Summary: the Study of Dreamsthrough the Modern Psychology

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Human beings spend approximately one-third of their lifetime sleeping. While asleep, everyone has the right and ability to travel in a fantasized world safely and freely; this world is called dream. Modern psychology has developed several theories in explaining the reasons of why we dream. Instead of contrasting each other, the different psychological theories of dreams should be integrated to provide a thorough explanation of this mysterious activity that every human being carries out daily.

The psychodynamic view of dreams claims that dreams disclose the hidden side of reality and the underlying desires of individuals. It was first developed by Sigmund Freud, who claimed that dreams represent our unconscious desires and motivations. Freud mostly focused on the aggressive and sexual instincts that are concealed in daily life. However, the modern psychodynamic view has expanded this argument and claimed that dreams reflect our lives, desires, hidden conflicts with a spectrum of emotions, and past experiences. In Glucksman’s article “The Dream: A Psychodynamically Informative Instrument,” there was a case study about a 35-year old woman who suffered from depression and self-mutilating behaviors. She reported recurrent dream of being in an ocean with giant waves; she tried to grasp the rocks but kept slipping off them. It was analyzed that the intensity of the waves reflected her suicidal impulses, and her inability to control her life was reflected by her failure to hold on to the rocks. The impending crisis of this woman was mirrored in her dreams. With the psychodynamic explanation of dreams, my recurrent dream of constant falling from a cliff which started when I got into college would indicate my fear of all the unknown challenges in college. A lot of narrative dreams support the psychodynamic theory, yet this viewpoint might lack the capacity to explain some totally random dreams.

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In the activation-synthesis hypothesis of dream, the randomness and abundant imagery in dreams are explained by the neuronal generator mechanism of the brainstem. In the article, Hobson and McCarley stated that their activation-synthesis theory did not “exclude possible defensive distortions of the value-free sensorimotor dream stimuli”. They admitted that since the physiological sides of dreams were focused more in their study, they could not account for the emotional aspects of dream experiences. However, this relatively new theory explains dreams with physiologically-based evidence by studying brain waves. The article suggests that the “bizarreness” of dreams is explained by the generator neurons of “diffuse post-synaptic forebrain elements” . The dream-formation process starts with neurons randomly activated and generated in brainstem. Then, the forebrain serves as a synthetic-constructive station. This theory can be supported by many fantastical and discontinuous dreams that are unexplainable by other theories. Nevertheless, the study did ignore a lot of dreams that are developmental and coherent with past or present waking emotional status.

The developmental nature of dreams might be accompanied by the cognitive development theory. In a content analysis of dream reports of 4 to 8-year old children, it was found that children’s dreams followed developmental patterns with an increase in cognitive activities in dreams. As one ages, the amount of self-initiated actions and critical thinking involved in dreams indicate the growing cognitive abilities in children. My sister recalled dreaming about running in a maze when she was young. She referred to the experience as fun and challenging. From a cognitive development viewpoint, this dream could be an indicator of her development in problem-solving and spatial abilities as she aged.

Some have suggested that dreams also help to sort out daily experiences and facilitate memory consolidation. In a study done by Erin Wamsley and Robert Stickgold, it was illustrated that the contents of dreams reflected the process of memory reactivation and consolidation. Before participants went to sleep, they were instructed to complete a visual maze task. According to the result of the study, participants who dreamt about the maze task had shortened their completion time and increased their distance travelled in the maze task afterwards. It was suggested the maze-related dreams were “indicators that performance-relevant components of task memory are being reactivated in the sleeping brain”. This study supports the reactivation-based models of memory consolidation view. Not only consolidation, but all types of information process happen in dreams. In a study about the effect of olfactory stimuli on dream content, it was found that olfactory stimuli during sleep were processed and affect the emotions of the dreams. Positively toned smell triggered significantly more positively toned dreams, and the inverse was true. Both studies support the information-process theory of dream which suggest that dreams consolidate and sort out memories and experiences.

Although all theories seem to be different from each other, they can be interrelated. One example of my friend’s dream demonstrates the application of all theories. My friend reported to me that she had this weird dream one night: she was with me and two other friends that she had not seen for years; we went to her house back home. All of us started drinking and I threw up on her bed. She had to take care of me. In the beginning of the semester, my friend actually suffered from alcohol intoxication and was taken care of by her friends. She stopped drinking after then. On the day that she dreamt at night, I discussed the topics of dreams that I learnt from this class with her. The fact that I was in her dream could be triggered by her memory of our daytime conversation about dreaming. The information-processing theory would suggest that the dream helped to sort out her daytime activities. According to the cognitive development theory, she might be learning from her mistake and reliving a similar experience in her dream further alarmed her. The dream definitely mirrored one of her recent experiences and her inner fear of repeating her mistake. By projecting her experience onto me, the defense mechanism of projection in the psychodynamic theory would explain her dream. The appearance of home and old friends could also imply her desire to go home. There were still random aspects of the dream that would be hard to explain, which the activation-synthesis hypothesis could be considered for.

Study of dreams is definitely one of the most challenging tasks. The combination of physiological research about the brain and content analysis might be a possible direction for further studies about dreams since it is such a complex and fluid field. However, as we have discussed in lecture and seen in readings, the future of dream study remains optimistic with the integration of all different theories.  

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