Dreams elude explanation. Researchers spend countless hours analyzing brain activity data during sleep to try to pinpoint the purpose and mechanics of our usually fragmented, sometimes fantastical sleep stories. Psychologists pore over dream journals and discuss symbolism with patients, trying to coax meaning out of dreams' mish-mashed imagery.
Theories abound, all attempting to answer this question. On one side of the debate are those who think dreams are random images, and on the other are those who think there is deeper significance to what we see in our mind's eye. Sigmund Freud thought of dreams as wish fulfillment, stories with hidden meanings that could reveal much about a person's psyche. Others wondered if dreams help us to manage our moods, to organize our memories, or simply to create contexts for the random streams of consciousness that our brain receives as our bodies sleep.
While some have turned away from earlier Freud-like theories, Harvard researchers turned up a theory that bridges the gap between science and psychology. They found that when people were told to not think of something, those thoughts were more likely to pop up later in their dreams. This lends some scientific credence to the idea that we deal with things in our sleep that we'd rather forget about while we're awake. It also takes some steam away from those who figure dreams are just random streams of nerve signals.
Maybe it's a little of both – maybe there is significance in the randomness. Ernest Hartmann, MD (of the Sleep Disorders Center at Newton Wellesley Hospital in Massachusetts), proposes that the neurological processes that create dreams also create a uniquely effective therapeutic zone.
In Hartmann's view, the brain is always processing a spectrum of connections – from hyper-focused moments of concentration to spaced-out flashes to the boundlessness of dreams. At the same time, the brain processes a range of emotions – from simple feelings to complex emotions. And when you're in the depths of REM sleep, your brain's emotion centre is very active. So, like in a therapist's office, dreams let you create connections in what Hartmann calls "a safe place."
As with most theories about dreams, though, Hartmann's is also still unproven. For now, dreams remain a mostly unsolved mystery of sleep.
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