Lade Inhalt...

Why do we dream?

Analysis of various Dream Theories from Ancient Egypt to the Present

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2010 24 Seiten

Anglistik - Sonstiges


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. Analysis of different Dream Theories
A. A Historical Perspective on Dreams
1. Ancient Egypt (Metaphysical Theory)
2. Greek Philosophy on Dreaming (Psychological Theory)
3. Biblical Visions
B. Freud & Jung (Psychoanalytic Perspective)
C. Biological Perspective (Activation-Synthesis Hypothesis)
D. Cognitive Perspective (Memory Consolidation)

III. Sara’s Nightmare – Comparison of the Dream Theories on a specific Dream

IV. Conclusion
Works Cited

I. Introduction

Dreams can be seen as subjective phenomena that only become realities if we can remember their contents after waking. But how many of you remember your dreams and why do we dream at all? – The first question can easily be answered: About 80% according to the statistics (Jouvet 27). The answer to the second question, however, has puzzled humankind for a long time and even today scientists do not agree on one explicit theory.

In my term paper I will present various answers to the question of dreaming given by different dream analysts. At first, I will give a short historical overview on the role of dreams and how they have been seen in different societies. Whereas the Ancient Egypt and the bible attributed a supernatural element to dreams, Aristotle introduced the psychological character of dreams.

The main work of my paper will be the analysis of three major perspectives on dream theories: The psychoanalytical, the biological, and the cognitive perspective. Freud argued that dreams express unconscious desires and underlying wishes which he termed the latent content. In contrast, Hobson & McCarley believe that dreams are created because of random activity in the brain during a certain state of sleep (REM). More recent studies done by Stickgold try to be more precise. He argues that the brain is active during sleep because it tries to identify new connections to learn new things from old memory.

In a final step, I will apply the different dream theories on a dream from the movie “Requiem for a Dream” (USA, 2000) in order to outline and compare their main features and to show what a dream can tell us about the personality and the life of the dreamer according to the three perspectives.

II. Analysis of different Dream Theories

A. A Historical Perspective of Dreams

1. Ancient Egypt (Metaphysical Theory)

The work with dreams and their interpretation may be almost as old as dreaming itself. It dates back to 3000- 3500 B.C., where dream interpretations were documented on clay tablets (Siebenthal 56). Dreams were attributed to messages from gods or demons sent during night as an early warning device for disaster or fortune (Jouvet 27). According to Jouvet, even the first dream experts believed in some immaterial element, “spirit”, or “soul”, fundamentally different from the body, which “stays awake during sleep” (28). While he is dreaming, the sleeper is in close contact with the afterworld and his soul is susceptible to the divine (Siebenthal 58). Thus, the nature of dreams was the origin of belief in spirit and soul that can be found in different forms at the dawn of all civilizations and in all religions. This metaphysical side of dreams still exists today: The Masai of Kenya do not dare to wake a sleeper suddenly for fear that his “wandering spirit may not be able to reenter his body” (Jouvet 28).

2. Greek Philosophy on Dreaming (Psychological Theory)

Initially, Greek philosophers also believed that dreams carried divine messages. Homer saw the dream as a winged, divine creature which is located next to the dreamer and conveys a message of the gods (Dieckmann 40). These messages however seemed to be encrypted, that is why dream books were published with general interpretations of common dream symbols.

Aristotle put an end to the idea that dreams are a communication with God. He initiated the psychological character of dreams and considered dreaming as simply activity of the mind during sleep (Siebenthal 63). In his collection Parva naturalia Aristotle suggests that dreams are in fact believed to be a recollection of the day’s events, but he still assumes that they can be a cause or sign of future events (qtd. in Hall 30). That way coming diseases could get in touch long before the dreamer is noticeably ill.

3. Biblical Visions

Christianity revived the idea that dreams had a supernatural element. In the Old Testament God declared that He will speak to prophets through dreams and visions (Num 12:16 qtd. in Hall 32). Probably the most famous of these dreams was Jacob's dream of a ladder from Earth to Heaven which prompts the amazed Jacob to lay the foundation to a house of God (Siebenthal 68)

Dreaming was seen as a religious phenomenon and dream interpretation made use of a variety of symbols with a moral or religious lesson or allegory (Wagner-Simon 33).

