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Dreams-A Peek Into Our Minds

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A fleeting flash of imagery, a rush of emotions and absolute bewilderment on entering the realm of reality encompasses all consciousness as we wake up from a good night’s sleep. Dreams escape us as fast as we remember them and we’re left wondering, trying to retrieve them from unknown closets of stored memories. Why do we dream? Do they carry a symbolic meaning indicating to our past or present? Are they a peek into our sub- conscious minds or are they just meaningless brain impulses?

While there is no confirmed scientific theory behind the occurrence of dreams, psychologically, dreams are believed to carry meaning. There have been many incidents when artists and scientists have come up with solutions to problems, on which they have pondered over for extended periods of time, through dreams. For example, Kekule, dreamed of a snake biting its own tail which gave him the idea for the cyclic structure of benzene. Dmitri Mendeleev came up with the periodic table because of a dream where all the elements had arranged themselves in a table according to their atomic weights. Paul McCartney of The Beatles came up with the tunes of ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Yellow Submarine’ while dreaming. Salvador Dali, a painter, made some bizarre images by holding a spoon above a plate. The moment he would be on the verge of falling asleep, the spoon would drop onto the plate waking him up in turn. He would then convert his vivid hypnagogic hallucinations to surreal paintings.

Salvador Dali’s Hypnagogic Hallucinations

While pondering over a problem, ‘sleeping on it’ helps to clarify the decision we make by a process called ‘dream incubation’. In the aforementioned process, the dreamer thinks about the problem just before falling asleep and notes down traces of whatever he recalls the very first thing in the morning. Despite numerous examples of creativity flourishing in the form of dreams, there is no scientific theory backing it. While asleep, our mind accesses a wide range of information and knowledge , in an unrestrained manner. It processes the information from memory of the function being directed by nerve impulses when we ponder over the problem for a long period of time or just before falling asleep.

Sigmund Freud’s couch where he would psychoanalyze his patients

Anna O, pseudonym for Bertha Pappenheim, was a patient who suffered from hysteria. Her doctor, Josef Breuer managed to treat symptoms like paralysis, convulsions, hallucinations and loss of speech by bringing forth buried memories of traumatic experiences. While case studies of childhood experiences affecting the mental conditioning of individuals is a well-known fact today; linking the unconscious mind to physical symptoms was a revolutionary idea back in the nineteenth century. Sigmund Freud, a friend of Breuer, went on to conduct numerous case studies to verify the hypothesis of the existence of the unconscious mind upon discussion of the underlying issue with his companion. Freud eventually became the founding father of Psychoanalysis, a method to closely examine and comprehend human behavior on the basis of the intricacies of the mind web and treat mental illnesses in the process.

The three levels of the human mind resemble an Iceberg

Freud even compared the human mind to an iceberg, while noting that there are three levels to it which are separate but scrupulously related to each other. The topmost level is the conscious mind which consists of all the thoughts and imagery that we are aware of and mindfully analyze. Below this is the pre-conscious mind, consisting of thoughts that can be retrieved from memories. And finally the most important part of the ice-berg is the part that is hidden below the surface of the water synonymous to the unconscious mind.

He stated that our dreams are a manifestation of the wishes that we have buried deep inside, either because of the fear of societal norms or to avoid feelings of guilt and regret. Freud believed that dreams served the main purpose of wish-fulfillment and personal gratification while protecting the dreamer from repercussive feelings. A patient of the famous psychoanalyst had hostile feelings towards his sister-in-law. In his dreams, the patient would picture strangling a dog which symbolically stood for his sister-in-law. This antipathy had created ethically unacceptable desires in him, which could not be an active thought in his conscious mind and therefore, it was gratified through a safe route by his unconscious mind.

Sigmund Freud(1856-1939)

Freud asserted that there are two layers of dreams-the manifest content and the latent content. The manifest content consists of what the dreamer remembers and the latent content represents the unconscious mind. The latent content moulds itself into dream stories which usually take shape of the events that has occurred in the recent memory of the dreamer. Gratifying repressed thoughts and wishes, protecting the dreamer from feelings of guilt or regret, dreams were believed to be a source of wish- fulfillment.

Carl Jung, a psychoanalyst, based in Zurich, Switzerland(1875-1961) was a follower of Sigmund Freud for a long time until he publicly disapproved some of the Freud theories which lead to an irrevocable separation. His theory matched Freud’s on the basic foundation of the presence of unconscious material that symbolically represents the rudimentary version of individuals. Rather than asserting that dreams are portals to hidden or repressed wishes, he claimed that they were attempts to express and create. In addition to the conscious and unconscious, Jung believed in the existence of a universal unconscious that incorporates certain human behaviors that are apparent in human beings since birth, including something as simple as the fear of snakes or spiders. 

Carl Jung(1875-1961)

These famous psychologists came up with these theories in the nineteenth century, when there was limited access to scientific experiments or analysis. In recent years, numerous scientific explanations to the occurrence of dreams have surfaced. While we know that dreams occur in the REM(Rapid Eye Movement) cycle of sleep, the neurobiological theory called the “Activation-Synthesis Hypothesis” states that dreams don’t really mean anything. They are nonsensical stories that our minds form when we wake up to make sense of the random thoughts and imagery brought forth by arbitrary brain impulses. However, this theory can be contradicted taking into consideration the fact that mammals like dogs and cats dream as well.

Dreams seem to help us process and deal with emotions that we would generally avoid by creating stories around them. These stories might not be realistic but the emotions we feel while experiencing this phenomenon are real. Our dreams essentially strip out an emotion from impressionable incidents and create a memory out of it. While we still strive to comprehend the convoluted theories of dreaming, it helps to believe that they turn the unconscious to conscious, providing us with a clearer picture of ourselves than we could imagine.

Cover Design: Vipul Mone

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