A factor that is missing in many scientific arguments and even therapeutic arguments about whether dreams are functional and meaningful rather than random pieces of flotsam, is the question of their possible self-regulatory function. After the first and second world wars, hundreds of ex-soldiers suffered recurring nightmares about battle scenes. The dreams re-presented the original experience, often accompanied by the original body movements made to escape the horror being faced. Charles Rycroft, in his book anxiety and Neurosis, describes the observed results on people of unexpected disasters such as earthquakes and train accidents. Among other things they have a tendency to ‘waking actions and dreams in which the traumatic experience is repeated.’ He goes on to say that these repetitions in dreams or actions can be ‘thought of as manifestations of the healing process. By repeating the trauma the traumatised person is, as it were, trying to get it in front of himself again so that he can anticipate it, react anxiously to it and then assimilate or ‘get over’ it in the way he would any other distressing experience.’
Working with such dreams leads to the view that there is a self-regulatory process within our psyche, which attempts to find healing through the presentation of such traumatic incidents in dreams. Jung and Hadfield in particular supported this view of dreaming.
The findings in researching dream deprivation also link with this self-regulatory theory. Dr. Dement and others experimented with dream deprivation with many subjects. The most obvious finding was that if the REM – dreaming – period of sleep is disturbed or prevented by waking the subject each time the REM activity begins, the REM periods of dreaming quickly became more and more frequent. The experiments had to be abandoned because without the use of force it became impossible to stop REM sleep, and the subjects were becoming seriously effected. (6)
When the subjects were awoken during their normal sleep for similar periods of time, these critical effects did not arise. While such findings might be explained in a purely physiological way, the mind body unity prevents us from saying, ‘Yes but that is only the result of brain chemicals’. There is obviously a great need on the part of the body/mind to dream. If for no other reason, dreams thereby have a meaningful function.
When the subjects whose REM sleep had been prevented, were allowed normal undisturbed REM dreaming, a massive increase in REM dreaming occurred. This suggested to researchers that the brain has some real need for dreaming, and when deprived will later fulfil its need by increased activity. In the 1970’s research by Ramon Greenberg and Chester Pearlman suggested that REM sleep was an important ingredient in learning from experience. They deprived rats and mice of REM sleep and observed their performance while running a variety of mazes. It was found that loss of REM sleep – no loss of sleep altogether – hardly impaired the performance of running mazes already learnt. However, there was a marked drop in performance of learning new a new maze or performing new tasks of any complexity.
Similar research was later performed with human subjects and showed similar results. These findings led psychiatrists to believe our mind is doing serious work while we dream. It is integrating what has recently been learnt into our long-term memory and possibly practising how to use this in enhancing personal skills. REM may therefore be important in stimulating the development of connective links of thought in infants and young children. The theory would explain why humans, who are constantly adapting to meet new challenges, exhibit so much REM activity.
That dreams occur more frequently after a period of deprivation certainly shows their link with a regulatory process. Learning is also a part of our survival needs, and much of it would appear to occur in a self-regulatory way.
(1) The initials REM stand for ‘rapid eye movement’. This refers to the fact detailed later in the book, that in 1953 Aserinsky and Kleitman found rapid eye movements occurred while people slept. In 1957 the REM were linked with dreaming. Therefore sleep was observed to have two different phases, REM and NREM – non rapid eye movement, or non-REM. Later it was found that even during NREM sleep, a form of dreaming took place that is different to the REM dream with its pronounced imagery and drama.
(2) Van de Castle, Robert L. Our Dreaming Mind. Aquarian. London 1994.
(3) For instance Jules Verne wrote about submarines before they became a reality. Flying machines had been drawn by Leonardo da Vinci.
(4) In the USA by Basic Books, Inc., New York 1988. Published in UK by Penguin Books 1990.
- c(5) An expression of what is happening in the physical body. Some doctors consider dreams to show signs of illness long before they are evident in other ways. Women frequently know they are pregnant very early on through sleep awareness in a dream. See: body.
- A link between the sleeping mind and what is occurring externally. A person may be falling out of bed and dream of flying or falling for instance.
