The Mystery of Dream
By Dr Jyots Bhattacharjee
Dream is a state of consciousness in sleep. It lies midway between waking consciousness and the state of profound and unconscious sleep. It is essentially a synthesis of illusion and hallucition taking place in sleep. In dream images appear as real things to us. We believe that we actually perceive them, that we see and hear things, which are real and present before us. The confusion of images and ideas with realities, and imagition with perception is the most salient feature of a dream. The confusion and false perception is partly in the ture of illusion and partly in the ture of hallucition. Often there is some objective ground of our dream, that is, some actual sensation, which is vastly exaggerated and wrongly interpreted. For example, a man may dream that he is wading through water, because his feet are uncovered and exposed to cold draughts of air. Another one may dream that one of his friends is trying to strangle him. The fact is that one of the posts of his bedstead gave away and fell down on his neck causing a pressure on his neck. These are the examples of dream illusions. But there are many dreams which do not have such foundation and they consist in hallucition. Such dreams are entirely the work of imagition.
Dream then is sometimes partly and sometimes wholly imagition. The dream imagition is passive with will and reason being in abeyance. The mind is completely at the mercy of the forces of suggestion and association. The absence of restraint results in the appearance of all sorts of inconsistent and unconnected ideas. Dream-images are generally incoherent. They are often due to recent experiences and particularly to the thoughts that are predomint in our minds immediately before falling asleep. But though they are related to past experiences, they are seldom mere reproductions of them. The images are more or less new constructions, though arising passively or spontaneously. Thus dream is passive constructive imagition. But this differs from the ordiry imagition of our waking life as imagition in dream is not known as imagition, the images being mistaken for percepts. Now a question arises here; why do images become as vivid as percepts and are confused with them? The answer is that, in the absence of sense-perception, these images monopolise attention and they appear more vivid. Want of contrast with anything stronger also makes them sufficiently lively, just as when the sun goes down, the stars, so long concealed, shine brightly. And images in dream easily pass for perception, as they are not contrasted with and challenged by real perception as in waking moments.
Actually the matter of dream has been haunting mankind since time immemorial, but no convincing answer has yet been found. The first dream treatise “Oneircritica” (The Interpretation of Dream) in Greek by Artemidorus of Daldis (2nd century AD) dealt with several issues, but did not raise the main question, why do we dream. So turally there was no answer to the question. Sigmund Freud, the celebrated psychological interpreter of dreams and proponent of “psychoalysis” claimed to have solved the mystery of dreams, but did not deal with the basic question. Everybody dreams, infants probably dream a lot, because they sleep longer. According to researchers animals and birds also dream. Possibly dream research would have advanced, if infants and animals could communicate in the language of humans.
Nightmares can be frightening. They have been regarded as demoniac attacks on in sleep. In the 1950s the researchers noted that during light sleep, eye balls tend to roll and nightmares generally occur in that Rapid Eye Motion (REM) phase of sleep. Sleep-walking and talking while asleep, panic seizures, flash backs and other forms of “night terror” occur during deep slumber. Nightmares are frightful. In Elizabettan English ‘sleep’ and ‘death’ were almost synonymous.
Ancient Egyptians and Greeks searched for the meaning of dreams, generally they took them to be god-send, God’s commands and prophesies. They assumed that apart from the physical there were mental factors too. Thousands of years back the celebrated Greek physician Hippocrates explained some of the factors of dream. The Greeks evolved a therapy in which deities caused and appeared in dreams of sick people, lying in special temples with the hope of cure. Aristotle attributed dreams to physical factors. He wrote that sleep is caused by evaporation after nutrition, that is, after digestion is complete. Dreams are not necessarily sent by God. If they were, only the best and the wisest would have dreamt. Actions during the day could be reflected in dreams and dreams too can initiate subsequent actions. Dreams are vivid in case of an unsound mind.
In pre-christian Europe, belief in both deity and demons, causing dreams and appearing in dreams was common. Although such beliefs persist in some eastern and folk cultures, they disappeared from Europe and America in the nineteenth century following the progress of science.
Prophetic dreams were popular in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. Oneirocritica alysed a few dreams. Artemidorous believed that symbols in a person’s dream could come from his life and that the size of his head, eating and sexual activity could determine his dreams. An image of “tools that cut and divide things” signifies disagreement and of “tools that smooth surfaces” signifies end of enmity. A wolf signifies a violent enemy, and a fox signifies a sly one, who will “plot underhandedly”. To interpret dreams one has to know the dreamer—his occupation, health, status, habits and age. Until the 19th century in Europe, good and bad dreams were generally deemed to be caused by divinity and demons.
