Whereas there is increasing recognition of the importance of sleep, there is less awareness that one of the reasons we need to sleep is that we need to dream.
Even though you may not remember them, you dream several times a night. In a typical lifetime, we spend about six years dreaming.
Throughout time and across cultures man has ascribed importance to dreams. Recognized for his seminal contribution of The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud considered dreams as the royal road to the unconscious. According to him, dreams represented instinctual aggressive and sexual drives pressing for discharge. Disguised by the primary process of symbols, displacements and condensations, the dream was believed to represent hidden instinctual wish fulfillment.
While dreamers still make important use of the metaphors and symbolic representations in their dreams, the royal road has been expanded and repaved.
Evolving psychological theory and research from Brain Science reveal that well beyond wish fulfillment, we need and use dreams in the organization of data, the consolidation of memory, the integration of skills and the regulation of psychological functioning.
Matt Wilson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology tells us “ Dreaming is a process, and not only is it useful, it may be essential for making sense of the world.”
Important in understanding the function of dreams are the new findings on sleep cycles:
- Early dream studies had found that at those times when sleepers were deeply asleep with muscle tone at zero, they were exhibiting rapid eye movement (REM). When awakened, they reported dreaming. This was termed REM Sleep.
- We now understand that most people sleep in 90 minute cycles in which they descend from light sleep, stage 1, without rapid eye movements (non-REM) to deep non-REM sleep (stages 3 and 4, also known as “slow-wave sleep”), then begin a return journey; but don’t quite make it. Just before waking, we enter REM sleep after which we repeat the cycle four or five times a night.
- Lab studies reveal that we have dreams in both phases of sleep and that non-REM dreams and REM dreams actually serve different functions.