The Psychology of Dreams: Inside the Dream Mind

Outline of human head amongst the moon, clouds and stars.

Why do we dream? How do dreams provide insight into the mind? Are dreams relevant to waking life? From ancient times when dreams were considered to hold prophetic powers to the neurological phenomena studied today, dreams remain one of psychology’s most enduring mysteries. Although scientists continue to research the answers to these questions, they build their work on some commonly accepted dream theories.

The Nature of Dreams

Defined as a series of thoughts, visions or feelings, dreams arise several times per night during sleep.

As a process, sleep is cyclical. It occurs in five stages, each helping to further the body’s goal of bolstering and regenerating itself. While stages 1-4 are simply named as such, the fifth stage is called Rapid Eye Movement, or REM. It makes up about 20 to 25 percent of adult sleep.

Graphic depicting the five stages of the sleep cycle.

The REM stage is the most common time of dreaming, explains the National Sleep Foundation. Dreams themselves usually last between a few seconds to 30 minutes in length. On average, people dream about four to six times per night, with adults dreaming about two hours for every eight hours of sleep.

In addition to its association with dreams, the REM stage is a time when the body processes information, creates memories and increases depleted chemicals, such as serotonin. Although the necessity of sleep has long been observed, only in recent history did people consider that dreams may also serve a utilitarian function.

Four Theories of Dreams

The past two centuries have given rise to four of the most commonly accepted dream theories.

Sigmund Freud and Wish-Fulfillment

The famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud was the first to suggest that dreams may serve a particular scientific purpose. He came to believe that dreams were often a form of wish-fulfillment, the American Psychoanalytic Association says. In a dream, a subject could act out desires he or she could not fulfill in waking life. Some types of dreams, however, proved problematic within this model, such as dreams involving punishment or traumatic events. These led Freud to believe that dreams sometimes served as a way for patients to express guilt or conquer trauma. All these conjectures played into Freud’s overall (and revolutionary) theory of dreams: that they were manifestations of unconscious workings of the brain. 

Carl Jung: Dreams as Direct Mental Expressions

Although Freud and Carl Jung were contemporaries, they disagreed strongly (and famously) about the nature of dreams. Freud believed that dreams, by nature, disguised their meaning. In contrast, Jung believed that dreams were actually direct expressions of the mind itself. Dreams, he thought, expressed an individual’s unconscious state through a language of symbols and metaphors. This “language” was natural to the unconscious state, but difficult to understand because it varied so much from waking language. Notably, Jung also believed that universal archetypes (or images) intrinsic to all human consciousness existed within this language. He believed that dreams served two functions: to compensate for imbalances in the dreamers’ psyche, and to provide prospective images of the future, which allowed the dreamer to anticipate future events.

REM and Activation-Synthesis

Yet another theory arose with the discovery of REM. The Activation-Synthesis theory was conceived by Harvard professors Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley in the 1970s, explains Joe Griffin of the Human Givens Institute. Hobson and McCarley discovered that during REM sleep, electrical signals called electroencephalogram recordings, or EEGs, pass through the brain. They theorized that the brain naturally reacted by attempting to make sense of the random stimulus. Thus, dreams had no intrinsic meaning; they were just a side effect of the brain’s normal activity. While this theory was revolutionary at the time, the continual advancement of technology has led to tremendous revision of this theory.

Threat Simulation Theory

Finnish psychologist Antti Revonsuo is one of the latest researchers to suggest a convincing theory about the function of dreams. Revonsuo found that during REM sleep, the amygdala (the fight-or-flight section of the brain) actually fires in similar ways as it does during a survival threat. “The primary function of negative dreams,” he explains, “is rehearsal for similar real events, so that threat recognition and avoidance happens faster and more automatically in comparable real situations.” In other words, dreams are an evolutionary trait designed to help us practice being safe.

Advance Your Understanding of Psychology

Those who enter the field of psychology face the challenge of discovering new answers to old questions regarding human thinking. Brescia University’s online Bachelor of Arts in Psychology provides students with the training required for multiple career paths or graduate study. Brescia’s psychology program was ranked among the top 10 Online Bachelor of Psychology programs by Affordable College Online.