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Stuff that dreams are made of

Why and how do dreams happen?

Stuff that dreams are made of

Dreams are the royal road to the unconscious” —Sigmund Freud

It’s always the same dream. By now, I know it by heart. The setting is different. Sometimes I am in the plains, at other times in the mountains. Sometimes it’s daytime, other times it’s evening. Sometimes I’m alone, other times a friend or family member is with me. But it’s always the same dream. I’m driving a car and I realise that there are no brakes. The car accelerates, we are going faster and faster and all I can do is to keep control of it.

I know that up ahead somewhere, I will need the brakes, I will lose control and then…what will happen? Curiously, there is no panic although I am worried. The feared crash never does happen. I drive as best as I can, screeching around curves, slowing down uphill then speeding up again downhill, always acutely aware that I am not in control and somewhere, soon, this is going to end badly.

But it never does. I wake up and the dream goes away, until the next time.

Before Freud came along and long before modern medical research reduced dreams to just another function of the sleeping brain, they occupied a hallowed place in human imagination. Dreams were always considered a portal to the hidden world, foreseers of the future, revealers of secrets, gateway to the world of spirits and demons. Ancient humans dreamt of faraway places and long gone loved ones and concluded that dreams allowed one to leave one’s body and roam the earth and the heavens, to cross the boundary of death itself and be reunited with those we love who had passed away.

In dreams, we can fly, have powers that we can only dream of in real life, be rich, beautiful, strong, immortal. We can be both the dreamer and the dream watcher at the same time. We can fulfill our fondest desires and indulge our wildest fantasies.

But what does it all mean?

Dreams hold a special fascination for mental health professionals. Although, as a psychiatrist, when someone I am treating asks the simple question “What does this dream mean?” I can only respond with a rather flippant “Well, what does it mean to you?” It matters less what the dream actually means and more what the dreamer ‘associates’ with the dream: what feelings, ideas and fantasies come up as we discuss it further.

The father of modern Psychology, Sigmund Freud, believed that dreams are a window into a person’s ‘Unconscious’, that vast, dark realm that houses our most intimate, powerful and frightening impulses, desires and fantasies.

Before we go further into the meaning of dreams though, it may help to briefly examine why and how dreams happen.

Modern neuroscience and the now well-advanced science of sleep medicine tell us that contrary to popular myth, the brain does not ‘sleep’ i.e. our brains are not in ‘off’ mode when we go to sleep. Quite the contrary, while the electrical activity of the brain (the usual functioning of the brain consists of a mixture of electrical and chemical activity) changes during sleep, our brains remain just as active (and in the case of dreaming, become more active) than our waking state.

Sleep is divided, roughly, into two broad phases. What is commonly known as ‘deep sleep’ which is usually dreamless and comprises around 75 per cent of total sleep time is also called ‘Non-Rapid Eye Movement’ or NREM sleep. The name signifies that during this phase of sleep, if one were to observe the sleeper, there would be no movement of the eyes under their lids. This is the ‘restorative’ phase of sleep necessary for regeneration of energy for the next day.

This is also the phase of sleep in which recovery from injury and normal fatigue occurs. Problems with NREM sleep can cause a variety of problems starting with fatigue and exhaustion the following day.

Interspersed with NREM sleep (about once every 90 minutes) is what is referred to as ‘REM’ or ‘Rapid-Eye Movement’ sleep. As the name implies, if one were to observe the sleeping person in this phase, one would see their eyes moving around under their closed lids just the same as if they were awake. This is the phase of sleep in which a person dreams. In contrast to the eye movements, the rest of a person’s body is completely still and research tells us that in this phase of sleep, there is almost complete paralysis of a person’s muscles, thus ensuring that they do not ‘act out’ their dreams and cause injury to themselves or their bed partners.

REM sleep comprises around 20-25 per cent of the total sleep time. Everyone dreams, even if they say they don’t. Not everyone remembers their dreams though. In fact, the commonly remembered dreams are usually those with vivid and/or frightening content or dreams that occur in the lightest sleep, just before awakening.

But this doesn’t answer our original question. What does a particular dream (especially a recurring one) mean?

The father of modern Psychology, Sigmund Freud, believed that dreams are a window into a person’s ‘Unconscious’, that vast, dark realm that houses our most intimate, powerful and frightening impulses, desires and fantasies.

According to Freudian psychology, our waking consciousness is less than the tip of an iceberg under which lies our unconscious which houses feelings from infancy and childhood, desires, fantasies (many time aggressive or violent ones) and many impulses considered unacceptable by modern society. As the word implies, our unconscious is outside the realm of our awareness. We cannot access it in our waking state since what dwells within it is both powerful and terrifying. Freud went so far as to say that most of our life decisions and actions are driven by what resides in our unconscious; that what we consider ‘rational’ decisions and life-choices are in fact ‘retroactive’. We make important life choices under the influence of our unconscious and only later rationalise them.

This formulation, which essentially states that most humans sleep-walk through their lives with no awareness of where they are going or why, has been one of the controversial facets of psycho-analytic ideas.

There was one way, Freud believed, in which one could access the dungeon of the unconscious which he deemed essential. After all, if one cannot examine what lies there, how can one understand one’s life?. That door to the netherworld of the unconscious was dreams. Since the rational mind is suspended while dreaming, what is in the unconscious can emerge unhindered into awareness.

But it always appears in symbols, pictures, images and ideas that appear fantastical, magical, sometimes ghastly. This is because, according to Freud, that’s the way they exist in the unconscious. It then becomes the task of the dreamer (and their therapist if they are seeing one) to ‘interpret’ the dream, to decipher the meaning of the symbols and images in the dream and assemble them into a coherent whole.

And the dream that I keep having over and over? I know exactly what it means: the nagging feeling inside me, something which all of us have experienced from time to time, that our life is not quite under our control, that it’s not really going the way we want it to, that we are simply trying to steer the best we can while unaware of our impending destination — or doom.

Fortunately, someone much wiser than me interpreted it two hundred years ago. As a young man, Ghalib wrote:

Rau main hai rakhsh-e-Umr, kahan dekhiyay thamay/Ne haath baag par hai na pa hai rakaab main

(The Steed of life/Age is in full gallop, let us see where it halts/there is no hand on the reins, nor a foot in the stirrup)

Ali Madeeh Hashmi

ali hashmi
The writer is a psychiatrist and a Trustee of the Faiz Foundation Trust. He can be reached at [email protected]

One comment

  • According to Hindu (and probably Buddhist) theories, the feelings and impulses that Freud mentioned come not only from the period from birth to the present but also from past lives. Past life therapy is practised in the West also, by non-Hindus (although there may be some influence that can be traced back to Hindu/Buddhist ideas).

    In Vedantic texts, there are 3 states of consciousness: waking, dream and deep sleep. This seems the same as your account.

    I usually don’t remember my dreams but two themes have occurred many times over the years:
    1. I’m walking across a railway line, see a train coming but fall down on the track and wake up just in time,
    2. I am about to write an exam (school or college) but I haven’t done any preparation. Again, I wake up “before the exam”.
    (I am over 60.)

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