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Recent Developments in the Scientific Study of Dreams

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    Recent Developments in the Scientific Study of Dreams


    Most medical experts believed that dreams are produced by the physiological stimulus in the cortical region of the brain; dreams are described as physical process without meaning or any connection to the reality (Freud 7). Despite this opinion, the popularity of dream meanings and symbolism still prevailed for a very long time. As such, dreams are treated as made up of elements that generally represent symbols of real event related to the future or personal experience of the dreamer (Pick and Roper 8). Although the focus of the modern dream research is to unravel the meaning of every dream but this goal cannot be accurately met because of the relativism on the analogical interpretation of every aspect of a dream (Reed 14). Despite the unique and personal nature of dreams, scientific analysis and interpretation is possible through the advancement and integration of various disciplines such as psychology, neuroscience, and other cognitive sciences (Hobson, Pace-Schott, and Stickgold 2). For instance, cognitive neuroscience is now capable of producing neuroimaging data for cognition studies (Franklin and Zyphur 60). Furthermore, data on neuroimaging can now be utilized to differentiate lower-level sensory from higher-level perceptions (Franklin and Zyphur 61). Hence, the scientific approach on dream studies grounded on scientific data and theories and free from any form of bias and subjectivity is possible (Hobson, Pace-Schott, and Stickgold 10). Likewise, since the current technology is still insufficient to unravel the underpinning physiological construct behind dreaming, it is imperative then to utilize the existing technology into its utmost capacity for the acquisition of precise rapid-eye movement or REM sleep data.

    The Works of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung

    In the ancient civilization, dreams were believed by Greeks as direct messages from their gods concerning their future, destiny or health (Muller). Through dreams, the ancient Greeks thought that they can communicate directly to the dead, thus, they gave rational bases for every dream element (Muller). On the other hand, some of the ancient Romans sound out to dream-oracles for the interpretation and analysis of the meanings of their dreams while others treated their dreams as merely coincidence and do not possess any implication towards their lives (Muller). In 1855, the modern research on dreams has commenced through the analyses made French in various dream reports along with studies and experiments conducted to gain understanding on the nature and content of dreams (Muller). As such, Sigmund Freud worked intensively on the thoughts and latent meanings of dreams by means of psychoanalysis (Mageo 189). Then, in the middle part of the 20th century, great improvements on dream research were made possible through the discovery of the associations of dreams with cortical brain activity while sleeping (Mageo 189).

    The application of electroencephalography or EEG in the field of dream research in 1960s has led to the discovery of electrophysiological attributes and in-depth understanding of dreams (DeGracia 3). As well, the development of scientific views on dreaming was ascribed to the intensive dream researches conducted in various fields related to brain studies like in psychoanalysis, neuropsychology, and other specialized psychological fields (DeGracia 5). Since Freud made the pioneering methodological works on dream analysis, dream studies were generally categorized into pre-Freudian and post-Freudian periods (DeGracia 5). Meanhwile, the discovery of sleep cycle in 1950s marked the downfall of Freudian influence in dream studies and paved for the emergence of psychophysiological approach in dream analysis (DeGracia 5). In psychophysiological approach, dreams were treated as products of physiological processes which in turn generate sleep cycle (DeGracia 5). This view was found limited through the discovery that dreams do not only occur in REM sleep but also observed in non-REM sleep. Hence, at present time, dream occurrence is viewed as a process independent from the EEG observed responsible process for sleep cycle (DeGracia 5). Moreover, researches in cognitive science showed that the psychological constructs of dreams are identical to the psychological principles underpinning the normal conscious state of any individual such as in the use of language and other aspect of sensory perceptions (DeGracia 5). In 1980, the most significant contribution of dream research in the 20th century was the successfully made by experimental demonstration of a subject that can directly communicate with other individuals while in the state of dreaming (DeGracia 5).

