Dreams have always been thought to be among the most mysterious manifestations of the human psyche. Each of us has experienced the intuitive feeling that some of our dreams have a meaning that is important for us, but one which we cannot fully interpret. It’s no coincidence that dreams often accompany strong emotions such as fear, alarm and despair, or their opposites, joy and elation. In addition to personal experiences, there are many stories of great discoveries made in dreams, or of dreams which foretold the future.
The paradox is that it is precisely this, almost mythical, condition of the psyche that has been studied more successfully than many others during the last few decades. Though this does not mean the riddle has been solved. As a rule in science, the more interesting new facts we gather, the more the questions that arise. Professor Michel Jouvet, the outstanding French researcher who has made a decisive contribution to the study of dreams, once said: “We still know nothing about dreams, only at a higher level”.
That’s an exaggeration, of course. In the study of sleep and dreams, the science of the brain and psyche has made more progress than any other field. 1953 saw the discovery of REM sleep, the physiological condition during which a person regularly has dreams. This was a huge scientific breakthrough into the unknown. It allowed the study of how psychological experiences in dreams are connected with objective changes in the organism: with electrical activity of the brain; with movement of the eyes which, it was found, move in the direction of the visual images we see in dreams; with changes in pulse rate and blood pressure; with fluctuations in hormone levels in our blood.
Since scientific study of dreams first began, they have confirmed their reputation as mysterious strangers. It was found that during dreams the brain is active in the same way as while awake, experiences the most serious life events, and can solve complex tasks. At the same time, however, muscle tension, muscle tone, falls, as though the sleeper is in a state of maximum emotional relaxation and rest. This characteristic of REM sleep is observed in both humans and animals. Because of it, REM sleep acquired the name “paradoxical sleep”. The experiments of Professor Jouvet helped solve this conundrum. In an animal’s brain there is a cluster of nerve cells responsible for the drop in muscle tone, for complete immobility during REM sleep. When researchers disrupted this portion of the brain, they discovered an amazing picture. An animal deep in REM sleep began, without waking and without opening its eyes, to move around its enclosure as if looking for something; or suddenly ran around, as if fleeing a non-existent enemy; or, quite the reverse, launched into an attack on something non-existent. It then became clear that the muscles relax so that the sleeper does not act in his dreams as though they were real events. Doing that would not only interfere with our sleep, but could also pose a danger to ourselves and our families. (At the same time, these experiments confirmed what many pet owners had long suspected, that animals dream, just like people.)
REM sleep, and consequently dreaming, occupies around one fifth of total sleep time. The condition regularly repeats 4 to 5 times during the night, which means that every one of us has no less than four dreams every night, from birth to death. Usually we don’t remember them, because we don’t wake at the time. If you wake a healthy person regularly during REM sleep, he will be able to tell you his dream in 90 per cent of cases.
REM sleep is very important for the brain and the organism. If a person or animal is woken regularly at the very beginning of REM sleep, thus preventing dreaming, then when they are allowed a night’s sleep without interruption, REM sleep increases significantly, sometimes taking up as much as half the total sleep time.
Systematically depriving a person or animal of REM sleep and dreams leads to significant changes in the psyche and behaviour.
Animals are usually deprived of REM sleep by placing them on a small wooden platform in a pool of water. At the onset of REM sleep, muscle tone drops, the animal falls into the water and wakes up. If the experiment is kept up for long enough, the animal will often die, even if supplied with plenty of food and water.
Only recently did scientists understand that the animals die from a combination of two factors: stress, because of the restriction of their movement, and deprivation of REM sleep. Neither of these factors on its own would cause death, but their combination proves lethal. This fact is very important for an understanding of the role of dreams.
You can’t put a human on a little platform in a pool. To stop people going into REM sleep, they are woken at the first physiological signs of the condition. There was much discussion about how REM sleep deprivation would affect human behaviour. In some studies, suppressing REM sleep led to hallucinations. But such instances were quite rare. A much more frequent effect was a change in the mechanisms of psychological defence.
It has been proved that depriving a person of dreams strengthens the repression mechanism: a person ‘forgets’ precisely those events which he finds most unpleasant and threaten his self-perception. Such ‘forgetting’, however, comes at a cost: a person becomes more anxious and tense and his defences against stress are weakened.
Different people have different sleep requirements. There are people who need 5 hours a day to feel well. They are short sleepers. Then there are people who need not less than 9 to 10 hours. It turns out that long sleepers experience twice as much REM sleep.
