’s Disease [Figure 6]6 is a brain disease in which the victim’s memories slowly deteriorate to the point where the completely forget everything (Summit Medical Group). The disease often happens to the elderly and the cure is still unknown. In relating to dreams, the patients may have vivid dreams where they are unable to distinguish reality from dreams. Occurrences that happen in dreams may be thought of what is actually happening to them as the state of dementia they are in and loss of intelligence, resulting in them being unable to distinguish real from fake. An indicator of this would be the individual physically acting out the dream while he/she is sleeping. The dreams could create a false identity/past for the individual and believes that dreams are a big part of the individual’s life.

Social Factors

Ullman, M. (1974). Social factors in dreams. Revista De Psicoanálisis Psiquiatrîa y Psicologîa, 4, 65-75.
Fine, G. A., & Leighton, L. F. (1991). Imagery, dreams and social order. Journal of Mental Imagery
Ullman, M. (2001). A note on the social referents of dreams. Dreaming, 11(1), 1-12.

Living in a society filled with both different kinds of people influences the way an individual thinks about society as a whole. Some questions include, the construction of government, structure, media, and even the popular trends through interacting with friends. Although it does no make individuals curious day by day, the unconscious may seek to know about information on the basis of how the society they are living in was created. Society peaks the interest of the unconscious and some dreams attempt to recreate the sociological structure in order to gain a further understanding of what is happening around the individual to better understand the interactions and the place they live in. The dream reinforces social structure and creates a way society should be perceived for the patient. Dreams may also make references to the social issues that occurring in society and creates some of form of solution to solve it. By doing this it creates connection among humans and strengthens the idea of working in unity and ensures human survival.

The Psychological Significance of Dreams

Jung, Carl (1920). Importance of Dreams. 22-26.


Carl Jung [Figure 7]7 was essentially a supporter of Sigmund Freud but then rejected Freud’s psychoanalytic theory method and his insights on the purpose, and meaning of the concept of dreams. Jung focused his studies on an extensive theory based on myths, values, and the importance of dreams. Symbols are considered a term but also an image that may be familiar in daily life that retains a specific meaning in addition to its apparent meaning. It has a larger unconscious aspect that can never be truly defined or explained. Therefore, as the mind discovers the symbol it considers the ideas that lie beyond the understanding of reason. However, the conscious use of symbols is only one feature of a psychological statistic of importance. Individuals also create symbols unconsciously in the form of dreams. A big aspect of this article is Freud theory regarding the importance of dreams as a starting point, which includes the unconscious problem from the subjects that might be explored. Freud produced a simple observation that stated if a dreamer is persuaded to continue talking about their dream sequence and thoughts that these would prompt in your mind. Therefore, this revels the unconscious background of their condition, in both what they articulate and what they deliberately neglect uttering. Furthermore, the importance of dreams is very significant; most dreams arise from an emotional circumstance in which typical developments are often involved. These developments are sensitive spots of the psyche, which responds mostly to an external stimulus. It is easy for one to realize the reason in which dreamers tend to ignore the importance of the messages progressing in their dreams. Not all of an individuals dream has profound psychological significance. In fact some are mere repetitions of daily event that happen externally.

Jung, Carl (1945). On the Nature of Dreams. Burning man books 2004. Seattle Washington: 5, 15-21.

This article deals with the study of dreams in general and how it is a life long process in itself, the approach in figuring it out requires many skilled workers. When considering all the psychic phenomena the concept of dreams has the largest number of irrational aspects. There are numerous types of “dreaming,” which include reoccurring dreams; this leads to convincing an individual that this dream must have some sort of meaning. Dreams refers to a certain attitude of consciousness and a specific psychic situation, their origins lie deep within the dark recesses of the conscious mind. When looking at the study of dreams, the bulk of the material that deals with dreams are the normal expression of the unconscious psyche. Individuals who have a bias on dreams are prone to succumb to the prejudice that the dream essentially has a moral purpose. When one believes that the unconscious always knows best, they can easily become disappointed when their dreams become more insignificant and meaningless. The study of dream psychology is a notion that makes substantial contributions in understanding this phenomenon. This is an immense topic that we know far to little about when dealing with the nature of the unconscious psyche.

Strauch, Inge. Meier, Barbara (1996). Results of Experimental Dream Research. New York Press: 1-14.


The study of dreams [Figure 8]8 is a very fascinating and important topic because it takes us into world experiences where we become distant from our waking lives to live a second existence. The nature and the common notions that are present in dreams are usually influenced by everyday experiences around us. Dreams are phenomena’s that may be understood and interpreted as verification of actual life experiences as efforts to come into terms with the past and as an expression with hopes, fears and future goals. Many psychologists insist that dreaming is a very important factor for our health and mental well being it is also deemed as a source to ignite our creativity. Science is now discovering that dreams play an essential role in our emotional health, in our memory and also assisting us with the right information to learn and find solutions to our problems.

