Theories of Dreaming

Physiology of Dreaming

During the past decade, scientists have used technology and clinics to study the physiology of dreaming. Rapid Eye Movements (REM's) occur in humans and mammals at certain stages during sleep. Scientists have proposed that REMs show the sleeper is dreaming, but this has been challenged. Interestingly, other mammals such as cats show REMs and, if REM's do indicate dreaming, then your moggy is probably also dreaming.

EEG'S and Brain Activity

Electroencephalograms (EEG's) measure the tiny electrical output that makes it past the insulation of the skull to the surface of the skin. Thus they are a very indirect way of gauging what's going on within. It has been likened to using a stethoscope on the outside of a building to listen to a room inside the building. You would be able to hear voices and might even be able to localise them by setting up a number of listening points. You could tell when there is a lot of activity but would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between dancing, joke-telling, or fighting at the party.

Despite these limitations, EEGs and other imaging techniques have confirmed the different functions of parts of the brain and have been used to study sleep, dreaming, and other altered states of consciousness such as hypnosis, meditation, and clinical problems such as drug reactions and hallucinations.

The first EEG was recorded over 100 hears ago. The first wave signal distinguished with the EEG was called"Alpha". The second distinctive pattern was the fast range of wave frequencies, "Beta", which became prominent as soon as the subjects opened their eyes. Alpha Brain Waves are part of the class of slower wave patterns which include Gamma, Delta, and Theta, that occur in the altered states of consciousness, including dreams. When we are awake, we demonstrate mostly Beta Brain Waves. In sleep we show a predominance of slow waves. Of couse we have some combination of all types of brain waves at all times.

When we sleep, the balance between brain processes alters. Some that run our lives when awake close down while others, not apparent in the waking state, begin to dominate. For example, the visual and auditory areas remain active. We "see" dreams and have conversations but have less awareness of the other senses. It is rare to dream in full colour. The frontal lobe area of the brain, which deals with rational thought and the ability to plan and execute activities and to empathise with others, does not dominate. Those parts of the brain dealing with feelings and emotional reactions and those parts of the brain we have in common with other species which control our autonomic nervous system are more prevalent.

Dreams and the non-rational

Dreams, the product of sleep, are characterised by lack of rationality and inhibitions (frontal lobe functions), and give freer rein to images and strong emotions (functions of those parts of the brain which remain active in sleep). Dreams have traditionally been used in ancient and non technological societies to inspire, guide and heal. It is only since the rise of science and our Western industrial and technological society that dreams had come to be considered to be mere collections of unrelated memories or fragments which have no meaning for us.

Freud's theory of Dreams

Sigmund Freud was a doctor who made the first significant "paradigm shift" in the science of psychiatry in reviving the ancient view that dreams had a meaning and a purpose. Freud's theories of dreams were based on his theory of the mind. Freud proposed there were three levels of understanding to the mind; the conscious ego, the superego which imposed societies' norms and ethics on the ego and the "id" which was unrestrained desire and relegated to those parts of the mind below conscious thought - the unconscious.

Freud proposed that in order to function in the world, and in order to feel good about oneself, the ego represses desires, wishes, impulses and thoughts - particularly sexual ones - which we do not want to acknowledge in the unconscious. These wishes and desires come out in dreams, which occur in a state where the superego is largely absent. However, in order to be acceptable to the ego, these wishes and impulses are "disguised" as symbols, which accounts for the irrational and fantastic aspect of dreams.

Jung's theory of Dreams

Jung, also a medical doctor and psychiatrist, found Freud's theories to be helpful in his clinical practice. Eventually, he questioned Freud's insistence that dreams represented repressed wishes and desires. Jung saw a synthesising and creative aspect to his patient's dreams, and Jung theorised that dreams were teleological or purposive, moving the patient towards healing and then towards self-knowledge or "individuation" (which we can never reach because as long as we live we grow).

Jung's theory of mind proposed that the ego was central, and different to the "persona" we must present to the world if we are to succeed as social beings. Based on years of work on himself and his clients, Jung proposed that there were two levels to the unconscious. The "personal unconscious" comprised all those aspects of ourselves we repress, don't acknowledge or are not aware of. This is not limited to desires and wishes. The way our parents have affected us (our parental complexes in Jung's terms) and the good and bad aspects of ourselves we don't acknowledge (what Jung called our personal shadow) can be accessed through dreams and other creative activities.

Jung also proposed that there was a deeper level of the unconscious, which he called the "collective unconscious". Dreams originating in this level of the psyche tended to have more universal themes and symbols - or what Jung called "archetypal" content.

Other psychoanalytic approaches to Dreams

Post-Freudians, neo-Freudians, Kleinians, object-relations therapists and post-Jungians use dreams to focus on our primary relationships with our parents or parental figures. Gestalt therapists see each figure in a dream as a part of the dreamer. Gestalt therapy might require the dreamer to physically act out or imagine they were the dream figure and thus experience their relationship to that figure. Other therapies use dreams to focus on a concept central to their theories. For example, some existential psychotherapists focus on the dreamer's willingness to face their fears and to take responsibility for their life.


