Understanding Dreams

Perspectives From the Ancients Through Modern Times

Gail Bixler-Thomas, MA
November 1998

Dreams have influenced mighty kings, given insights to world-changing scientists and inspired gifted artists. The importance and power of dreams are well established. From the temples of antiquity to the sleep labs of modern days, humans have tried to understand, explain and apply them.

Ancient Dreams: Pre-20th Century

The earliest recorded dreams are derived from materials dating back approximately 5000 years, in Mesopotamia (Hall, 1991, p. 47). The Sumerians, the first cultural group to reside in Mesopotamia, left dream records dating back to 3100 BC. According to these early writings, deities and royals, such as the 7th century BC scholar-king Assurbanipal, gave careful attention to dreams. Within Assurbanipal's archive of clay tablets, portions of the story of the legendary king Gilgamesh were found. In this epic poem – one of the earliest known classical stories – Gilgamesh reported his recurring dreams to his goddess-mother Ninsun, who made the first recorded dream interpretation. His dreams were taken as prophecy and used to guide actions in the waking world. These attitudes recorded in the Gilgamesh epic provide a valuable source of information about ancient dream beliefs.

Ancient Hebrews believed dreams were connections with God. The biblical figures Solomon, Jacob, Nebuchadnezzar and Joseph were all visited in their dreams by God or prophets, who helped guide their decisions. It was recognized and accepted that the dreams of kings could influence whole nations and the futures of their peoples. The Talmud, which was written between 200 and 500 AD, includes over two hundred references to dreams. It states that "dreams which are not understood are like letters which are not opened."

Ancient Egyptians also gave the dreams of their royal leaders special attention since gods were more likely to appear in them. Serapis, the Egyptian god of dreams, had temples in which dream incubation occurred. Before going to these temples, dreamers would fast, pray and draw to help ensure enlightening dreams.

Chinese considered the dreamer's soul to be the guiding factor of dream production (p. 57, Hall). The hun, or spiritual soul, was thought to leave the body and communicate with the land of the dead. They also practiced incubation in dream temples. These temples served a political purpose through the 16th century. Any high official visiting a city reported to a temple the first night to receive dream guidance for his mission. Judges and government officials were also required to visit dream temples for insight and wisdom.

The Sacred Books of Wisdom, or Vedas, were written in India between 1500 and 1000 BC. In the Vedas, dreams of violence were thought to lead to success and happiness if the aggression was pro actively handled in the dream, even if the dreamer gets hurt in the process. If the dreamer remains passive and becomes hurt by his own passivity, however, it was considered a bad omen. Van de Castle (1994) states that these dreams might be more indicative of the dreamer's character than prophecy, since "those who take an active role in their dreams are likely to be more active, and therefore, more successful, in their daily lives" (p. 59).

The Upanishads, written between 900 and 500 BC, articulates two perspectives on dreams. The first maintains that dreams are merely expressions of inner desires. The second closely resembles the Chinese belief of the soul leaving the body and being guided until awakened. It was also thought that if the sleeper was awakened abruptly, the soul might not return to the body quickly enough and the sleeper could die.

The earliest Greek view of dreams was that the gods physically visited dreamers, entering through a keyhole, and exiting the same way after the divine message was delivered. The fifth century BC marks the first known Greek book on dreams, written by Antiphon, an Athenian statesman. During this century, the Greeks developed the belief (through contact with other cultures) that souls left the sleeping body. The practice of dream incubation was at least as important to the Greeks as it was among Mesopotamians, Egyptians, and Chinese. Aesculapius was a Greek healer who was believed to be the son of Apollo. He was linked with cults that began the practice of incubation. He visited sleepers, miraculously curing them. A shrine to Aesculapius was established at Epidaurus in the fifth century BC. It may still be visited today. There are thought to be around 410 Aesculapian sanctuaries near Athens, generally being active from the sixth century BC until the third century BC.

Hippocrates (469-399 BC), the father of medicine and Socrates' contemporary, wrote On Dreams. His theory was simple: during the day, the soul receives images; during the night, it produces images. Therefore, we dream.

