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The sequence of imagery, thoughts, and emotions that pass through the mind during sleep.

Dreams defy the laws of physics, the principles of logic, and personal morality, and may reflect fears, frustrations, and personal desires. Often occurring in story-form with the dreamer as participant or observer, dreams usually involve several characters, motion, and may include sensations of taste, smell, hearing, or pain. The content of dreams clearly reflects daytime activities, even though these may be distorted to various degrees. While some people report dreaming only in black and white, others dream in color. "Lucid dreaming," in which the sleeper is actually aware of dreaming while the dream is taking place, is not uncommon. Research has indicated that everyone dreams during every night of normal sleep. Many people do not remember their dreams, however, and most people recall only the last dream prior to awakening. The memory shut-down theory suggests that memory may be one of the brain's functions which rests during dreaming, hence we forget our dreams.

In order to understand how dreaming occurs, brain waves during sleep have been measured by an electroencephalograph (EEG). Normally large and slow during sleep, these waves become smaller and faster during periods of sleep accompanied by rapid eye movements (called REM sleep), and it is during these period when dreams occur. During a normal eight-hour period of sleep, an average adult will dream three to five dreams lasting ten to thirty minutes each for a total of 100 minutes.

Dreams—which Sigmund Freud called "the royal road to the unconscious"—have provided psychologists and psychotherapists with abundant information about the structure, dynamics, and development of the human personality. Several theories attempt to explain why we dream. The oldest and most well-known is Freud's psychoanalytic theory, elucidated in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), in which he suggested that dreams are disguised symbols of repressed desires and therefore offer us direct insight into the unconscious. According to Freud, the manifest content of dreams, such as daily events and memories, serve to disguise their latent content or unconscious wishes through a process he called dream-work, consisting of four operations. Condensation refers to the condensing of separate thoughts into a single image in order to fit the latent content into the brief framework of a dream. Displacement serves to disguise the latent content by creating confusion between important and insignificant elements of the dream. Symbolization serves as a further effort to evade the "censor" of repressed desires by symbolizing certain objects with other objects, as in the case of phallic symbols. Secondary revision enables the dreamer to make the dream more coherent by additions that fill it in more intelligibly while he or she is recalling it.

Although Carl Jung's system of analysis differed greatly from that of Freud, the Swiss psychologist agreed with Freud's basic view of dreams as compensating for repressed psychic elements. According to Jung's theory, significant dreams (those that involve the collective unconscious) are attempts to reveal an image, or archetype, that is not sufficiently "individuated" in the subject's personality. Another Swiss analyst, Medard Boss, offered yet another perspective on dreams as part of his system of "existential analysis." Under Boss's system, the significance of dreams lay close to their surface details rather than corresponding to an intricate symbolic pattern. Thus, for example, dreams set in a narrow, constricted room indicated that this was how the dreamer viewed his or her existence. Existential analysis was based on the feelings of the dreamer, the contents of the dream, and his or her response to them.

In contrast with the methods of these early dream analysts, modern researchers gather data from subjects in a sleep laboratory, a mode of investigation furthered in the 1950s. Calvin Hall, a pioneer in the content analysis of dreams, posits that dreams are meant to reveal rather than to conceal. Hall and his associates gathered dreams from a large and varied sampling of subjects and analyzed them for the following content categories: 1) human characters classified by sex, age, family members, friends and acquaintances, and strangers; 2) animals; 3) types of interactions among characters, such as aggressive or friendly; 4) positive and negative events; 5) success and failure; 6) indoor and outdoor settings; 7) objects; and 8) emotions. Other investigators have devised their own systems of content analysis, such as the one outlined by David Foulkes in A Grammar of Dreams. The dreams of children have also been extensively assessed through laboratory testing and shown to be linked to their cognitive development. Content analysis has also yielded longitudinal information about individuals, including the observations that an adult's dreams remain strikingly similar over time and are strongly linked to the preoccupations of waking life, a phenomenon known as the continuity principle.

Dream analysis may occur in certain therapies. In the 1970s, writers and psychologists, such as Ann Faraday, helped to take dream analysis out of the therapy room and popularize it by offering techniques anyone could use to analyze his or her own dreams. Widely recommended techniques include keeping paper and pen by the bed to write dreams down upon waking (even in the middle of the night), keeping a dream diary to recognize recurring themes, and making associations with the imagery in the dream to decode its personal meaning. Analysts, such as Robert Johnson, maintain that dreams contain the dreamer's thoughts or feelings not yet expressed or made conscious. Johnson recommends making associations to the dream to unlock ways the dream mirrors inner tensions or dynamics of the dreamer's emotional life. The dreamer uses the associations and dynamics linked to daily life to interpret or give meaning to the dream. Some psychologists recommend cultivating lucid dreaming where the dreamer is aware in the dream that he or she is dreaming and then can direct the events of dreams and the manner in which they unfold.

Not all dreams reflect daily life. Reports indicate dreams have foretold events upcoming in the dreamer's life, including death. One study reports that 70 percent of women successfully predicted the sex of their unborn child based upon dreams.

Some scientists have attempted to discount the significance of dreams entirely. The activation-synthesis hypothesis created by J. Alan Hobson and Robert W. McCarley in 1977 holds that dreaming is a simple and unimportant by-product of random stimulation of brain cells activated during REM sleep. Another dream theory, the mental housecleaning hypothesis, suggests that we dream to rid our brains of useless, bizarre, or redundant information. A current synthesis of this theory sees dreaming as analogous to a computer's process of program inspection in which sleep is similar to "down" time and the dream becomes a moment of "on-line" time, a glimpse into a program being run at that moment.

Further Reading

Gardner, Richard A. Dream Analysis in Psychotherapy. Cresskill, N.J.: Creative Therapeutics, 1996.

Hall, Kirsten. Last Night I Danced With A Stranger. New York: Black Do & Leventhal Publishers, 2000.

Additional topics

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