All of these theories have contributed to our understanding. All have limitations. No one theory gives us the complete picture. Physiological theories, while fascinating and hopeful, are a bit like trying to understand the feeling of playing a computer game by looking at the computer hardware only. You can't consider the dreamer's experience of the dream.

Freud's theories are restrictive and limiting. While some dreams represent repressed wishes and desires, many have more complex meaning.

Jung's theories are unfortunately presented as a "progression" from a state of unawareness to a state of advanced self awareness or "individuation", which may be indicated by archetypal content in dreams. This has led to a tendency amongst "Jung societies" or interest groups and some analysts, to confuse the insights of dream analysis with a spiritual enlightenment. This sometimes leads to value judgements about individuals which can be quite damaging and counteracts any benefit they might obtain from working with their dreams.

The best approach if you want to work with your dreams is to take what appears to be true from the above theories and for the rest, realise that this entire question of dreams is an area of inquiry which is still evolving.

Most important of all is that you value and honour the stories which come to you from your own unconscious and trust that you are giving yourself exactly what you need now. Respect your own dreams and also those of others if they entrust you with their stories.

A contribution from Jung, to start your own dream exploration

Despite any limitations, an important contribution to the understanding of dreams comes from Carl Gustav Jung, who said about dreams:

"I do not ask "why" I ask "what for".

Jung proposed that dreams were purposive or teleological. Dreams are always related to your life. Dreams are mostly aimed at helping you achieve balance in your life or deal properly with issues in your life.

Their purpose is to assist you, the dreamer, with some aspect of your life. This might be a long-standing issue, or something that is happening to you right now.

Sometimes, dreams can be related to both a current and a long-standing issue. These dreams, or the symbols in them are sometimes said to be "over-determined". This means something might be happening now which reflects a pattern, or a bigger issue which might need your attention.

Types of dreams

A further contribution from Jung, which you might keep in mind when considering your own dreams is the defining of different types of, or broad purposes for, dreams. These include:

  • Compensatory - which correct an unbalanced view or position we have taken
  • Warning - when we experience physical, emotional or psychological threat
  • Personal - concerning our personal issues now and those which remain from our childhood
  • "Archetypal" - which occur at those times when our experience is something universal and significant for us (an example would be when we marry)

Jung would say that the vast majority of dreams are in the first 3 categories. In some cases, the dreams appear to take on more universal symbols or themes ("archetypal" themes). Even so, the "archetypal" elements are related to the dreamer's life situation. These dreams account for almost all dreams. However, Jung did not discount another type of dream:

  • Premonitionary dreams.

These theories of Jung's, particularly those concerning "archetypes" and even more so the rare possibility of premonitionary dreams are very controversial.

My own view is, with the variety of people and experience in the world, is anybody in a position to say definitely that such things can not happen? However, the purpose of this webpage is to provide a general guide for most of us and so I leave the issue of premonitionary dreams to people working in other areas of life.

Symbolism in Dreams

The language of dreams is symbolic rather than logical. Dreams come from the part of our mind which is creative and integrative rather than analytical and rational. This is the part of our mind which allows us to see patterns and correspondences and which gives us our holistic viewpoint.

Briefly, Freud theorised that dreams spoke to us in symbolic language because they represented repressed desires which we did not want to consciously acknowledge. Symbols in dreams were more like "signs" referring to and covering up something else.

Jung proposed the spontaneous energy behind dreams actively created symbols which were relevant to the dreamer's life situation. At the same time, because we all as human beings share this capacity, the symbols each of us creates are likely to have some similarities. On this theory, symbols refer to something beyond themselves.

The symbolic meaning of a vase in a dream will be coloured by the relationship of the vase to the dreamer and its role in the dream and in life.

  • Is the vase old, new, valuable, a family heirloom, an ancient urn used for religious ceremonies?
  • Does the dreamer find the vase useful, value it, find it associated with good or bad memories?
  • For example, if it is a valuable family heirloom, does the dreamer feel honoured or burdened by it?

This process of approaching the image from multiple dimensions in order to find the answer is called "amplification" of the image. The process of "amplification includes a consideration of any archetypal reflections in the dream image.

What are Archetypes?

The term " archetype " literally means " basic imprint ".

This term is used by Jung to refer to symbolic representations of the significant situations which all human beings face, and which therefore are universal. People from across cultures and throughout history must face life situations of vital importance to their future. These are often identified as life transitions such as becoming an adult, finding a life partner, having children, spiritual initiation, finding one's own truth, growing older and facing death.

We can find similarities in the way individuals represent these situations to themselves in dream symbols. These vital situations may also be represented at a social level in cultural phenomena including images, rituals or ceremonies and myths. These are the social counterpart of individual dreams.

It is these universal and cross-cultural symbolic representations of shared human situations which form the basic psychic material of the archetypes.

A common archetypal story is the "hero's journey", which represents leaving the safety of childhood and finding one's own truth having experienced and overcome many obstacles, false turns and dangers. We find this theme in the dreams of individual women and men, in myths, fairytales and in some of the mythic creations of our Western culture - the movie.

Our understanding of these universal cultural myths can support and aid our insight into ourselves when we identify these archetypal theme in our dreams.