Dreams that we have while we sleep can be pleasant, scary, funny, exotic, sometimes extremely personal and sometimes very far-fetched. No matter what, our dreams have never failed to intrigue us, puzzle us, sometimes even embarrass us, and we often wonder if our dreams have a bearing on something in our real life.
On a very basic level, dreams are what we experience as images, sounds and other sensations, resulting from an internal mental process that happens when we are asleep.
Dream Symbols and Meanings
Though prophetic, telepathic and other paranormal interpretations of dreams abound in traditional cultures from time immemorial and have even extended into modern societies, there is no solid scientific evidence that can support any of these claims of dream interpretation. Books and websites claiming to offer ‘expert’ interpretation for every kind of dream can never be taken too seriously because ‘dream experts’ never seem to agree upon a common code to crack dream symbols.
Dreams may have symbolic meaning but no one can claim to draw an authentic list of dream symbols because dreams are very personal. Symbols and their reference can differ from person to person. For example, dreaming of a snake has been interpreted variously as repressed sexuality, a healing or transformation process, unsettling emotions, an inner conflict-the list can go on depending on whether the dream had one/two/many, yellow/green/black snake (s) that chased/bit /killed someone or you.
Freud’s Dream Theories vs Modern Dream Research
Sigmund Freud, the Austrian neurologist was the prominent forerunner of psychotherapy who developed the school of psychoanalysis and put forward dream theories and interpretations. Dubbing dreams the ‘royal road to the unconscious’, Freud described dreams as emerging from a person’s suppressed areas of mind—most often a reflection of repressed childhood memories or associations, especially driven by unconscious sexual desire. Though modern dream research based on an understanding of human sleep cycles is putting forward more theories, there is no definitive answer to the question, “Why do we dream?"
REM Sleep and Dreams
People who have a healthy sleep pattern at night have a particular stage of sleep called rapid eye movement (REM) that lasts for about 90 minutes and can happen 3 to 4 times each night. REM sleep is the time when the brain is more active resembling a period of being ‘awake’. Experts have identified this REM period as the time when a person has dreams with story-like sequences, rich in content, action and emotion. A person tends to remember the dream if awakened during the REM sleep. Dreams during other stages of sleep may not be as vivid or memorable.
The Dream Process
Some experts in Sleep Medicine prefer to begin with the neurophysiological process of dreaming, to understand dreams. An EEG record of electrical signals from the brain while a person is asleep would show rapid-low-voltage brain activity during a dream and slow-waves between dreams.
The waves are connected to a memory consolidation process that the brain does each day as it arranges all thoughts of the day and arranges them according to the strength of emotion attached to each and the frequency with which each occurred. This process repeated daily and done throughout a lifetime helps us retain strong memories—obvious or hidden, while weaker memories fade away.
The part of the brain that dreams is aware of the review of memories and researchers theorize that the brain tries to arrange strong, emotional memories as simple stories that are played during REM sleep.
Just as pleasant experiences are sometimes replicated in dreams, it is quite possible for dreams to reflect stress patterns, our anxieties and fears. Many of us have had dreams that relate to our current concerns and situations or events that troubled us in the past. Students anxiously preparing for exams tend to dream of examination halls or of sitting with a blank answer sheet or even have a nightmare where they seem to have forgotten all answers. People who had felt stressed while preparing for exams when they were young tend to dream of exam halls even in their sixties or even after they have retired from office work!
A wet dream or a nocturnal emission happens when there is a spontaneous orgasm involving release of semen during sleep for a male or a wet vagina for a female. An erotic dream can result in nocturnal emission and you may or may not remember the dream sequence when you wake up. Wet dreams can be common in adolescents and young adults and there is nothing a person can do to control it. It does not happen as a result of conscious masturbation. Some teenagers who find wet dreams worrisome need to understand that it is a normal occurrence that's part of growing up. But if still disturbs, you can see a psychologist.
Some dreams can make you happy, refresh you, energize you, give you a new lead and set you on a new course of action when you wake up. Some dreams can puzzle you even frighten you. The worrisome ones, you can dismiss them as just dreams. But if certain recurrent dreams or nightmares continue to disturb, frighten, or distress you, visit a psychiatrist who can detect an inner conflict and perhaps counsel you and set your mind at ease.