Many a learned mind has been fascinated by the idea that our dreams are more than a series of random electrical impulses that our mind tries to piece together into a semi-coherent story on awakening. Because for those of us that remember our dreams, they can leave a strong emotional imprint that stays with us long after we have gotten up out of bed. Other times, they are half remembered snippets that come back to us in flashes of remembering during the course of our day.
Before we look into the subject of the interpretation of our dreams, let’s look into why we dream, because surely one will impact the other, won’t it?
Science has not always agreed on the answer to the question as to why we dream. But with advances in electro-encephalographic (EEG) technology, we can make more of an educated guess.
When sleeping, our brain experiences four different types of brain waves; delta, theta, alpha and beta, differentiated by the oscillation frequency of these brain waves. An EEG measure these brain waves. Each stage of sleep is characterised by the level and type of brain wave activity.
Stage 1 – Is when we enter a light sleep, this stage is characterised by Alpha waves (high amplitude waves) and is why we can be easily awakened during this stage. At this point, the brain starts to slow down and produces Theta waves.
Stage 2 – Your brain slows down even further, producing more Theta waves. Your heart rate and breathing slows, body temperature drops, muscles relax and eye movement virtually stops. During this stage, sleep spindles are present (a burst of neural oscillatory activity) which are believed to play a role in the integration of new memories as well as calming the body's response to stimuli.
Stage 3 – Is a deep sleep known as slow wave sleep due to the Delta waves present during this stage. It is the stage where human growth hormone is released, allowing your body to recover from the stresses of the day. This is the stage where sleepwalking and night terrors occur.
Stage 4 – The deepest stage of sleep where rapid eye movement (REM) and almost complete paralysis of the body occurs. This is the stage when we dream, and brain activity levels are close to those when we are awake. In this stage, Beta waves are present which are associated with active, busy thinking. Our brain is doing something, and it is running at full throttle.
So, how does the brain wave activity during sleep impact our dreams?
When running a sleep study, researchers found that when participants were woken during REM sleep, those with low theta waves in the frontal lobe were more likely to remember their dreams. This increased likelihood to remember is interesting because it mirrors the type of brain activity that occurs when successfully retrieving autobiographical memories when awake.
Our brain is treating the recollection of dreams in the same manner as it does the recollection of experienced memory!
Making it difficult to accept the concept that dreams are merely a series of random electrical impulses. Why would we bother to process and store randomised parcels of information?
MRI studies of the brain have shown that those vivid, emotionally charged dreams, the ones that stay with us, are linked with activity in the amygdala and the hippocampus, the same parts of the brain activated when processing emotions and memory.
So, scientists theorise dreams are linked to our processing of emotions!
Freud came to the same conclusion without the use of EEG and MRI technology. Sigmund Freud believed that dreams were a representation of our unconscious desires and could serve as a method of wish fulfillment. Before Sigmund Freud’s revolutionary approach to psychoanalysis, dreams were believed to be a combination of religious insights, prophetic dreaming, and a whole lot of nonsense.
Carl Jung, who studying under Freud, agreed with most of his mentors teaching with one major exception; while Freud looked backward believing the dreams were a result of what we have experienced, Jung looked forward believing dreams were a method for the unconscious mind to guide the conscious mind. A way to create a bridge between the conscious and the unconscious minds so that a level of balance between the two could be achieved.
Interestingly, evolutional psychologists have theorised that dreaming serves as a method of ‘threat simulation’ allowing the mind to safely run through threat scenarios, thereby enhancing our neuro-cognitive responses. Basically, allowing us to practice both avoidance and response techniques.
If this is the case, when the zombie apocalypse occurs, I won’t be as paralysed by fear as the next person, as I have experienced and safely defended myself from the zombie horde on a weekly basis for most of my life.
So, science has theorised that our dreams are a way for us to process difficult emotions, consolidate memories and even run through threat scenarios as part of an evolutionary survival game plan, but why is it so hard to interpret what you have dreamt?
Why doesn’t the unconscious mind speak in a language we can understand?
Jung believed that our unconscious minds used archetype and symbolism as a method of communication, believing we draw on a collective consciousness that houses this universal symbology. Although a lot of Jung’s work was dismissed due to his leanings towards metaphysical essentialism and his belief that archetypes are inherited from our folklore, mythology and stories, his theories are still used in modern dream interpretation. Interestingly it was the commonality of themes throughout folklore and mythology that Jung used as a means to ‘prove’ the concept of a universal consciousness or collective consciousness.
Artwork - The Second Plane (The Dreaming Plane) - Petra M Costa - Oracle Deck - A Journey through Myth & Legend
So how do you interpret a dream?
