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  1. 1. Discuss the nature of dreams (25) Sleep and dreaming, in whatever relationship they share, are one of the universal experiences all humans enjoy to varying degrees. This has naturally lead to a fascination with dreams that long predates the invention of Psychology into a present where dream interpretation is big business. As with much of psychology the research into dreams is a highly contested field. Dreams have not always received the scientific recognition and acceptance which they enjoy today. In fact, this subject has made quite a journey from the fringes of para-psychology into the arms of ardent positivists. This is largely down to the more scientific theories being put forward to try and answer the question of why we dream; restoration and neurochemical theories form the backbone of this approach as I shall discuss later. Countering this scientific approach are the interpretivists; Freud, Jung and the lucid dreamers. Offering explanations for what dreams are and why they matter is the purpose of this essay but arriving at any ‘concrete’ conclusions would look to be a troublesome task. What is clearer is that dreams are arguably essential for life , whether that is at a survival level (biological theory) or for mental health (psychodynamic). Psychoanalysis was one of the first disciplines to look at the dreaming phenomenon. Freud believed that dreams were the royal road to the unconscious, controlled by the id, and the only way to access the unconscious conflicts that determined our behaviour. In fact, if the primary process though of the Id was not allowed ‘out’ through dreams then we might suffer mental illnesses. By accessing the unconscious through dream analysis mental illness could be cured. A follower of Freud, Jung, had a different idea and
  2. 2. proposed that dreams were part of a collective consciousness available to all humanity across time and that common dreams were part of the legacy of the people who had gone before. There are a number of common problems associated with both theories. Firstly, both Freud and Jung’s theories lack falsifiability, neither theory can be proven right or wrong because we cannot repeat the experiments. Few notes were kept, analysis was based on context specific interpretation, research interpretation was layered upon participant interpretation of dreams and there was no way they could control for any variables within their study. In essence, the research was little more than a series of conversation had between an interconnected web of familiar people. How then can we be sure of any of the claims of the psychoanalysts? Their ideas have a romantic, wistful appeal but do not seem to stand up to the modern standard of scientific rigour but perhaps that is not the most important thing for everyone. At the other end of the positivist vsinterpretivist spectrum on theories of sleep in Oswald’s restoration model which can be expanded out into neurochemical theory. Essentially, this approach argues that sleep is a period of restoration for both body and mind and that rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non rapid eye movement sleep (NREM) have different functions within this restoration process. REM sleep is time for the brain processes to be replenished, more specifically the adrenaline levels that are depleted during the day. NREM sleep’s function is to restore the body predominantly through the production of serotonin and the growth hormone. There is certainly some evidence to support this theory. For example, babies and fetuses enjoy more REM sleep than adults as their brains are in a stage of rapid development and those who have suffered some form of mental exertion do tend to have more REM sleep. However
  3. 3. the case for this theory is not clear cut. The amino acids used for body repair are only present for up to 4 hours after eating so why do we often sleep more? And why does a marathon runner not go to bed for days after a long run? A bigger question to ask is are dreaming and restoration actually linked or are things going on during REM sleep and we just happen to be dreaming simultaneously? There doesn’t seem to be an answer to that question yet. Lucid dreaming comes from the fringes of this already highly contested field. It is almost an oxymoron – conscious sleeping – people are asleep but are conscious they are asleep and can therefore manipulate the environment of their dreams. Studying this phenomenon would appear tricky. How can you gain access to someone else’s dreams and check for consciousness (the film inception aside)? You could use an EEG to trace brain activity but how would you know if the person was truly conscious because they would not be able to communicate with you as their muscles are paralyzed. It is methodological problems such as these that left lucid dreaming on fringes of study but Hearne (1980) working with Alan Worsley managed to demonstrate communication from within a lucid dream. Worsley’s EEG signified he was asleep and dreaming but he was still able to communicate via the movement of his eyes. But this is a study of one person, hardly the nomothetic ideal that positivists would be looking for. Even with an experienced and advanced lucid dreamer like Worsley there are accounts of him beginning to lose the distinction between being reality and lucid dreaming and he sometimes confused the two. The bank of evidence that is often required to build a strong argument around lucid dreaming is not there, perhaps down to the
  4. 4. methodological problems outlined above and because of the process of lucid dreaming is a difficult one to navigate for the dreamer. Although we have looked at three different theories for why we dream there is still definitive answer. Some of the theories help us to answer smaller questions about why dream but a nice, neat and concise rationale for dreaming seems some way off. Like much of psychology taking an holistic view on dreaming and recognising the contribution that different theories can make is important. They are all pieces of the jigsaw. Perhaps with technological advancements we will be able to more or less credence to the theories outlined above but humans fascination with dreams does not seem to be abating. One final idea is that perhaps through discussions like this we are analyzing dreams too much. We are over-complicating them, they are what they are and they very much a secondary process – an epiphenomena. That is to say perhaps sleep is the most important topic and dreams are an interesting aside.