William Flew on Dreams

August 2, 2011 § 7 Comments

Dream interpretation is up there with playing Black Sabbath backwards and finding secret messages from the Ku Klux Klan on a Marlboro packet. Snake in the grass? Train in the tunnel? Climbing the stairs? Between 1900 and 1908, Freud’s The
Interpretation of Dreams sold only 600 copies, yet despite no empirical evidence to support the belief that dreams are “the royal road to the unconscious”, his dream theory has penetrated the universal psyche more completely than any other publication of its time.
A couple of years ago Carey K. Morewedge, of Carnegie Mellon University, and Michael I. Norton of Harvard University carried out some research in the US, South Korea and India in an attempt to investigate cultural differences in the way that dreams are interpreted. Turns out, there aren’t any. In their subsequent paper “When Dreaming Is Believing: The (Motivated) Interpretation of Dreams”, they reported that participants from Eastern and Western cultures believe, like Freud, that their dreams “reveal hidden truths” by allowing “emotions buried in the unconscious to come to the surface”. To those who subscribe to the psychodynamic model, your dreams are a clear indication of a troubled relationship, and an unfulfilled wish to jump your best friend’s husband and your work colleague, possibly simultaneously.
Fortunately, dream research no longer relies on self-reporting and speculation, and instead makes use of probes, scans and electrodes to determine scientifically what is going on in the brain while we sleep. The conclusions are not as much fun as “table equals woman, hair loss equals castration”, but they do, at least, make some sense.
During a sleep cycle, the brain switches between two basic forms of sleep: non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM), which is when 80 per cent of dreaming occurs. The switch from NREM to REM sleep throws out all sorts of images, f leeting observations, memories, thoughts and feelings that the forebrain then frantically attempts to synthesise into a coherent narrative, often involving the dwarf from Twin Peaks, or sex with unattractive strangers.
Though they never make much sense, and they have no relevance to our conscious behaviour, the things we dream about are definitely informed by events or experiences that have affected us, often during the previous day. People who endure traumatic experiences relive them in their dreams, but usually it is everyday experiences that reappear, in very peculiar forms, during REM sleep. For a study by Stickgold et al 2000, researchers were forced to play Tetris for several hours before sleeping. That night none of the participants dreamt about playing the game, but they all dreamt about blocks falling and rotating.
Interestingly, dreams with defined sexual content are not particularly common. Only about 3 per cent of women and 10 per cent of men report dreams of a sexual nature (Domhoff 2003), which is surprising when you consider that all men experience erections and all women experience increased vaginal blood f low during REM sleep. No one really knows why, but most scientists believe that it is merely a way of delivering oxygen to genital tissue to keep it healthy.

I suspect that the combination of this, and possibly a full bladder, may provide an explanation for dreaming about sex. And your odd choice of partners may be explained by studies carried out by Hall et al, which show that dream narratives tend to create feelings of anxiety or fear and have predominantly negative outcomes, such as failed exams, lost children, sex with someone unattractive, etc. Probably best not to over-analyse because, as Freud said, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”.

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