Why We Dream: Future, Present, or Past

April 2, 2013

One of the continuing mysteries about human existence is the topic of “why we dream”.  Dreaming is not unique to humans.  Mammals and birds probably dream as well, though we can’t be certain what they dream about.  The same is true of human fetuses and newborns.  We cannot be sure a child is dreaming until they are old enough to tell us their dream.  As children grow older, their dreams gain in complexity in parallel with their waking minds.

Prior to the modern scientific era, it was thought in many cultures around the world that dreams predicted or “prophesied” the future.  Certain individuals, such as Joseph in the Old Testament, became known for their ability to interpret dreams and thereby predict the future.  Even today, many people believe that their dreams play this role, despite abundant evidence to the contrary.

The first major theory of dreaming in the scientific era was that of Sigmund Freud, in his book, The Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1900.  Freud disputed the earlier theories of dreams as prophetic of the future, and argued that dreams serve to satisfy or fulfill forbidden, often sexual, wishes in the present.  Freud and his colleagues lived in the Victorian era of European monarchs and colonialism, dominated by aristocratic concepts of strict emotional and sexual control and very proper public appearance.  The dreams that he experienced himself and detected in his patients were products of the repressive era in which he lived and worked.

We live today in a more open, egalitarian, and less repressed world, due in part to the influence of Freud and others.  Freud’s theory of dreaming as wish fulfillment no longer seems to apply in most instances.  A new theory of dreaming is needed.  Modern technology now allows us to study brain functioning in people before, during, and after they sleep.  We know that most dreaming takes place during a particular phase of sleep, called REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which occurs at roughly ninety minute intervals through the night.  The average person has about five dreams per night, most of which are not remembered after awakening.

Recent studies of normal human subjects in sleep lab settings suggest that dreaming plays a significant role in emotion regulation.  Our experiences of the past day are compared during dreaming with prior experiences of a similar or related nature.  Present experiences are placed in the context of past experiences to help us manage them better.  In this sense, then, we dream about the past, in relation to the present, and in preparation for the future.

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) disrupts the dreaming mechanism, keeping us stuck in a trauma from the past, disconnected from the present, blocked out of the future.  Dream revision therapy gets the dreaming mechanism unstuck, bringing back both the present and the future.

In former times, when we had phonograph records, a record would sometimes get stuck at a particular place, resulting in the same musical phrase being played over and over.  Such a broken record could be fixed by just moving the needle gently forward past the blockage point.  This is what we do in dream revision therapy.  I originally thought of using the title, Broken Record, for my book on dream revision therapy for PTSD, but decided that too many younger readers wouldn’t know what a broken record was.