Aristotle (384-322 BC) thought that dreams could be indicators of conditions within the body. He did not believe they were divinely inspired. He hypothesized that external stimuli are absent during sleep, so dreams are manifestations of a profound awareness of internal sensations which are expressed as dream imagery.

Galen, a Greek physician born in 129 AD, emphasized the need to observe dreams carefully for clues to healing. He was so trusting of dream messages that he carried out operations on the basis of his dream interpretations.

Artemidorus, his contemporary, wrote on The Interpretation of Dreams (Oneirocritica). Hall (p. 6) describes this as the "best source we have for the dream interpretation practices of antiquity." His theory is extensive, but within the five books he wrote, he describes two classes of dreams: somnium, which forecasts the future; and insomnium, which deal with contemporary matters and are affected by the state of the body and mind. He stated that the dream interpreter should have information about the dreamer including:

  1. images that are natural, lawful and customary for the dreamer;
  2. circumstances at the time of the dream;
  3. dreamers occupation and personality.

The Western Post-Classical View

During the European Middle Ages, dreams were often studied in the context of their relationship to God. Questions typical of the period were "Are dreams sent by God to a person of superior virtue? Or are they sent by demons to a person who has fallen from grace?" (p.7, Hall). Beginning with the dawn of the Christian era until the time of Sigmund Freud, dreams were not regarded as important. As society became more "structured," dreams fell into disrepute. Churches had little appreciation for the use of dream interpretation.

Modern Times: Dreams in the 20th Century

Sigmund Freud gave new life to the lost art of studying dreams in his major work, Die Traumdeutung (The Interpretation of Dreams), written in 1899. While Freud's psychoanalytic dream theories were marred by logical flaws and biased assumptions, his achievement cannot be discounted.

Theorists following in Freud's footsteps are mostly concerned with psychological meaning of dream content. Freud theorized that there were two types of dream content - manifest and latent. Manifest (superficial) content, he believed, had no significance because it was a mask for underlying (unconscious) issues of the dream. He believed the latent content contained unconscious wishes or fantasies. He also postulated that dreams originated either from the id or the ego. If it originated from the ego–it satisfied an instinct, according to Freud. If it originated from the id, it solved a conflict (Freud,1949, p. 44).

From Freud's time forward, dreams were no longer considered divine or demonic, but rather a valid mode for collecting information on an unconscious level. It was Freud who termed dreams as the "royal road to the unconscious."

The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung was so interested in Freud's ideas that he visited him in Vienna in 1907. After 330 letters were exchanged, their correspondence was terminated due to differences in their beliefs. Freud (1949) believed that dreams were "delusions and illusions of a psychosis" (p. 49) and contained mostly hidden wish fulfillment. Meanwhile, Carl Jung came to believe that dream contents present us with revelations that uncover and help to resolve emotional issues, problems, religious issues and fears.

Jung believed that recurring dreams are proof that dream-manifested issues neglected in a conscious mode will show up repeatedly in dreams to demand attention. Many of the symbols or images from these dreams will return with each dream. "Man, as we realize if we reflect for a moment, never perceives anything fully or comprehends anything completely" (Jung, 1964, p. 21). He concluded that symbolic terms are used to represent concepts that we cannot grasp. There is a conscious use of symbols, as seen in religious symbolism; there is an unconscious use of symbols, such as spontaneous dream symbols. Both are to help us comprehend the world around us, whether sleeping or awake.

Jung believed that the deeper layer of unconscious, which he calls the collective unconscious, is an inborn and universal part of the unconscious identical in all people. Jung thought that dreams could help us grow and heal through use of archetypal symbols. These symbols, Jung proposed, are mental images from the collective unconscious which help us to recognize and integrate the parts of ourselves that we have disowned or are apprehensive about. Various archetypes are represented within myths, fairy tales, and religions, as well as dreams. Among the numerous archetypes he documented are those of birth, rebirth, death, power, magic, the hero, the child, the trickster, God, the demon, the wise old man, the earth mother, and many natural objects such as sun, moon, stars, rivers, fires, and animals (Jung, 1969).

