Scanning the dreamscape

To better understand the dreamscape we explore the ancient origins of dreams and modern theories about what they mean and why we have them.

For thousands of years, humans have been attempting to interpret and dissect our dreams to understand the dreamscape. As early as 2200 BCE, Mesopotamian kings were recording their dreams by carving images into clay; around a thousand years later the ancient Egyptians started writing theirs down on papyrus. Despite all our interest in dreaming, we’ve yet to come to a solid conclusion about why exactly we dream. Neuroscientist Raphael Vallat told Discover magazine in 2019 that dreaming “is one of the last frontiers in our understanding of the human mind.” Perhaps it’s this mystery, coupled with the often bizarre nature of dreams that makes them such an enduring area of human intrigue. Whether you believe that dreams are messages from our unconscious selves, a portal to the spirit world or simply a strange trick of the human brain, there’s no denying that the dreamscape is a profoundly interesting phenomenon.

What we know about the dreamscape

Researchers say that all of us dream (whether we remember our dreams or not) and that we generally spend about two hours a night dreaming. For the most part, dreams occur while we’re in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep — a phase of our sleep cycle only discovered in 1953 by sleep research pioneers Aserinsky and Kleitman in which our brain is particularly active.

Although we dream in other sleep phases, we tend to have more dreams in REM sleep, and these dreams are more vivid and more easily recalled. The longer we spend in REM sleep, the more vivid our dreams become. It’s during REM sleep that our limbic system — the system that controls our base behaviours and emotions — is especially active, which explains why dreams can be so intensely emotional. REM sleep is also the only time that the stress chemical noradrenaline is effectively shut off. Scientists tell us that as long as our nocturnal imaginings are reasonably pleasant, dreaming is good for us and reflects healthy sleep. “Good dreaming contributes to our psychological wellbeing by supporting healthy memory, warding off depression and expanding our ordinary limited consciousness into broader, spiritual realms,” says sleep and dream specialist Robin Naiman.

Sleep researchers have also found that those who sleep without entering the REM phase suffer from memory loss, suggesting that dreams play an important role in memory consolidation at the end of each day. In fact, researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center found in 2010 that humans are 10 times better at getting through a maze if they’ve slept and dreamed about the maze before attempting it a second time.

Sleep expert Matthew Walker says that only a small percentage (around 1 or 2 per cent) of our dream content is made up of what’s known as “day residue”, meaning it’s inspired by the events of our waking lives, although as much as 35 to 55 per cent may be influenced by emotions we experience during the day.

Modern western theories

Modern science backs up the idea that we dream both to integrate and absorb important information from our waking lives, and to dispose of unnecessary material. Another popular view is that frightening or exhilarating dreams — such as those where we’re being chased, or fleeing a natural disaster — are designed to keep our fight-or-flight responses keen (scientists Ogawa, Nittono and Hori say that this is why our eyes move rapidly in REM sleep—because we’re “scanning the dreamscape” for threats). Other researchers suggest that dreams have the ability to help us process our emotions and heal from painful events, which they say might explain why it can be so hard to treat those experiencing both post-traumatic stress disorder and sleeplessness.

Many scientists propose that dreaming is simply a means to keep our minds somewhat active while we’re asleep, or nothing more than our neural activity firing in weird ways while our bodies rest. Yet for the more mystical-minded, there are many questions that remain unanswered. Where does the remainder of our dream content come from? Do the symbols in our dreams mean anything? And why are some of us much better at remembering our dreams?

Ancient origins of the dreamscape

The belief in the significance of dreams isn’t something that belongs solely to one culture or religion. Researcher J Donald Hughes tells us that, “in virtually all wisdom traditions, dreams are invoked as an important source of revelation or prophecy”.

Dreams are mentioned in Chinese texts dating more than 4000 years ago, while the earliest recordings of dream interpretation are found in the dream books left behind by Mesopotamian and Egyptian cultures around the same time. These cultures believed that dreams delivered messages from the gods and predictions for the future. To ascertain the meaning of the dreams, dreamers would consult with wise people in the community, such as priests or priestesses, physicians or professional dream interpreters. The ancient Greeks shared these ideas, and also believed that dreams offered therapeutic benefits and a means to communicate with the dead. Mention of dreams appeared in the Old Testament (the Torah) between 2000 and 1500 BCE, as well as in ancient Buddhist and Hindu texts.

In many ancient cultures, those who experienced strange dreams were sometimes “incubated” in a sacred building or in nature, where the meaning of the dream was said to reveal itself. In Shamanic communities, individuals might go on a Shamanic journey where the symbolism of the dream could be deciphered. Shamanic cultures also believe that dreams are messages from the spirit world, including from our own spirits (or psyches) and that some spirits are more benevolent and helpful than others.

The idea that the soul actually leaves the body and travels while dreaming— a phenomenon known as astral travel — appears in Shamanic, Hindu and Chinese wisdom.

Freud and Jung

Perhaps no intellectual has been more fascinated by dreams in the last 100 – odd years than the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, and his successor Carl Jung. Freud, who penned Interpretation of Dreams in 1900 and is likely responsible for the 20th century’s renewed interest in dream analysis, believed that dreams were symbolic messages from the unconscious that held truths about our deepest fears and desires. Jung introduced the idea of the collective unconscious: that there is a common consciousness that is shared between all humans — almost like a cloud — and contains certain universal archetypes and symbols.

A Jungian analysis of a dream might recognise the presence of a wise old man in a dream, for example, as an archetypal character that represents an aspect of the dreamer’s own personality. “Since dream images make no sense in ordinary terms, people dismiss them as “weird” or meaningless, but actually, dreams are completely coherent,” wrote Jungian analyst Robert A Johnson in his book Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth. “If we take the time to learn their language, we discover that every dream is a masterpiece of symbolic communication.” While psychoanalysis has largely fallen out of favour in recent decades, Jungian analysts in particular continue to use dreams as a gateway into the human psyche, and Freud’s concept of wish fulfilment remains a prominent theory in the study of dreams.

Remembering your dreams

So, what makes a person more adept at recalling their dreams? There is some evidence that those with a predisposition to anxiety are more likely to dream. “Dreamers tend to be more anxious, but they’re also more open to experiences and more creative people,” says Vallat. He says that in simple terms, dreamers tend to be “artist” types, while non-dreamers are “engineer” types. It also seems that the adage, “Where attention goes, energy flows” is true when it comes to dreaming. The more interested you are in scanning your dreamscape, the better you’ll be at remembering them. Research has found that exercises such as replaying a dream in your mind and then recording it in a notebook each morning upon waking — or even setting the intention each night to remember your dreams — can help with dream recall. And when it comes to encouraging happier dreams, a Harvard Medical School study found that pleasant smells and sounds lead to more enjoyable dreams.


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