“Profound things come suddenly to me but the meaning I do not understand. Well I have to tell her about this.”
This was heard from one of the Mesopotamian rulers when he had woken up from his slumber.
Since then the dreams have been recorded on clay tablets or clay cylinders. Dreams have passed on a question mark to the greatest scholars from generation to generation unveiling questions and questions after every answer.
So what are dreams? Why do we dream? Do they serve any purpose?
Lets just say when the lights go out, interesting things happen in our body.
Dreams are basically images or stories which our mind creates while we sleep. They can be funny, entertaining, exhilarating, horrifying and exciting as well.
Dreams are not an invention of the modern world, its interpretation dates back to 3000-4000 B.C. So let's time travel back to this era. Greeks and Romans interpreted dreams as a divine revelation sent from the Gods or from the dead which foretold them the future or solution to their problems. Special shrines were even built where people can go there to sleep in hopes that a message could be passed to them through their dreams which they would write on small clay tablets. Their belief in the power of a dream was so strong that it even dictated the actions of political and military leaders. In fact, dream interpreters even accompanied military leaders into battle to help with war strategy.
In the early 19th century, dreams were dismissed as stemming from anxiety, a household noise or even indigestion. Hence there was really no meaning to it. Later on in the 19th century, Sigmund Freud revived the importance of dreams and its significance and need for interpretation. He revolutionized the study of dreams.Dr Sigmund Freud was an Austrian Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis who has also contributed to dream research
Since then many psychologists have been studying the underlying causes of the dream cycle. In the second century Artimedorus became the first real dream researcher. However, the golden era of dream research began in 1899 when Santiago Ramon Y Cajal and Dr Sigmund Freud published their books. Santiago Ramon is known as the father of neuroscience who believed that neurons and electric impulses play an important role in dreams.
‘Mind Explained’ a netflix series, has aired an episode on ‘Dream’ which has incredibly displayed the causes of dreams and the works of some of the renowned scholars and researchers on dreams. The series mentioned the work of Freud that he had mentioned in his book. He said in his book,
“These were disguised representations of our innermost desires”.
That meant that the characters of our dreams were not as meaningless as we think they are. Like Trickster represented anxiety, Maiden represented purity and Wise old person represented wisdom.
His book also explained the phenomenon of how dream’s fictional characters might be a replication of people in our real lives. This might be one of the reasons why dreams are reminiscent of events or memories that are part of our real lives.
Looking from Biological aspect, our brain is a mess of entangled chaotic electric impulses and electromagnetic waves. As we fall asleep, the activity of these waves slows down. However, after an hour or so, the storm starts to rise again. The waves go haywire and start displaying high frequency and low voltage graphs as neurons start communicating with each other while relocating itself from different neurons.
However, most of our brain stops functioning except for the brain stem. The brainstem is the posterior part of the brain, continuous with the spinal cord. In the human brain the brainstem includes the midbrain, the pons and medulla oblongata of the hindbrain.
Pon paralyzes our movement of the body except for our eyes which is known as the “Rapid eye movement”. Dreams are found to occur often in a state of REM sleep. A study by Dement and Klietman (1957) on sleep cycle concluded their study with a bizarre finding. They found that the movement of the eyes could actually determine the type of dream the person could be having during his REM sleep. For example vertical eye movement may indicate a dream about climbing stairs where you are looking up and down and up and down.
Unfortunately, at times it is difficult to recall your dreams. This is because a part of your brain, Prefrontal Cortex, stops functioning which is responsible for keeping us awake and alert. Also the levels of norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter, plummets making it difficult to recall our dreams.
Dr Robert Stickgold, PHD, who is a full professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, believes that sleep allows us to process, consolidate and retain new memories and skills.He also believes that dreams are constructed entirely from memories. Not only he believed but he also proved it by ‘Tetris Game’. Robert Stickgold and his colleagues at Harvard Medical School recently conducted a clever set of experiments in which they used the game to guide the content of people's dreams: among 17 subjects they trained to play Tetris, more than 60 percent reported dreaming of images associated with the game. He realized that the participants who had ample amounts of sleep had improved REM sleep cycles than the participants who didn't sleep properly. He had suggested that the reason behind this was the path of communication from hippocampus to neocortex which would reverse during these sleep cycles. Once the neocortex connects the new memories to others in storage, it sends a message back to the hippocampus to erase them. He repeated the experiment, but this time using participants who were worse at playing tetris. He found that the participants who did not know how to play the game experienced dreams that included images of tetris. That not only suggested that the dreams are constructed entirely from memories but also that the brain would review material that was to be learned by the person himself.
However, this theory is not fully accepted by some scholars and they have come up with alternative explanations as well.
"I wondered why animals born with sealed eyelids needed REM or why fetuses in the womb experience great amounts of REM. - David Maurice.
Fetuses do not dream or do they?
David Maurice is a Ph.D professor of ocular physiology in the department of ophthalmology at Columbia- Medical Centre. With this interest and curiosity, he developed a hypothesis that REM is generally responsible for oxygen rotation around the eyes. His research initially began when he studied a young man whose eyes had been immobilized by an accident and whose corneas had become laced with blood vessels, presumably to supply the corneas with oxygen. The Columbia eye expert knew that when the eyes are closed during non-REM sleep, oxygen can reach the cornea from the iris only by diffusion across the stagnant aqueous humor. Using a mathematical model, he established that oxygen supplied under those conditions would be insufficient.Therefore the aqueous humor in the anterior chamber needs to be stirred to bring the oxygen to the cornea. That realization led to his proposal that REM exists to bring oxygen to the cornea. Therefore he said,
"Without REM our corneas would starve and suffocate while we are asleep with our eyes closed.”
In response to this research by David Maurice, Dr Richards retorts that,
"A scientist can develop an understanding of the physiological function of dreaming and still not know anything about the meaning of dreams, because one is a physiological phenomenon and the other is a psychological phenomenon. It may be that REM dreaming does something to the cornea, but that doesn't say anything about the nature of dreams and their meaning and use in psychoanalysis. One hundred years of psychoanalytic research and experience show that there is much that can be learned about the mental and emotional lives of people by dream interpretation and other psychoanalytic methods."
Despite the bewildering and fascinating works and contribution of these scholars and researchers there still remains a dispute on the dream cycle and REM sleeps. Henceforth, dream research is still a paradox that is yet to be discovered as the world is still looking for an eureka moment. However, the real question is:
Will mankind ever be able to solve the mystery behind dreams?
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