    Dream interpretation has been prevalent since in the ancient times in the belief that every dream is a symbolic message concerning the future or reality (Loker 44. Hence, voluminous publications which provided explanation of every aspect of a dream were produced from the early times until to the present (Loker 44). Meanwhile, Sigmund Freud in his psychoanalysis has utilized metaphors and analogies which he referred as “symbols” in his process of dream interpretation (Loker 44). On the contrary, dream guidelines and dictionaries marketed publicly today are comprised of symbols with their respective interpretation. These are all entirely different from the “signs” or analogical explanation used by Freud in his dream analysis (Loker 44). In its contemporary conception, the language of dreams, although realistic symbolism may also be present, is described as concrete-metaphoric or concrete-analogic (Loker 44). On the other hand, the cognition mode of the unconscious mind or the right hemisphere of the brain that generates elemental thoughts of the dream is believed to be concrete-analogic from which dream metaphors and analogies are created (Loker 44). Thus, verbal form metaphor applied for the analysis of dreams of an individual while in his or her conscious state can also be substituted with pictorial form. Since the right brain, which works for concrete ideas, is directly involved in the creation of dream, real-object representation is not possible in any dream (Loker 44). Further, since symbolism is consisted of abstract ideas which are the products of the left hemisphere of the brain, it is far then to be represented in any dreams produced by the right brain (Loker 44). However, even the dream metaphor used in the conscious state analysis may represent experience-related meaning (Loker 44).

    By contrasting the nature of the right brain with that of the left brain, we may logically infer then than the unconscious state of the mind is not entirely irrational (Loker 48). The development of the right brain cortex occurs at much faster rate than with the left brain (Loker 47). Most psychologists, as supported by reports on dream analysis, believe that the right brain operates in a concrete-analogic process; the right brain conceives analogies by means of the concrete events in the life of the dreamer and signifies action formulation through the positive events of the past (Loker 47). Consequently, this nature of the right brain makes it incapable for deductive logic, speech, and abstract concept generation. On the other hand, the left brain operates in deductive process; the left brain applies conceived generalization in the analysis of events (Loker 47). In the formulation of action, the left brain deduces from general rules that encompasses the negative events (Loker 47). Hence, if the right brain is analogical, the left brain works in a deductive-logical fashion. In fact, the mind maximizes its rationality by integrating the whole brain operations (Loker 48). As problem occurs in the integrated operations, the separated brain system works less rationally as compared the work of the integrated systems (Loker 48). Additionally, proofs on the irrationality of the unconscious has not yet produced; proofs, under specified conditions, on the rationality of the unconscious than the conscious mind were already reported (Loker 48).

    The right brain, as it operates on concrete-analogic manner, has no capability of generating thoughts that are believable lies because such thoughts not only require deductive-logical process of cognition but also necessitate for the smooth coordination of statements to prevent the lie recognition (Loker 50).

    Dream Content and Thoughts

    The characteristics of every dream are largely shaped by the real life experiences and the cognitive processes of the dreamer (Strauch and Meier 12). Thus, every dream is unique and personal which make scientific interpretation difficult. Even though, the elements and language of a dream can be described through direct narration of the dreamer, dreams still are hardly quantifiable that impart difficulties for their rational interpretation (Strauch and Meier 12). In line with this, every individual experiences dreaming but only few can remember the exact details of his or her dream (Franklin and Zyphur 60). As well, non-coherence of different scenes in dreams and inaccurate narration of such add burden in the methodological assessment of dreams (Franklin and Zyphur 60). On the other hand, while other individuals have the ability to control dreams, some have inactive role in their own dreams (Franklin and Zyphur 60). Hence, the relativism on the analysis and interpretation of dreams is prevalent.

    Generally, dreams start with the view on lopsidedness or with the presentation of its cause while the compensation or the termination of the negative cognitive-behavioral event occurs always in the end except in rare instances (Loker 49). While lopsidedness occurs with its intensity of negative affects or harm, the explanation of its occurrence is attributed to external events which eventually impart either positive or neutral affects (Loker 49). In addition, the explanation for the lopsidedness in the dream may not always be present for several reasons. Meanwhile, compensation always occurs with positive affects which may appear as wish fulfillment (Loker 49). The negative affects here means the negative or harmful accompaniment while the positive affects refers to the good probable solution (Loker 49). The dream language is the analogical representation of the real life events experienced by the dreamer (Loker 50). Thus, the analogical interpretation of a dream should be done with respect to the effect of life experiences of the dreamer that caused the dream and the effect made of such to the sequence of occurrence of the dream elements mentioned earlier (Loker 50).  In line with this, Jung coined the terms collective unconscious, archetype, mandala, and others as he hardly decipher the connection between compensation and the thoughts in a dream (Loker 48).

