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Making Dreams Meaningful

Much has been made of studying dreams and trying to interpret them, or find a scientific explanation for them.  In the early 1900s Freud tried to use dreams to explain the working of the unconscious mind. He believed that dreams were manifestations of sexual longings that were censored when we were conscious, and he authored interpretations of dreams that followed along those lines.

More recently sleep scientists discovered the connection between rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and dreaming, making dreams much less of a random event and much more measurable and physiological. These scientists evaluated the physical changes that went on during REM sleep and determined that they were simply electrical impulses and chemical reactions without any type of meaning.  Still others viewed dreaming as a sort of reboot that the brain needed in order to restore itself each night. 

Despite these conflicting voices and theories, there are certain things that we can understand and anticipate about our dream state that make the process much more meaningful.  One of the things that we have learned is that dreams tend to take on three different and distinct patterns. They are:

  • Passive Observational
  • Progressive Sequential
  • Unresolved Conflict or Repetitive Traumatic

The first, passive observational, is the most frequently experience. In this type of dream we view events without any direct involvement and without experiencing an emotional connection or impact.  By contrast, progressive sequential dreams are dreams in which we are able to come up with resolutions or solutions to problems that we may be experiencing in our lives. These types of dreams often result in creative inspiration. Finally, repetitive traumatic dreams are usually nightmares in which we keep experiencing the same distressing event. These are the dreams from which we awaken filled with anxiety.

Examining each of these types of dreams goes a long way in answering some of our questions about the meaning or usefulness of dreams. For example, people frequently report having had a dream in which they have predicted the future. They dream about something good or bad happening unexpectedly, and then when the event takes place they think that they have dreamed the future. In fact what has probably happened is that the dreamer had an observational dream.  They may have been aware of a problem or situation that they did not pay much attention to while they were conscious, but their unconscious, dreaming mind spent time exploring all of the possible outcomes in a way that it did not while the person was awake. Looking at all of the possibilities in a dream may have opened their mind to what actually was about to take place.

Similarly, sequential dreams are a reflection of what is going on in your world. When you are at peace your dreams are unlikely to be stressful or even particularly memorable, but when your life is in flux you are more apt to have dreams in which you experience feelings of powerlessness and fear. Your anxiety comes out and manifests itself as a nightmare.

What is important to remember in terms of these dreams, particularly when experiencing traumatic repetitive dreams, is that what happens in the dream is not the message that is important to focus on. The real key to finding meaning in your dreams is in examining the emotion that is released in your reaction to the dream, as well as the emotion that may have supported or created the dream. Dreams are often our brains way of dealing with what we are encountering during our waking hours, and they can provide a tremendous amount of insight if you take the time to examine them.

Many people find that dreams offer them tremendous creative energy and inspiration, and there is anecdotal evidence supporting this.  Whether you are a businessman or a sculptor, the problems that we are actively engaged with during the day may find the restful and restorative environment of our REM sleep the perfect way to let loose some creativity and arrive at novel solutions or ideas. It is said that the inventor of the sewing machine solved his problem of how to put the needle through cloth repetitively while in the midst of a nightmare about being run through by the spears of savages, and many famous musical works are said to have come to their composers in a dream.

The mechanism behind this may be as simple as the brain being allowed to relax and let go of the intense concentration that is focusing it in the wrong direction.  When we are at rest we are free to be less inhibited, and problems that have tormented us while we are awake are suddenly easy to solve.

There are a number of ways to enhance your dreaming experience and make them more meaningful, more enjoyable and even more productive. The first thing to do is to relax and enjoy the experience. We can’t control our dreams and will never be able to come up with a definitive interpretation of them either.  If trying to make sense of a dream, it may be helpful to jot down some notes about what happened and then do a bit of free association with the words you’ve written down. Telling a friend about the dream may also be helpful, as it may help you remember details or provide you with insight, or they may be able to see things in your telling that are not obvious to you.

If you want to enhance your dreaming opportunity, skip any sleeping medications, drugs or alcohol, as they often interfere with REM sleep.  If you are struggling with remembering your dreams, put a notepad by your bed so that you can jot down your thoughts as soon as you wake up, before they disappear.  If you have a problem you’re having a difficult time solving and want to put your dreams to work for you, try concentrating on the difficulty right before you fall asleep – this increases the chance that you will dream about it that night. Finally, if you are having traumatic dreams that are having a negative impact on the quality of your life, seek the help of a physician or counselor. There is no reason to let dreams be disruptive.

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