Short sleepers are people with a strong psychological defence of the type that rejects unpleasant events or refuses to give them much thought. They are energetic, forceful, full of initiative, and not much inclined to dwell on the fine detail of their experiences and interpersonal relationships. Long sleepers, on the other hand, are more often highly sensitive, with a lower threshold of vulnerability, a higher level of anxiety and subject to mood swings. All of these traits, especially anxiety, strengthen towards evening, before sleep, and diminish in the morning. We can assume that when dreaming these people are somehow able to cope with their emotional problems and the need for their repression is eliminated. Dreaming helps resolve repressed conflicts.
Dreams carry out another important function. A person who is deprived of REM sleep performs worse on tasks requiring creativity. It has even been suggested, in fact, that the actual solving of creative tasks takes place in dreams and that this is their fundamental purpose. There are, indeed, some astonishing examples of discoveries made in dreams. For example, Friedrich Kekulé saw the benzene ring in a dream in the form of a snake biting its own tail.
But let’s stop and think a moment. Surely if the basic function of dreams is to solve complex creative tasks, then they’re not very efficient? How many serious discoveries made in dreams do we know of? They can probably be counted on the fingers of two hands, plus the toes of both feet, maybe. Meanwhile thousands of millions of individuals have from 4 to 5 dreams every night over decades. It would be uneconomical for nature to create such an inefficient mechanism, even if every discovery were valuable beyond price.
What’s more, it is well established that the need for sleep drops in states of creative ecstasy, and with it the need for REM sleep. Here we are confronted by a paradox: dreams are necessary for creativity, but there are fewer of them at the peak of creative inspiration.
On top of all that, it has been proved by experiment that even when a solution to a problem does come following a dream, the problem itself does not always figure in the dream. That is to say, a dream has a positive influence in an indirect, mediated way on creative activity, while resolving some other tasks and inner conflicts. It is also interesting that even significant emotional problems very often do not themselves figure in a dream.
Psychologists and psychoanalysts have found that dreams can help strengthen psychological defence and provide relief from the weight of unresolved conflicts, even if the conflicts themselves are not represented in any way in the content of a dream. As in the situation with the solution of creative tasks, the actual conflict and actual psychological problem can be substituted in a dream by something completely different. But if this imagined other problem is resolved successfully, then the dream fulfils its adaptive function and enables emotional stabilisation. However, if we recognise that the basic function of dreaming is to take part in psychological defence, how are we to explain its function in animals? After all, they have neither inner conflicts nor mechanisms of psychological defence.
It has been my privilege to propose a universal hypothesis of the function of dreams as part of a concept of search activity. According to this concept, search activity, which has the purpose of changing a situation under conditions of uncertainty, plays a decisive role in adaptation and in preserving health. A rejection of search, capitulation, on the contrary, raises the risk of illness. This is dictated by biology. Without search behaviour there would be no progress either of the single individual or of the population as a whole. Consequently, search, which calls for serious input of energy and effort, should be rewarded and guaranteed, at the very least, by good health and high stress resistance. However, when confronted by complex situations, both humans and animals often capitulate, refuse to search, to try and change these circumstances, and in such situations the risk of illness increases sharply. For this reason, a back-up mechanism for restoring search activity is needed on such occasions.
A defence of the repression type is, essentially, a renunciation of search. After all, the inner conflict remains unresolved and there are no further efforts either to reconcile the conflicting motives, or satisfy one of them through action. Repression is a variant of capitulation in the face of a difficult conflict situation. And like any capitulation, repression has a negative effect on health: anxiety increases, the function of internal organs is disrupted. As a result, eliminating repression is one of the frequent, concrete tasks of dreaming.
Restoring search activity is a task in itself, independently of whatever caused the renunciation of search. And so in dreaming the real problem may very well be substituted by an artificial one. The main thing is that the person shows a sufficiently high level of search activity in the process of resolving this artificial problem, since it is this activity as a process, regardless of the content, that represents the basic value. Dreams create wonderful conditions for this purpose: a person is switched off from the reality that led to capitulation and can get busy with any other problem. The main thing is that he experiences the active and successful resolution of a problem.
In reality, this is the principle behind psychotherapy, when instead of struggling uselessly with a situation that looks hopeless, a person is redirected towards self-realisation in other spheres of life. He then unexpectedly finds that the conflict becomes less acute or he finds a radically different solution. What is important is that the person should not lose his ability to search, because this is significant both for his health and his ability to solve other problems. This restoration of search activity is the primary function of dreams.