In his quest to discover the role of dreaming, Jung also concluded that dreams are not only relevant to the dreamer's life, but that they are all parts of "one great web of psychological factors." Such things as events, movies and people seen the previous day also play a role in dreaming. Sometimes referred to as day residue, these memories leave impressions for the unconscious to deal with when the ego is at rest. The unconscious "reenacts" these glimpses of the past, in the form of a dream.

Jung estimated that he interpreted over 80,000 dreams by the time he retired in his 80s. Through these, he surmised that dreams and their universal imagery seemed to follow a pattern among all individuals with whom he worked over time. By learning to observe the patterns within her own dreams and learning to consciously interpret symbolic content, the process of individuation – gaining a higher state of consciousness through a broadened state of awareness – can occur. This enables her to overcome many personal problems, fears and anxieties while realizing her full potential.

Gestalt therapy, developed by Frederick (Fritz) Perls, is interested in immediate emotional dreamwork. Rather than interpreting and linking the dreams with past history, Perls has the dreamer act out all aspects of the dream. Someone dreaming of a glass house, for example, might find it useful to be the house and describe himself as such. He might then act out being the house. For instance, the dreamer might surround another member of the group as walls of a house would, thus becoming aware of how it feels to be a warm, inviting structure for another. In this case of a glass house, the dreamer might describe himself as transparent, fragile or easily shattered. Much dialogue (between dreamer and dream object) is used in gestalt dreamwork, as it becomes a mental-block breaker, and another method of self-discovery. It is helpful for the dreamer to experience this process with each part of the dream in order to learn about and reassimilate the disowned parts of self.

Calvin Hall developed a cognitive theory of dreams (1953). He believed dreams contain maps which the dreamer follows to anticipate difficulties and obstacles. He also thought that meaningful predictions can be made about the dreamer's behavior and lifestyle using her conceptions of parts of the dream.

Many other 20th century dream theorists – including Adler, Erikson, Maslow, Boss, Buhler, Greene, Heidegger, Garfield, Horney, Hartmann and Piotrowski – have important messages regarding dreams and dream research. A common thread among most is that dreams provide opportunities for intrapersonal and interpersonal growth.

Recent research on dreaming is conducted in sleep laboratories under controlled conditions. The University of Chicago conducted a series of studies on REM sleep in the 1950s in which the physiological bases for dreams were confirmed and the links between dreams and various stages of sleep were established. The doctors credited with the research are Eugene Aserinsky, Nathaniel Kleitman, and later, William Dement (Van de Castle, 1994).

The broad range of current dream-related research includes: learning during sleep, gender differences in dream content, drugs and effects on dreaming, sleep deprivation and effects on dreaming, the healing properties of dreams, depression and effects on REM, emotions and effects on dreaming, and non-REM dreaming.

Lucidity during dreams is another current subject of exploration in the sleep laboratories. The term lucid dream was introduced by the Dutch psychiatrist Frederik Van Eeden in 1913. It is characterized by a heightened awareness of being in bed and dreaming, simultaneously. Dr. Stephen LaBerge, a psychologist at the Stanford University Sleep Research Center and founder of the Lucidity Institute in Palo Alto, California, has shown in controlled clinical studies that humans have the ability to remain awake during sleep. His studies have strongly impacted the scientific community and restored the credibility of dream research. Lucidity has also shown potential as a tool for personal development. Developing lucidity while dreaming can not only enhance the quality of life, but it may allow the realm of dreaming to become a rich environment for self improvement and empowerment.

Weighing Perspectives

Do dreams come to us with insightful messages from the unconscious or prophetic messages from a deity? Or are they simply the meaningless byproduct of dumping unneeded memories from the brain? Views on the origins and meaning of dreams have shifted over the centuries, from the revelations of the divine to the mechanics of physiology or the intricacies of the human psyche.



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