For centuries, dreaming has been considered as a magical occurrence, a passageway to the unknown, and a gateway for the supernatural. Modern psychologists dismiss these theories and have brought with them a refreshing bounty of more scientific theories on the purpose of dreaming. However, due to the mysterious and inaccessible nature of dreams, these theories cannot be actually proven, allowing some of the field’s most extravagant theorists to go wild, with one example being the famous Sigmund Freud. This essay aims to explore two theories that attempt to explain dreaming and their purpose, and to evaluate them, to see if they are viable enough to be considered as an upstanding theory.
First of all, the famous Freudian theory of dreaming. Freud called the process of dreaming the “Via Rega”, or the Royal Road, to the unconscious mind. He believed that through understanding dreams, you would understand the unconscious, and the client/participant’s wishes and desires. He called his theory “Wish fulfilment theory”. This theory holds that the mind releases repressed desires and wishes during dreaming, and when it is interpreted a Freudian psychiatrist would claim to be able to help the client to rid of his worries (if any exist). The source for this theory comes from Freud’s own experience of dreaming, when he once dreamt that he was not to blame for a client’s inability to improve during therapy. His dream contained a scene in which a doctor used a dirty syringe and that that was the cause of the problem. This is also an example of displacement, where feelings are taken out on another when the psyche is under more stress than usual.
The standard idea in this theory is that a dream contains two types of contents, the latent and the manifest content. The latent content is what the interpreter is interested in, as it holds the dream’s true meaning. Through psychoanalysing this content the interpreter can deduce the worries, and announce what must be done to solve the issue. The dreams or “Insanity of the Night” as Freud himself called them, are thought to be a representatives of our innermost fears and desires, and that this is why they are hidden from us in the latent content, and are mainly in symbolic form, such as phallic or vaginal images such as a gun or a snake and a tunnel or a well. The theory holds that the symbolic nature of dreams withholds their true meaning in order to save the individual from suffering, and reduce fears and worries, and allows him/her to continue sleeping. However the symbols are more personal than universal, and although many “Dream Dictionaries” claim that their role model was Sigmund Freud, he did not believe in universal meanings of a symbol, such as a fish could represent loss of purpose and drowning for one, an obsession with the male genitals for another but also it could show an issue with a Pisces, or probably the mother. On the other hand it could simply mean that the client has an innate and savage subconscious drive to own a pet fish, as Freud once said “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”.
Naturally, this type of theory is difficult to prove or disprove as it describes an unseen force, namely dreaming, affecting our daily lives without us knowing it, and above all, affected by an unseen, unproven and unprovable forces of the psyche, i.e. the ego, superego and the id. However, many psychologists have tried to see if they can make light on this theory.
Hajek and Belcher (1991) studied the dreams of smoking participants that were involved in a programme to help them to stop smoking. They did indeed dream about smoking for long afterwards (in some cases over a year), and that these instances were immediately followed by negative feelings of guilt and/or panic. The researchers concluded that dreaming about smoking helped the smokers to cope with quitting and, as they also found that those who dreamt the most about smoking and felt the most negativity afterwards, they concluded that these were related. However as with all correlation studies, cause and effect cannot be stated with definitiveness.
Collee (1993) however claims that dream interpretation is a form of “hot-reading, where the interpreter tells you with prior knowledge of your worries and possible desires, what they think you need to hear. In other words this bold psychologist put Freudians and dream interpreters in the same class as fraud psychics and phoney tarot readers.
This theory does have its strength and limitations though. It was indeed the first systematic and (mostly) scientific theory on dreams and Freud does deserve some credit for this, as if it was not for this enigmatic Viennese then the area of psychology containing dreams might not have existed, only in the back of magazines, with some goofy lady on the other end of the phone claiming that dreams are the stairway to heaven or something similar. One must consider the theory in its own context and zeitgeist, and in the 19th century in Austria, there would have been a somewhat repressive nature present, and that sexual desires were frowned upon. Freud’s theory of repressed sexual desires in abundance could possibly have emanated from this situation.
On the other hand though, how does a nightmare represent desire? I doubt that there are people that do not reside in a padded cell that truly wish to be chased by a manic vampire all night only to fall down a hole at the end and wake a moment before impact. As mentioned before, dubious methods are used to explain to clients what their dreams mean, by the careful use of hot-reading.
Another psychological theory of dreaming comes from Webb and Cartwright in 1978. they proposed that dreaming was a response to problems encountered in every day life, and that they somehow show a solution to that problem. When facing a hard decision, some people instruct you to “sleep on it”, an advice followed by one scientist called Kekule, who that very night had a dream that contained a solution to a problem he had been having at work (he dreamt of a ring of snakes connected to each other incidentally, which strangely represented the atomic structure of Benzene). They concluded from this and other researches that dreams’ purpose is to provide solutions for problems such as those that relate to work, sex, health or relationships etc.
Similarly to Freud’s theory they also found that dreams are symbolic in nature and relates to fears and/or desires, adding that dreams are a way of coping with problems. For example, during a period devoted to hours of studying for exams, the individual may dream of an incident where he/she fell down a hole, and contrary to what Freud might say (probably a symbol of incestual relationships with his/her mother) it would represent a fear of failing the exam. In short, the symbols relate to the here and now rather that repressed memories or conflict of the psyche. The meaning is more metaphoric rather than latent and irrelevant, and that they are connected only because a strange man from Austria with a funny couch in his room says so.
The researchers described a study that they were involved in where participants were given solvable problems and without consciously solving them, to “sleep on it”. Some were woken when they entered REM sleep whilst some were left to sleep peacefully. They found that those who were left to their due quota of REM sleep did provide more realistic solutions to their assigned problems. Despite being quite unethical, this study does give a good insight that dreams give a reasonable solution for a problem. There could also be link between REM sleep and the process of problem solving.
Later on, Cartwright himself conducted a study in 1984, where he interviewed female soon-to-be divorcees that were either depressed or not depressed. The findings were then compared with data collected from happily married couple who had never considered divorce. After a week in a sleep laboratory they found that the non-depressed divorcers dreamt more about marital issues than the depressed group or the control group. They concluded that the dreams were a way for the individuals in the non-depressed group to cope with having a divorce.
Although at first sight this seems like a reasonable account of dreaming and is supported by a few studies, then why do so many of us dream about things that are not related to problems or a solution to something? And also, if dreaming is so useful to survive and acquire a state of homeostasis, then why do we remember only 5% of the dreams? This theory is also uninformative of the physiological side of dreaming, as studies have been made into that side of the equation and found good evidence supporting it.
On the whole, dreaming is still a mystery and although some fantastic and brilliant theories have been put forward, research has not yet wielded good supportive evidence for psychological purposes of dreaming. Freud seems too unbelievable to be true and Webb-Cartwright’s model has too many unanswered questions.
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