The Importance of Dreams in Therapy

Stevens, Anthony (1995). Private Myths: Dreams and Dreaming. 190.

Another important factor to the overall idea of dreams is the significance dreams have to a therapist. There are two angles towards this, some therapist use the concept of dreams as a secondary option or even as a guard against the “real” issue because they don’t believe that dream analysis is an essential part of therapy. However, some individuals deem dreams to play a very important role in leading to the root of an individual’s physiological problem. Pertaining to the conscious level we might think we know all are problems and where they stem from, but in reality it is our unconscious that really knows. According to Jung, dreams do so much more than mend a problem; dreams provide therapists with the insight to determine the history that caused it, the diagnosis, and to provide the individual with a cure or treatment.

Zadra, Antonio. Pesant, Nicholas (2004). Working with dreams in therapy: What do we know and what should we do? Clinical Psychology Review. Montreal, Canada: 496-497.

The study of information based on the clinical utility and efficiency of using the concept of dreams in therapy consists of case studies based on dream interpretations includes clients insights, increased involvement of the client in the therapeutic process and a better understanding of an individuals dynamic. Researchers have claimed that the use of dreams can help people become more insightful and have a better idea of understanding within themselves. The notion of insights based on the view of dream work can increase an individual’s motivation to change. There is a debate between the notions that using dream material is beneficial or not to be focused on. Some believe it will take away from focusing on the person’s difficulties and problems others argue that dreams are an effective way in presenting a rapid access to a persons deep most important issues. Discussing their dreams with a therapist actually allow the person to avoid their fear of losing control by revealing themselves. This can help them feel more trusting in opening up and discussing their issues, conflicts and concerns they’ve been having. There is a link between REM-sleep and dreaming which opened a new era in dream research. Instead of relying on someone’s recall of having a dream, researchers were able to catch dreams as they happened. They could awaken the person three minutes within REM sleep and hear what they had fully seen with accuracy.

What we dream?
Hill, Clara E., ed. "Dream Work in Therapy: Facilitating Exploration, Insight, and Action." Choice Reviews Online 41.06 (2004): 95-97. Print.

Daydreams tend to involve familiar details involving currents events at that moment in which they doze off and picture a new type of image of “what could happen?” or “what if?”. REM dreams on the other hand, are notably known as hallucinations of the sleeping mind. They tend to be vivid, emotional and bizarre to the point we lose consciousness of reality. Common themes are repeatedly failing in an attempt to do something; of being attacked, pursued, or rejected, or experiencing misfortune. The story line of our dreams incorporates traces of previous days’ nonsexual experiences and preoccupations. Images throughout the day that are common and are very repetitive tend to show reappearance within your dream because your brain has sustained the image within the brain and projects the common visual imagery. Common setting that people are familiar with then to also be seen in dreams because it is still built in the unconscious part of the brain. Our mind works many ways, in which it also monitors the environment while we sleep. For instance if a sound or smell is present in the external aspect of the dream that sound or smell may enter the dream.

Why we dream?
Hill, Clara E., ed. "Dream Work in Therapy: Facilitating Exploration, Insight, and Action." Choice Reviews Online 41.06 (2004): 14-49. Print.

There are multiple dream theories as to why we dream such as to satisfy our own wishes, to file away memories, to develop and preserve neural pathways, to make sense of neural static, and to reflect cognitive development.

  • To satisfy own wishes: Based on Freud’s theory that dreams provide a psychic safety valve that removes unacceptable feelings. The manifest latent is what is censored and the latent content is shown symbolically. Freud believed that dreams can be traced back to erotic wishes even if there was no sexual content involved. Our wish-fulfillment according to Freud is our inner conflicts.
  • To file away memories: The information-processing perspective proposes may fix experiences and sort them within our memory. The brain creates a link between REM sleep and memory, during this stage of sleeping it causes the brain to act as memory storage. When the sleeper is awaken during REM sleep they are most likely not to remember but if the sleeper is awaken during other stages they can remember those instances better.
  • To develop and preserve neural pathways: Dreams, or the brain activity associates itself with REM sleep, which serves a psychological function, providing the sleeping brain with periodic stimulation and allows the brain to develop. Stimulating experiences preserve and expand the brain’s neural pathways.
  • To make sense of neural static: Theories say that dreams erupt the neural activation which spreads upwards to the brainstem. Dreams are an attempt to make sense of random neural activity. When dreams are streaming within the brain it produces hallucinations by stimulating different parts of the cortex. The internal stimuli activate brain areas that process visual images, but not the visual cortex area. The activated areas which are the frontal lobes and the limbic system’s emotional tone come together and create hallucinogens which cause us to dream.
  • To reflect cognitive development: Dreams progress as age develops, for instance children dreams tend to seem as a slideshow and less like an active story. The same networks are particularly the same ones that are presently active during daydreams unlike adult dreams which during REM sleep have more activation with different lobes, meanwhile children progress in REM sleeping more frequently.
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