In my last post I looked at (among other things) how television can affect your dreams. And that got me thinking—with all the input that’s dumped into our brains daily and processed in the dream world, how much of our dreams relate to media detritus and how much is meaningful information? How can we use our dreams to help us make decisions (as I said in “What Are Your Dreams Trying to Tell You?”) when there’s so much else going on inside our sleeping heads? After a little research, here’s what I found:
1. Dreams that happen in different sleep states may have different “purposes”.
Brain activity changes as brain waves shift during different stages of sleep. Dreams that occur just at the onset of sleep tend to heavily involve memories from either the present day or similar events earlier in life. That’s where the dream that looks suspiciously like an episode of CSI can turn up.
Dreams that happen during REM or deep sleep seem to involve the processing of emotion far more than sleep-onset dreams, according to a 2001 dream article in Science. These are the dreams where you’re more likely to come face to face with your grandmother who passed on ten years ago, or explore the inner reaches of your subconscious psyche.
It may be that sleep-onset dreams help us integrate the activities and information of the day (TV, work, that book you can’t put down…), while REM-related dreams help us process deep-seated emotions and complex information while we sleep. In other words, our mind is helping to synthesize different kinds of messages, and often gives us glimpses of how we should use that information.
2. Dreams have different meanings in different cultures.
In Scientific American’s special issue, “Mysteries of the Mind,” Winson explores the cultural translation of the meaning of dreams—from the oracular predictive power attributed to dreams by the Egyptians, to the many variations on dream theory in modern psychology and medicine. For Freud, dreams were the “royal road” that led the introspective individual to the subconscious; for many Westerners today, dreams are meaningless—just the result of random nerve cells firing.
Despite the many ways we translate our dreams, what our dreams “mean” may have a lot to do with where we live in the world and how we’re raised to think about dreams.
3. Dreams affect the learning process.
Behavioral studies on learning and memory (in the same Science issue cited above) have explored the relationship between sleep and memory function since the discovery of REM sleep in the 1950s. It is thought that REM plays a critical role in some types of learning, and that effects of REM sleep deprivation on learning and cognitive ability can last as much as a week after a single deprivation episode. REM can also help in the processing of emotion, which has some interesting implications for the relationship between emotion and learning (which we usually consider to be “cerebral” or “intellectual,” rather than emotional.
So what are our dreams trying to tell us?
The answer may be different for each one of us. How we think about our dreams may influence how much our dreams can tell us about how to live our lives.
Some people believe that angels work through our dreams, or that spiritual messages can come to us in a dream state. Such beliefs are outside the realm of scientific study but have a long and revered past in human history. Each person must translate her dreams for herself (or himself). Whether you look for messages from God or from your own “divine mind”—or both, or neither—is up to you.