    REM Sleep and Dreaming

    Through our very own dreams, we experienced the emotion, cognitive, kinesthetic, visual, tactile, metacognitive, tactile, and other sensory attributes while dreaming (DeGracia 2). Since consciousness is a physiological condition which encompasses the mental, sensory, and emotional aspects of the individual, dreaming then is a conscious experience during sleep (DeGracia 2). Dreams, as produced by the unconscious, have rational elements that directly involve in the deletion of negative cognitive-behavioral thoughts (Loker 43).  They are the means of compensating or deleting in the mind the lopsidedness or the cognitive-behavioral mistakes committed by the individual (Loker 42). Thus, under specified conditions, the unconscious mind is more rational than the conscious mind for it can terminate cognitive-behavioral memory that can probably harm the entire mind (Loker 42). It follows then that it is possible to unravel the meaning of every dream through understanding on the process of cognitive-behavioral thought termination. As such, the deciphering process is done in the conscious state of the individual by means of failure recognition and assessment, and formulation of termination means (Loker 43).

    The analysis of dreaming in relation to the physiological phenomenon of REM sleep is a great advancement in the avenue of scientific dream studies (Franklin and Zyphur 61). The state of dreaming was defined as the experiences occurring in the subjective conscious state of an individual in sleeping while REM sleep refers to the physiological state of sleep (Franklin and Zyphur 61). Various dream reports proved that during REM sleep, dreaming occurs. As such, dreaming was described as non-static process with discrete phases as indicated by physiological measurements (Franklin and Zyphur 61). Even though most of the time we could hardly remember every detail of our own dreams, we generally remember the parts prior to our awakening. Dreams occur not only in REM sleep but also in non-REM sleep with respective occurrence probability of 80% and 30% (DeGracia 2). Furthermore, the application of electro-oculography or EOG, EMG or electromyography, and electroencephalography respectively for eye movement, muscle movement and brain activity was found to be functional in the differentiation of arousal states during sleep (Franklin and Zyphur 61). Specifically, the REM sleep is the hyperactivated stage as characterized by alpha and beta EEG activities similar to the conscious state, deterred muscle activity due to induced paralysis, and movements of the eyes (Franklin and Zyphur 61).

    Experimental studies on dreams showed the connection between dreaming and REM sleep. For instance, individuals who were intruded in their REM sleep experienced dreaming and reported such in a more dramatic and detailed means than those who undergone non-REM sleep (Franklin and Zyphur 61). In REM sleep, electrical activities of the brain, except for the eye, that direct bodily movements are hindered (Franklin and Zyphur 61). While sleeping, the brain undergoes a cycle of several stages of both low and high brain activities.

    Lesions on various species and human disorders cause deterrence of the inhibitory response resulting to the generation of muscular action and acting out dream actions while sleeping (Franklin and Zyphur 62). In connection to this, controversy on whether or not animals experience dreams while in REM sleep arise because the brain processes of animal species while sleeping can hardly be noted (Franklin and Zyphur 62). However, startling and threat-induced actions were observed on some animals while in REM sleep (Siegel 212). These actions were attributed to the perceptions coded in the mind related to the specific action displayed. As a proof, an electrophysiological study on the hippocampal cells in rats reported that rats while asleep showed activation of cells that were active during running of the rats in the day time (Siegel 722). This observation has led to the notion of rehearsal function of dreams wherein the animals rehearse the action done during its conscious state. Off course, we cannot easily jibe into generalization that what has been observed in specific animals will hold true to other species and much even more to humans. Further, we cannot directly ascertain that the dream experience of one individual is identical with that of others. Luckily, with the neurophysiological report mentioned a while ago, human experiences in REM sleep are likely to occur in animal REM sleep within the cognitive and perceptual capabilities of the species (Siegel 212). Likewise, dreams beyond the REM sleep and REM sleep without dreams are possible to occur (Franklin and Zyphur 63). By means of dream content analysis differences of REM sleep from non-REM were revealed; the differences among the cognitive processes of the sleep cycle would produce a wide-range of dream variety (Franklin and Zyphur 63). On the other hand, REM dreams, even though have elements similar to non-REM dreams, are comprised of recurring theme which makes it well-detailed and more dramatic (Franklin and Zyphur 63).

