The Science Of Dreams And Why They Don't Mean As Much As We Think They Do

by Alexia LaFata

The other night, I had a dream that my best friend told my ex-boyfriend something really horrifying about me and he responded by throwing up.

He threw up three times, actually, and I watched him do it every time. I kept trying to talk to him about the horrifying thing, whatever it was, but he wouldn't listen. He just kept throwing up.

And, in another recent dream, I tried vodka sprite. That was it. That was the entire dream.

Are these dreams symbolic or reflective of anything? Plenty of people would say yes.

Websites like Dream Analysis and Dream Moods and Dream Dictionary might tell me that the first dream indicates some kind of anxiety — after all, aren't most dreams supposedly indicative of anxiety? — and that the second indicates some kind of guilt. Maybe. Or maybe, I'm just anxious again.

One theory states that dreams are really just electrical brain pulses that pull random imagery and thoughts from our memories, yet this other study shows that an "overwhelming majority" of college students from the US, India and South Korea believe dreams reveal hidden truths about the world and about themselves.

Could it be that dreams do offer deep truths? Or are we placing too much value on arbitrary neuron firings?

There are a few theories that infer the purpose and potential significance of dreams. The threat simulation theory suggests that dreams exist to simulate threatening events to better prepare us for dangerous situations. A doctor at Tufts theorized that dreams explain our feelings.

A researcher at MIT said they give us wisdom. In some societies, dreams diagnose illnesses, predict the weather and hunt for game.

And, in societies like ours, dreams are used a crutch to relay really ridiculous ideas that we're too embarrassed to acknowledge in a normal context ("I had such a weird dream about you the other night...").

Overall, though, Harvard sleep scientist Robert Stickgold is onto something, as he says there is "precious little on which dream researchers agree." He's right. All we really have are theories.

Many theories about dreams focus on what they may be telling us, yet we often forget that we are the creators of our dreams. Spiritual beliefs aside, it is our brains that create the dreams.

If we think about dreams from this perspective — the perspective that we collect the information that forms our dreams — how exactly can our dreams know something that we don't already know?

How can dreams have a mind of their own when they actually just exist in our own minds?

Ernest Hartmann, a professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine and director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Boston, explains how we currently understand dreams.

Our brains are constantly making and unmaking connections that allow us to function properly and the strength of each connection exists on a spectrum.

Waking activity, for example, is the strongest connection. It includes the focused, linear connections that we make when we do math or play a sport.

Dreaming is the loosest connection, existing on the opposite end of this spectrum. Current theories that exist aim to explain the makings of these looser connections.

Some argue that our brains make the connections purposefully. Some, including myself, argue they're completely random.

Yet, there's evidence that people whose current emotion is something like "anxious" do, indeed, dream of situations that might induce anxiety, such as being swept away by a tidal wave or having to jump from a burning building.

A few common dreams, like being chased, dying, falling or flying, are often linked to metaphors that supposedly represent or predict our lives. 

I would be impressed if my brain was somehow able to constantly make the artistic connection between "falling" and "needing to let go" — if that were the case, we'd all be poets — but regardless of whether or not we are experiencing trauma in real life, we dream every night.

What if one specific emotion isn't particularly heightened at a given time? Wouldn't that mean a dream has nothing off of which to base its central point? If so, what, then, would be the focus of the dream? 

Do all dreams have to be reflective of some Truth with a capital "T"?

There's no reason why the random images and thoughts that make up our dreams can't also be inclusive of our emotions, but is there a method that designates exactly which emotion gets included?

Is there a method that designates how any of these emotions or images or thoughts do get included? Likely not. Except neuron firings.

Our dreams don't always fit neatly into these little metaphorical packages that researchers conjure, either.

Suzanne Bergmann, a longtime social worker who focuses on dream analysis, says that there's no one clear meaning for dreams, but she compares the meanings behind them to the meanings behind basic emotions: "Just as a smile usually means that someone is happy," she says, "these dream images are so common, that they do have a generally accepted meaning."

Considering that I control whether or not I smile and I don't control whether or not I dream about vodka sprite, I say that this is false.

I assure you that my dream about drinking a vodka sprite doesn't indicate anything spectacular about my feelings, if anything at all. 

So, why do we place so much meaning on dreams?

Humans are always looking for explanations for mysterious phenomena.

We can usually explain the source of random thoughts we have throughout our waking hours, but it's more challenging to explain the origins of a dream.

For example, perhaps we can speculate that we day-dreamed about doing drugs because we recently watched that episode of "Girls" in which Hannah tries cocaine.

If we have a dream about doing drugs, sure, it could be from "Girls," but it could also be from some far-away memory of walking in on a bunch of kids in college snorting coke at a party.

Or, it could be because we have a subconscious desire to do drugs. Who knows? How could we ever know? We can't.

Additionally, we tend to base decisions on information we know, but information that may not impact on the actual decision.

It's called anchoring, and it happens more often than you think. For example, researchers in a 1974 experiment had subjects estimate the percentage of African countries in the UN, but before they let participants guess, they spun a wheel that landed on a number between 0 and 100.

People then guessed answers that weren't far from what they spun on the wheel, despite the fact that the wheel had nothing to do with African countries.

The useless information influenced the participants' choices of action.

Humans make silly choices based on irrelevant information, and this can certainly apply to dreams in which you think your brain is giving you a premonition or something.

Add this to the fact that dreams often feature familiar people and locations (which means we are less willing to dismiss the dream as absurd) and we then have a potentially dangerous combination of reality and randomness.

Our interpretations of our dreams could provide much less of an insight into our deep subconscious and more into our tendency to be a little bit irrational with our thinking sometimes. Which is totally okay, too.

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