The German neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) was the first to claim their psychological origin. He propounded a theory of dream, which in recent years has attained much popularity. The most difficult thing to explain in a dream is why certain particular images arise in the mind, and not others. The common solution is that ideas of recent experiences are revived in a dream. But this is not applicable in all cases. In many cases we dream things which we never thought for many days. Even when recent experiences supply those ideas, it is hard to explain why all recent experiences do not do so. Freud’s solution seems to throw light on these points. According to him our social existence demands systematic concealment of those desires which are considered as indecent or improper by society. In adults the habit of concealment becomes so confirmed that such desires are not only concealed from others, but also from oneself; they are never allowed to rise above the threshold of consciousness. But strong desires deeply rooted in our ture do not become extinct even after constant repression. They are only pushed deep down into the unconscious recesses of the mind. In other waking moments these desires are carefully suppressed and kept out of the way by the censorship of our reason in order to look sober and virtuous. But in sleep when the censorship of reason is comparatively relaxed, they rise above the threshold of consciousness and somehow mage to fulfill themselves or realize their object in dream. Thus a covetous selfish man, who in his heart of hearts is wistfully looking forward to the day when a rich relative will die, and he will inherit the property, may not in his waking moments like to confess his sinful desire for another’s death even to himself. Now such a man may realize his suppressed desire in dream. He may dream that the relative has died and he has acquired the wealth of the relative. But such unrepressed and unconcealed fulfillment of desires in dream is very nearly absent in adult life and is characteristic of infancy. The reason in the garb of censor is only off its guard, but never completely absent as a rule. Consequently repression is never completely absent. If in a dream there is a direct fulfillment of desires, normally suppressed, the reason generally asserts itself at the end of the dream and the dreamer would usually arise with a sense of horror at his own devilish joy at another man’s death. But in the most common type of dreams of grown up persons, reason, that is, the censor, apparently asleep, remains more vigilant and does not allow any such direct undisguised satisfaction of repressed desires. In the case of adults the suppressed desires are only indirectly fulfilled and the dream-images which satisfy the desires, distort themselves and conceal those desires so as to deceive the censor, that is, the reason. Thus in the above case the man may dream that he is at the deathbed of a millioire, whose me he heard and in whom he took no interest. To his utter surprise the dying man entrusts his whole property to him. The scenes where all these happen and the persons he meets may be as wild and as incoherent as possible, though every element in the dream is derived from past experience. But however unintelligible and inconsistent the obvious content of the dream may be, when we consider minutely, we discover the real content of the dream or its true underlying significance, that is, the indirect fulfillment of the dreamer’s long-cherished hope of inheriting his relative’s property at his death. Lastly, Freud maintains that the desires which are the strongest in adults and most universally repressed and which therefore inspire dreams are erotic and sexual. By alyzing almost every dream he discovers some sexual motive, some love-episode, some secret lust behind it. And the method of alysis by which he discovers the real significance of dreams is called Psycho-Alysis. This Psycho-Alysis is the method of tracing not only the suppressed desires inspiring dream-imagition, but also those underlying other forms of abnormal imagition, for example, those in insanity, monomania, obsession etc. It is also described as the process of discovering and releasing repressed complex, which causes mental diseases like neurosis or psychosis.
So all dreams, according to Freud, are realizations of unfulfilled desires. They fall into three classes. First, in children dreams are non-concealed satisfaction of non-repressed desires. For example, a child craves for a slice of cake at day time and he eats it in dream at night. Secondly, in adults we have dreams which are unconcealed satisfaction of desires of which they are totally uware in waking life and which they try to repress even in dreams. Thirdly, we have dreams, most common in adults, which are veiled satisfactions of repressed desires, mostly of erotic type. In such dreams we have to distinguish their manifest content or superficial meaning from latent content or real meaning. And the alysis of these dreams, which brings out the real meaning is called Psycho-Alysis.
Certain dreams could be “day residues”, some could be “punishment” for having committed immoral acts in the past. Anxiety dreams could be caused by neurosis, sexual dreams could be neurotic fantasies or wishes for sexual gratification, frowned by society and culture.
Russian physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (1849–1936) investigated the physiological basis of dream. He identified cerebral phases of sleep to understand dream and hypnosis. Sleep-walking or sommbulism is caused by partially awakened motor areas of cerebral cortex.
Alysts differ in the interpretation of dream symbols, but many of them interpret the chimpanzee as a symbol of oedipal conflict, the ske of wisdom, the bull and horse of masculinity and sexual powers, the mouse of introspection, the crow or raven of the death of the dreamer. Loss of teeth in dreams is ominous in all cultures, but failing in a test or examition could usher good news.
Every religion has texts on sleep, dream and nightmares and advises ways to get rid of nightmares. The Buddhist theoretical psychology, the “Vijnvada” says that dreams occur in a drowsy state, in which things thought of during the day return. Dreams are democratic; the rich and poor dream alike; but for alyzing them one has to know the dreamer. The dreams of a prince or a scholar could be messages from the ancestors or sages, but not of common dreamers. Buddha regarded dreams as illusory.
Hindu scriptures postulate an astral body that is conscious when one is asleep. No wonder we forget dream so soon. Our inner life is far more complex and intricate, but at the same time logical and advanced. We mingle with other souls whose physical bodies could be asleep. One can transcend the lower dream state and soar higher by chanting “mantras” and doing “japa” just before falling asleep. One contacts the inner world while body is asleep. Sleep and death are like brothers as Oscar Wilde wrote, except that in the former the psychic umbilical cord between the physical and astral body is not broken.
Nightmares are supposed to be dreams that produce a strong negative emotiol response, such as fear or horror. Going to bed after a fight or argument or distress over some day’s problems may cause nightmares. For the Hindus and possibly to others also belonging to other religions, prayer is the most powerful weapon against emotiol or spiritual distress in dreams.
Interpretation of dreams and psychoalysis are popular in many countries, but are still not considered science. Diverse religions and folk beliefs as well as secular theories and therapies of dreams and nightmares do not coalesce. Speculative elements mar the theories of Freud, Jung, Adler and successive generations of researchers. No wonder that the riddle “Why do we dream at all” has remained a mystery.