    The Compensation Theory

    The compensation theory is similar to the Rapid Eye Movement or REM dream which includes the dreams of both normal and neurotic individuals (Loker 50). While the dreams of REM sleep exclude individuals with poor mental health conditions, non-REM dreams pertain to thoughts produced during the conscious state of the mind (Loker 50). Apparently, REM sleep analogically shapes the reality to terminate lopsidedness that poses harm to the state of the mind (Loker 50). The elemental thoughts generally present in any dreams are: lopsidedness or negative cognitive-behavioral events; the probable explanation for the lopsidedness; and the possible means to compensate or delete the negative thoughts (Loker 43). With these elemental thoughts, only the lopsidedness is always present in every dream; the lopsidedness is the cause of and treated by the dream per se (Loker 43). Every dream has only a single lopsidedness or harmful cognitive-behavioral event that the conscious state of the mind tries to resolve (Loker 50). In addition, the dream elements can also be present not only in a single dream but distributed on the consecutive dreams in one dreaming session (Loker 50). Similarly, a dream cannot be generated by negative events that are failed to be recognized either by the conscious or the unconscious mind (Loker 43). Nonetheless, the sequence of occurrence of the lopsidedness, compensation, and lopsidedness explanation in a dream with their respective affects accompaniments, signifies symbolic or analogical importance (Loker 49).

    Since dreams tended to terminate negative cognitive-behavioral event or lopsidedness, the REM sleep without any dream results to the production of similar dreams in consecutive sleeps which requires longer REM time (Loker 54). As the analogic operations of the right brain attain its climax, with the less left brain intervention, during REM sleep and REM sleep without dream analogically shape the reality, the deterrence of these processes result to longer REM time in the succeeding nights (Loker 54). REM dreams that occur during REM sleep tended to terminate harmful lopsidedness, the prevention then of REM sleep would trigger aggression and anxiety (Loker 54). Moreover, the interruption of REM dream would aggravate the negative affects due to the activation and insufficient processing of the lopsidedness (Loker 54).

    As common observation, each mental patient has experienced oddities in her or his life, either traumatically or non-traumatically, that in the long run became unbearable and caused mental problems (Loker 51). Dreams then help to shield the mind against mental health deterioration by terminating harmful events. While the lopsidedness and its causes appear with diagnostic value, the compensation bears therapeutic significance (Loker 51). These denote then the importance of every aspect of a dream in mental therapy. Thus, dreams influence the cognition process of the conscious mind by means of reality and dream elements association (Loker 55). Also, dream rehearsals were found to smooth the progress of therapy and facilitate the symptom elimination (Loker 55). Hence, dream rehearsals that stimulate association among thoughts even they are correctly decipher at the conscious state would facilitate the recognition of therapeutic and diagnostic implication of dream elements which in turn positively shapes the progress of therapy (Loker 55).

    The Activation-Synthesis Hypothesis

    In 1977, Hobson and McCarly proposed the “activation-synthesis hypothesis” which is the most recognized theory on dreaming that works in concurrence with the REM sleep physiology (Franklin and Zyphur 63). Based on this hypothesis, dreams are produced by the forebrain’s response to random brainstem-originated neuro-electrical activity as proven by the ponto-geniculo-occipital or PGO waves taken in REM sleep (Franklin and Zyphur 63). PGO pertains to the pons or the site of the activity, the sensory transmission zone or the thalamus’ lateral geniculate nucleus, and the visual sensory processing zone or the occipital. As suggested by Hobson and McCarly, the noise or random activity originated from the pons is relayed into various sensory stations and decoded by the brain that induces dreaming (Franklin and Zyphur 63). Thus, the “activation-synthesis hypothesis” ascribed dreaming to the spontaneity of several parts of the brain in putting together various pieces of sensory details producing dreams (Franklin and Zyphur 63). Furthermore, the hypothesis not only delved on the analysis of dreams from the direct narration of the dreamer but also posits on the structuring of dream thoughts on the waking state through intuition (Franklin and Zyphur 63).