It is an interesting question and one that doesn't have a hard and fast rule that can be applied. Our minds a complex place, so it stands to reason interpretations will vary from one individual to another. But here are some tips that should help you better understand what the hell is going on inside of your dreaming mind.
Focus on the emotions, what you felt during the dream rather than the actual content of the dream itself. As dreams are so closely linked to the processing or even the suppression of our emotions, it is essential to allow those emotions to be the first step in your analysis. If you have a dream of falling and you are feeling terrified of hitting the ground, the dream could be drawing attention to areas in your life where you feel out of control and frightened about what is to come. But if the dream leaves you feeling energised and free, the dream might be reaffirming recent life choices or steering you in a direction where you can live a less restricted life.
Look for the symbolism. Our subconscious mind likes to speak to us in simile and metaphor as well as through universal archetypes. There are a lot of dream interpretation books out on the market, and most are based on extensive research, yet their meanings can vary greatly. You need to add your own unique person experiences into the mix. Water is a common symbol for emotions, but for a surfer it may just symbolise their happy place, for a person unable to swim it could represent their fears as well as obstacles present in their life.
Consider your situation. Our subconscious mind likes to provide answers and guidance. There was a scientific study run on the meaning of dreams. In the study each participant was given the same riddle prior to sleep, a card with the letters HIJKLMNO printed on one side. No other instructions were given. In the morning each person was asked to record their dreams. The answer to the riddle was water (H2O). Not something people automatically know the answer to. But our subconscious is like a vacuum cleaner, constantly picking up information and storing it. A large number of people in the sleep study dreamed about rivers, lakes, rain etc. Their subconscious didn’t come right out and say the answer is WATER, but it provided the answer nethertheless.
Our unconscious mind does not work in the same linear fashion, that our problem-solving conscious mind does, yet it does most of the heavy lifting, with neuroscientists attributing 95% of our brain activity to subconscious processes. Dreams are often offering answers or suggestions. What stood out as the main features of your dream? Now use these focus points and see if there is any connection to your current situation.
Here are a few of the most common dreams and some of the interpretations associated with them.
Falling – A dream of falling as discussed above can represent anxiety, a sense of hopelessness, low self-esteem or can be a dream about letting go and enjoying the moment.
Losing teeth – A feeling of loss of control, an awareness of the fragile nature of life, insecurities about your appearance or the loss of teeth can symbolise a time of rebirth.
Being chased – Can mean you are avoiding an issue, are anxious and worried about an upcoming event or you fear something being taken from you. It can also represent a part of your own personality, one you are not comfortable with, is rearing it head.
Flying – Dreaming of flying can represent possibilities, higher achievements, hope and success but if the dream is associated with anxiety and it can mean you feel unsupported or have taken on a project that you fear you are not capable of completing.
Artwork - The Dreamer - Petra M Costa - Oracle Deck - A Journey through Myth & Legend
Interestingly, dreams can be broken down into a number of categories.
Recurring dreams – A dream that you have experienced on numerous occasions. They are said to be associated with a recurring behavioural pattern or an ongoing unresolved issue. (I have experienced recurring dreams since I was four. I’m not sure what it was my four-year-old mind thought was unresolved that I still have issues with? But OK?!)
False Awakening Dream – Are dreams where you believe you have awakened, you procced through some normal routine and then realise that you are in fact still dreaming. This type of dream happens during REM and occurs when moving into wakefulness, interestingly, at the same time sleep paralysis can occur.
Daydreams – Or being off with the fairies. Studies have shown that daydreaming is not just losing interest in what is happening around you but a slowing down of brain wave activity similar to that experienced when sleeping. (No surprise that I am a big day dreamer too. But in my defense, what happens in my mind is sooo interesting it is hard NOT to get distracted.)
Nightmares – An intense dream that provoke emotions like anger, fear, disgust and usually have a feeling of danger associated with them. Because the dream can wake you, you often remember the detail of a nightmare.
Night Terrors – They sound similar to a nightmare, but they are not. They occur when you partially wake from slow wave sleep and can result in a period of disorientation on waking. If you are experiencing a night terror episode, you may not be able to be woken or can appear awake when you are still experiencing the dream.
Lucid Dreaming – Is a state where you are aware that you are dreaming and, in some cases, can control the course the dream takes. There is a higher level of frontal and frontolateral activity during lucid dreaming which is associated with conscious awareness. This frontal lobe activity is usually reduced during REM sleep.
So, to sum it all up, a dream may just be a dream, a collection of random electrical impulses, but it could also be that your subconscious has picked up on something that it would like you to be aware of, and it is using your dreams as a way to communicate that information.
As always nothing but love.
Petra M Costa
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