TEDxAUCollege | What are dreams, and what can we learn from them?
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What are dreams, and what can we learn from them?

– Nina Liu

Have you dreamt of a pink elephant floating in the air or millions of dollars falling from the sky? You may think otherwise but everyone dreams every single night, although many people can’t recall their dreams when they wake up. Dreams can be bizarre, compelling or intimidating, but what are dreams exactly? What do they reveal about reality? This article will introduce you to a number of well-known psychological theories associated with dreams as well as interpretations of the most commonly experienced dreams.

Freud: dreams as the reflection of our unconscious mind

The well-known psychologist Sigmund Freud believes that the contents of our dreams are just our unconscious thoughts in disguise. Put simply, as human beings, we all have certain deep desires or wishes that we are not consciously aware of in our everyday life. However, these hidden thoughts will pop up in our dreams in a roundabout way. According to Freud, all dreams contain two types of content:  the manifest and latent content. The former is whatever you see or feel directly in your dream, e.g. a flying elephant; and the latter is the symbolic meaning behind the subjects you experience. For example, a flying elephant might imply that you are criticised for pursuing your dream. If you’re interested in this topic, you might like the book The Interpretation of Dreams by Freud. This book provides tools to discover the hidden meaning of your dreams, helping you to learn more about your subconscious self.

Allan Hobson: dreams as products of brain activities

Over the past decade or so, advanced technology has enabled researchers to have a closer look into the sleeping brain. Through experiments and observation, Harvard psychiatrist Allan Hobson came up with an alternative dream interpretation backed up by neuroscience, which is known as the activation-synthesis theory. The idea behind this concept is simple yet sophisticated: just as its name suggests, our brains are hyperactive during sleep where a wide variety of neutral activities are taking place. Random signals may pop up as result. To put things in order, the forebrain tries to assign meanings to those random pieces, thereby forming a coherent dream. It is also worth noting that dreams can only be generated during REM sleep – the period of deep sleep characterized by rapid eye movement. In a nutshell, a dream is a virtual reality internally generated by the sleeping brain without any external sensory input.

Hobson’s theory also explains why we can hardly remember our dreams: during REM sleep, the system in our brain that is responsible for memorization is shut down. In other words, dreams are never stored as short-term memory in the first place. You wake up, your dream ends, and nothing is left in your mind. You may also wonder why the contents of your dreams are often strange, to say the least. This is because, according to Hobson, our sleeping brains can no longer function properly and string things together in a logical way. Instead, strong emotions will dominate our minds and cause dreams to be all over the place, often literally. However, our brains naturally wish to organise those random ideas in order, such that the narratives in dreams usually turn out to have a nice flow. Yet the arbitrary combination of ingredients means that our dream can hardly make sense in reality. If you are interested in the science behind sleeping and dreaming, then check out Hobson’s book ‘Dreaming: An Introduction to the Science of Sleep’.

3 most common dreams and their possible meanings:

Having been introduced to different theories of dreams, you may still be curious about the meaning behind some specific dreams. It seems that we all share some common dream experiences. In case you are interested, these are the three most common dreams:

  1. Being chased: there might be something that you fear or are anxious about in waking life. Those things may hold you back and make you feel reluctant to face the problems.
  2. Flying: the simplest interpretation is that you are becoming more confident and more capable of controlling your own life in reality, because flying usually represents freedom and independence. On the negative side, it might imply that you set yourself a goal too high to achieve, or that you want to escape from reality.
  3. Falling: a falling dream usually signifies the real-life situation in which you feel out of control or overwhelmed. You are probably going through a hard time in life or having some unpleasant experiences. It also indicates fear and insecurity.

This list is not all-inclusive, but you can probably find your answer in the book ‘The Dreamer’s Dictionary’ by Robinson and Corbett.

After all, in no case is there one correct or accurate interpretation of dreams. The same dream content can be interpreted differently depending on your experiences in waking life. Despite the lacking of a definite answer, it is no way saying that dreams do not matter at all. Learning to interpret your dreams can help you uncover your subconscious thoughts or potential problems in life, thereby allowing you to come up with a way to deal with future challenges. Try to explore your dream next time; you may accidentally discover something new about yourself.