    Since mental imagery has been associated with excellent performance of individuals in music and creative endeavors, dream experiences denote creative representation of sensory information in the mind of the dreamer (Franklin and Zyphur 65). Hence, a nightmare indicates the high capacity for mental imagery of the brain for it triggers cognitive and physiological responses that make the dreamer to be awakened (Franklin and Zyphur 65). Although, dreams are comprised of mental images not simultaneously perceived from the environment during the sleeping time, dream thoughts appear to be real and connected with the real-life experiences of the dreamer (Franklin and Zyphur 65). Thus, if cognitive imagination of a certain event induces the activation of the appropriate brain region identical to putting that perceived event into action, the “threat-simulation hypothesis” argued that dreams allow individual for mental rehearsal of a specific action which eventually facilitates her or his environmental adaptation (Franklin and Zyphur 65). However, the limitation of the “activation-synthesis hypothesis” was assessed. For instance, the notion of the hypothesis concerning the random brain activity that produces dream was debunked and found incoherent with the dream reports (Franklin and Zyphur 64). Dream studies showed that events in most dreams of individuals have connection to their respective real life experiences; thus, dreams are not just confabulated processed-sensory information (Franklin and Zyphur 64). In addition, neuropsychological findings revealed that the brainstem which was pointed by the hypothesis as site of random electrical activity has no direct role in the occurrence of dreams (Franklin and Zyphur 64). Instead, Solms proposed that the forebrain directly influence dreaming and dreams have coherent elemental patterns or themes (Franklin and Zyphur 64). As such, the patterns, story-lines, and the intended purposes of those in dreaming can be further scrutinized.

    The Threat-Simulation Hypothesis

    The brain functions mainly for perception and cognition of every stimulus from the environment, and as the processor of every sensory information (Franklin and Zyphur 64). However, brain spends more time not on the handling and processing of information but on the cognitive rehearsal of every action to ensure smooth adaptation with the environment (Franklin and Zyphur 64). In fact, as revealed by neuroimaging examinations, particularly on PET or positron-emission topography, by just imagining a visual stimulus, it induces the activation of the visual cortex (Franklin and Zyphur 64). Also, by merely just motor task imagination, the motor cortex is activated (Franklin and Zyphur 64). These observations then entail mental rehearsal of perceived stimulus or activity without acting it out. This process enhances the capability of the individual for a successful action or behavior in the actual performance (Franklin and Zyphur 64).

    Costly Signaling Theory

    The cost signaling theory, CST, is largely anchored on the signaling behaviors of animal species (McNamara and Szent-Imrey 29). In order for signals to serve as a means of communication, they must be all impeccable which can be costly generated behaviorally, motorically, or metabolically (McNamara and Szent-Imrey 29). The costliness or production difficulties are signs of genuine honesty among animals which have deception abilities but necessitate signaling veracity within their respective flocks (McNamara and Szent-Imrey 29). Thus, animals display signal in such a way to maximize its benefits; low-quality signals are unlikely to be generated due to costliness of signal production of any kind. Meanwhile, humans have a wide-range of signaling behaviors such through speech and even non-verbal behaviors like bodily actions to convey intended messages (McNamara and Szent-Imrey 29). In the same manner as signaling behaviors, the intensity of REM sleep is costly to be produced by low-quality species; hence, animals hardly produced fake signals due to its costliness (McNamara and Szent-Imrey 29). In connection to this, dreams may also affect signal production as they take influence on the behavior of the individual in his or her awaken state which in turn conveys specific message other individuals (McNamara and Szent-Imrey 29).