- A way of balancing the physiological and psychological activities in us. When a person is deprived of dreaming in experiments, a breakdown in mind and body quickly occurs. This type of dreaming can often be a safety valve releasing tension and emotion not dealt with in waking life. See: compensation theory; self-regulation dreams and fantasy; science and dreams.
- An enormously original source of insight and information. Dreams tap our memory, our experience, and scan information held in our unconscious to form new insights from old experience. Dreams often present to us summaries or details of experience we have been unable to access consciously. Sometimes this is as early as life in the womb. See: creativity and problem solving in dreams.
- A means of compensating for failure or deprivation in everyday life, and as a means of expressing the otherwise unacknowledged aspects of oneself. Such dreams are a move toward wholeness. See: compensation theory.
- In dreams we may be integrating new experience with what we have already gathered and digested. In this way our abilities, such as social skills, are gradually upgraded.
- Dreams often stand in place of actual experience. So through dreams we may experiment with new experience or practice things we have not yet done externally. For instance many young women dream in detail of giving birth. This function of what might be called ‘imagination’ is tremendously undervalued, but is a foundation upon which human survival is built.
- An means of exercise for the psyche or soul. Just as the body will become sick if not moved and stressed, so the mind and emotions need stimulus and exercise. Dreams fulfil this need.
- An expression of human supersenses. Humans have an unconscious ability to read body language – so they can assess other humans very quickly. Humans have an unimaginable ability to absorb information, not simply from books, but from everyday events. With it they constantly arrive at new insights and realisations. Humans frequently correctly predict the future – not out of a bizarre ability, but from the information gathered about the present. All these abilities and more show in our dreams. See: esp in dreams.
- A means of solving problems, or formulating creative ideas, both in our personal life, and also in relationships and work. Many people have produced highly creative work directly from dreams.
- A presentation in symbols of past traumatic experience. If met this can lead to deep psychological healing. Such dreams are therefore an attempt on the part of our spontaneous inner processes to bring about healing change. See: abreaction; compensation theory; nightmares.
- In the widest sense nearly all dreams act as a process of growth or a move toward maturing. Some dreams are very obviously presenting internal forces or dimensions of experience that might lead the conscious personality toward a greater balance and inclusiveness. See: Individuation.
- A way of reaching beyond the known world of experience and presenting intimations from the unknown. Many people have dreams in which ESP, out of the body experiences, and knowledge transcending time and space occur. This type of dream may indicate a link between the present person and people who had lived in the distant past; or between the dreamer and all existing life. Some of these dreams present powerful insights into how the transitory human personality may arise out of an eternal consciousness. They thus deal with the spiritual aspects of human nature.
c(6) beings. in the mid-1960s, a psychiatrist named Howard Roffwarg, at Columbia University in New York, suggested that nervous activity during REM sleep helps to stimulate the developing brain in very young children, thus promoting the growth of neural connections necessary for learning. In adults, according to Roffwarg, REM serves, like physical exercise, to maintain tone in the central nervous system.
The notion that REM could be a crucial ingredient in the learning process gained momentum during the 1970’s following the work of Boston psychiatrists Ramon Greenberg and Chester Pearlman. In the laboratory, Greenberg and Pearlman deprived rats and mice of REM sleep while training the animals to run through a variety of mazes. The researchers discovered that while REM loss caused test rodents to perform only slightly worse on simple routines that they had al-ready mastered, it had a markedly adverse impact on the animals’ ability to carry out more complex tasks or to learn new ones, of whatever degree of complexity.
Greenberg and Pearlman noted that the same pattern appeared to be true with people. Human volunteers who went without REM sleep could per-form routine activities without much trouble but had much greater difficulty tackling complicated word-memorising tasks. This finding led the psychiatrists to conclude that the mind is doing serious work when it dreams-specifically, it is incorporating newly learned information into a long-term memory bank. According to this theory, REM may thus be critical in stimulating the development of associative thought in infants and young children. The theory would also explain why humans, who must constantly adapt to meet new challenges, exhibit so much REM activity.