Dreams | Sunday Observer


Most of us pay no attention to dreams because we see so many of them in the course of our lives. Some dreams are pleasant while others are simply nightmares. In newspapers sometimes we read about dream interpretations. However, in modern times psychologists claim, dreams are in their domain. The celebrated psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud was one of the pioneers who tried to interpret dreams. He spent nearly four decades and came up with a dazzling array of dream interpretations. Modern psychologists do not accept some of his theories. According to them, our dreams are not aimless patchworks of fantasy, but a process vital to our mental health. Sometimes, dreams can even solve our problems that baffle us.

Elias Howe always tried to mechanize sewing, but he did not know how to do it. One night he dreamt of savages who gave him an ultimatum. They told him that if he wanted to live in peace, he had to invent a machine that could sew. He told them, it was not an easy task. Then the savages raised their spears to kill him. When he looked at the spears he saw an eye-shaped hole at the tip of them. He awoke with a jolt, but he could not shake off the memory of eye-shaped holes. He worked relentlessly on his dream and today, we have sewing machines fitted with needles with eye-shaped holes through which the thread could be passed.

At times, dreams work as wish fulfilments. A person who tries to become a lawyer will see himself addressing a judge and jury in a court of law. If you wish to become a bridge engineer you might see yourself putting up a massive bridge across the Mahaweli River. The renowned British psychologist Christopher Evans in his book, ‘Landscapes of the Night’ says, “Dreams continue work begun during consciousness. This often happens when you concentrate on a particular type of activity for a long time. Such dreams will propel you to achieve your goals.” In ‘Brain and Psyche’ Jonathan Winson, a neuroscientist, says, “Our brains may be handling thoughts below the level of our conscious awareness all the time.” For instance, when you forget to recall somebody’s name at a function, it will pop up in your dreams. Many of us pay no attention to such phenomena.

Oldest mysteries

Psychologists and psychoanalysts are trying to interpret dreams which have remained mankind’s oldest mysteries. According to modern research, dreams are not accidental byproducts of sleep, but perhaps, the very purpose of sleep.

During sleep new learning blends with old memories. When we sleep our subconscious starts processing information. Although we may be fast asleep our brains are busy turning out new information discarding old data. The subconscious helps us solve some of our knotty problems. This happens even when we undergo rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep. This is considered to be the time during which dreams appear. According to psychologists, a dream is a momentary interception by the conscious mind of material being sorted out, scanned and sifted.

According to Evans, dreams are like dress rehearsals for events we can expect, hope for or fear. In such a situation the dreamer becomes an actor, playing his intended role keeping in mind the unfolding drama.

A friend tells me how he dreamt of addressing big political rallies. After some time he realized he always wanted to be a public speaker. Evans saw a large cormorant sleeping while standing on one leg. When he reached the bird and touched it, the bird awoke becoming aware of its dangerous position. Then it flapped its wings and flew away. The same process takes place when you dream. Sometimes, children scream while sleeping. When they are awakened they would say they saw a bad dream. Evans says dreaming is a necessity for all living animals.

The only mammal that does not go into REM sleep is reported to be the spiny anteater of Australia. Its forebrain is larger than that of other mammals. Scientists say the anteater dreams while awake. In contrast, all other warm-blooded creatures have to wait for the onset of REM sleep to see dreams.

It is common knowledge that our brains are like sophisticated computers. They can organize information collected during the day. If not for this complex process, we will never be able to recall past events. The brain updates its programs automatically. As you grow old, you gain more experience. Then the information load on the brain becomes heavy and complex. However, the brain has the capacity to modify the programs without replacing them with fresh ones.

Self-induced sleep

Self-induced sleep can disturb this process seriously. According to Evans, in self-induced sleep the dream mechanism might take place while the person is awake. We usually do not call them dreams but hallucinations. Winson says, the exact location of the brain that helps us to see dreams is within the limbic system. It is a network of structures with names such as, the hippocampus, amygdala, septum, mammillary body, fornix, thalmic nuclei and cingulate cortex.

The brain decides which events, memories, and emotions should be stored for future reference or deleted from memory. For any healthy person, the dream process is necessary for survival. Without dreams we cannot merge new experiences with what we have in store. The hippocampus allows us to remember events for about three years. Thereafter, the information is automatically transferred to the long-term memory. When we grow old our short-term memory may get weaker. Most old people cannot remember what they had for breakfast, but they can remember what happened during their childhood, vividly.

The great British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell credited his dreams with providing answers to some of his vexing problems. R.L.Stevenson admitted that “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” came to him in a dream. The renowned novelist Graham Greene said, dreams helped him to come up with his plots.

Most of us are not psychologists or psychoanalysts, but we see dreams in our REM sleep. What we have to remember is that all dreams are the work of the unconscious, the mechanism that formulates and sets strategies of behaviour. As Anatole France put it, “Existence would be intolerable if we were never to dream.”

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