    Dream Research

    Dream occurrence in REM sleep cannot only be attributed to REM physiology (McNamara and Szent-Imrey 28). Detailed dream with vivid imagery are likely to occur as PGO waves simultaneously crop up with REM (McNamara and Szent-Imrey 28). Both REM and non-REM sleep cycles are predetermined by phylogenic factors and the mass of the brain (Le Bon et al. 141). For instance, 2-7 sleep cycles were generally noted for REM and non-REM sleep of individuals at young or middle-aged level (Le Bon et al. 141). Also, the activation of the limbic region imparts social interaction and emotion in dream story-line (McNamara and Szent-Imrey 28). As recently revealed by fMRI of functional magnetic resonance imaging and positron emission tomography or PET, the brain in its sleeping state exhibits active metabolic signs in amygdale, midbrain tegmentum, limbic, pontine and anterior cingulated, and metabolic deactivation in posterior cingulated prefrontal areas and parietal cortex which denote the generation of negative emotions while dreaming (McNamara and Szent-Imrey 29).

    In human laboratory studies of REM sleep, the subjects were observed naturally while sleeping. Each subject has polygraphic recording systems for different innervated physiology, EEG, and extraocular muscle movements (Reiser 352). Through these recording systems, the REM sleep of the subjects were easily controlled and manipulated; thus, upon their arousal, their respective dream reports where immediately analyzed (Reiser 352). These experimental studies generated significant findings on the nature and content of dreams. As polygraph recordings were simultaneously taken during subjects’ sleep, physiological changes of the brain and its implications were successfully noted and intensively examined (Reiser 353). Furthermore, various psychophysiological experiments have reported the correlations between dream content and emotional state or stressful life of the subjects (Reiser 353). We may infer then that emotions and memory have direct impact on dreaming.

    Works Cited

    DeGracia, Donald J. “Paradigms of Consciousness During Sleep.” 15 August 2001. Wayne State University. 1 April 2009

    Franklin, Michael S. and Zyphur, Michael J. “The Role of Dreams in the Evolution of the Human Mind.” Evolutionary Psychology 3 (2005): 59-78.

    Freud, Sigmund. Dream Psychology, Psychoanalysis for Beginners. Trans. Eder, M.D. New York: The James A. McCann Company, 2008.

    Hobson, J.A., Pace-Schott, E.F. and Stickgold, R. Sleep and Dreaming: Scientific Advances and Reconsiderations. Ed. Pace-Schott, Edward F., Solms, Mark, Blagrove, Mark and Harnard, Stevan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    Le Bon O., Staner, L., Rivelli, S.K., Hoffman. G., Pelc, I. and Linkowski, P. “Correlations Using the NREM-REM Sleep Cycle Frequency Support Distinct Regulation Mechanisms for REM and NREM sleep.” Journal of Applied Physiology 93 (2002): 143-146.

    Loker, Altan. “New Facts About Dreams and Psychotherapy Deduced from Jung’s Compensation Theory.” The Journal of Jungian Theory and Practice 9, 2 (2007): 41-61.

    Mageo, Jeannette Marie. Dreaming and the Self: New Perspectives on Subjectivity, Identity, and Emotion. Georgia: New York Press, 2003.

    McNamara, Patrick and Szent-Imrey, Reka. “Costly Signaling Theory of REM Sleeps and Dreams.” Evolutionary Psychology 5, 1 (2007): 28-44.

    Muller, Christopher. “Who Your Are or What You Did, The Origin of Dreams.” 1 November 2000. 1 April 2009

    Pick, Daniel and Roper Lyndal. Dreams and History: The Interpretation of Dreams from Ancient Greece to Modern Psychoanalysis. Oxford: Psychology Press, 2004.

    Reed, Henry. Dream Medicine: Learning How to Get Help from Our Dreams. Birmingham: Star Enterprises, 2005

    Reiser, Morton F. “The Dream in Contemporary Psychiatry.” American Journal of Psychiatry 158 (2001): 351-359.

    Siegel, Jerome M. “Do All Animals Sleep.” Trends in Neurosciences 31, 4 (2008): 208-212.

    Siegel, Jerome M. “The Stuff Dreams Are Made of Anatomical Substrates of REM Sleep.” Nature Neuroscience 9, 6 (2006): 721-722.

    Strauch, Inge and Meier, Barbara. In Search of Dreams: Results of Experimental Dream Research. New York: Suny Press, 1996.


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