B. Freud & Jung (Psychoanalytical Perspective)

Sigmund Freud’s “The Interpretation of Dreams” (1900) remains one of the most important works on dreams. This success is attributed to the fact that he was the first person to study dreams in a comprehensive and scientific way (Foulkes 27). According to Freud, dreams are the product of a conflict between the wish to sleep and unconscious repressed wishes:

Either residues of the previous day have been left over from the activity of waking life and it has not been possible to withdraw the whole cathexis of energy from them; or the activity of the day has led to the stirring up of an unconscious wish (Freud qtd. in Wolman 276);

While awake, these repressed wishes are active in the unconscious but are restrained from entering consciousness by what Freud termed a “censor” (Griffin 8). During the night, however, this censor is not as active as during our waking hours and repressed wishes can be expressed in a dream if they are sufficiently distorted. The mind protects the sleeper from being disturbed by reacting to further external stimuli (noise, temperature, light, pain, etc) as well as all internal stimuli (emotions, fears, desires, previous day's activity) by manufacturing dreams which thus function as a guardian of sleep (Eckes-Lapp 16). If a dreamer now awakes from a nightmare, a particular dream must have failed to sufficiently disguise the unconscious wishes which are expressed and as a consequence, the censor was alarmed.

Freud believed the dream to consist of two parts: the manifest and the latent content. The manifest content can be seen as the visual surface of a dream - what a person would remember as soon as they wake or what they would consciously describe to someone else when recalling the dream. According to Freud, the manifest content possessed no meaning because it was just a distorted representation of the true thought underlying the dream. The latent content refers to the true but unconscious meaning of the dream, unfulfilled wishes and desires that the dreamer is not aware of. If the latent dream content manages to pass the censor by distorting the dream, the true meaning of dreams can be expressed in a symbolic form in the manifest content (Siebenthal 392).

The process by which the latent content is transformed into the manifest content is known as the dream work (Foulkes pp. 62 - 69). Freud applies four main aspects to the dream work which account for how wishes and desires become structured and organized unconsciously: 1) Many different ideas are condensed into one because “[d]reams are brief, meagre and laconic in comparison with the range and wealth of the dream-thoughts” (Freud qtd. in Foulkes 62). Condensation is caused by latent elements which have something in common and are combined and fused into a single unity in the manifest dream. Freud points out that the process is like constructing a new concept out of something that various people, things and places have in common. There is, however, no simple relation between the elements in the latent and the manifest dream as in a word-for-word or a sign-for-sign translation. 2) Elements which stand out in the manifest content of a dream do not have to be important in the latent content. The essence of a dream does not have to be represented in a dream at all. Freud calls this process displacement: Instead of directing the idea or desire toward the intended person or object it can be transferred onto a meaningless object in the manifest dream but it is still related to the first idea by a chain of associations. 3) Abstract thoughts are transformed to visual images through considerations of representability. The mind may use an image of a similar sounding word or a similar looking object. According to Freud, dream images often symbolize sexual objects and thus many dreams have a sexual correlation (Faraday pp. 84): He suggested that nearly every long and sharp object could be a symbol for the male organ / an erection; whereas boxes, ovens and other hollow objects represented the female genitalia. Even the act of walking up the stairs could signify a sexual act. 4) The final stage of the dream work is secondary revision. It can be seen as a second order of disguise which covers up possible contradiction and tries to reorganize the dream into a pattern which is similar to the dreamer’s experience of everyday life.

Freud uses free association to discover the underlying meaning / the latent content of a dream. Free association is a state in which the dreamer lets his thoughts wander freely and describes as accurately as possible what he is thinking. The interpreter tries to discover all manifest content associations and thus moves in the opposite direction in order to unravel the dream work until the latent content is revealed (Foulkes 36). As mentioned above, Freud believes that dreams are a form of fulfilling suppressed wishes. According to him, wishes go unsatisfied during the dreamer’s day and the mind reacts to this stimulus by transforming it into a visual fantasy at night which allows the dreamer to satisfy his desire (Jones pp. 10 - 14). The result of this transformation is a peaceful sleep.



ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
826 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Universität Osnabrück
Dreams dreaming cognitive science brain sleep american




Titel: Why do we dream?