Volume 92, Issue 45
Tuesday, November 24, 1998
sweet as it comes
What dreams may come
Graphic © Brahm Wiseman
By Holly Lake
When Mr. Sandman appears, dreams almost always follow.
Whether they are the key to the depths of one's psyche or little more than one's own personal nightly entertainment, dreams have long been and continue to be a subject of great confusion.
Everyone has between three and six dreams a night, says Antonio Zadra, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Montreal and a researcher at the university's Dream and Nightmare Laboratory. They occur in all phases of sleep and can range from 10 to 30 minutes in length.
In general, most people only remember one dream per night. Most dreams are forgotten because memory systems which recall events when people are awake generally are not as efficient during the dreaming phases.
"People only remember their dreams if they wake up shortly after the dreaming ended or while the dream is in progress," Zadra says. This holds true for nightmares too people will always remember a nightmare because it wakes them from their sleep.
Zadra says some people have a better ability to remember their dreams. However, when people start to keep a dream diary, it inevitably leads to an increased dream recall. The ability to remember dreams is a skill which can be learned.
The memory for dreams seems to be very fragile, he says. Therefore, if a person wakes up to the ringing of an alarm clock, immediately opens their eyes and turns off the alarm, they are not going to be able to remember their dreams very well. All of the other sensory input occurring as they wake is going to interfere with the ability to recall what they just dreamt.
"If a person wakes up on their own and takes a few minutes to lie there with their eyes closed and see if they had any recollections, it is much more likely that they will," Zadra says.
So what is the meaning behind dreams? Zadra does not believe all dreams have meaning because most dreams which are remembered are a small fraction of all the dreaming which take place in a night.
He says generally, when people start paying more attention to their dreams and start looking at them over a period of time with the help of a diary, then they can start to see certain patterns emerge. Patterns evident over a series of dreams have the potential to signify more than any individual dream.
Also present in dreams is an ability to indicate concerns and current pre-occupations they serve as an internal coping mechanism. "There is good evidence that recurring dreams often tend to point at a conflict or a stressor that we are not dealing with, that we are choosing to ignore or are just not ready to address," Zadra says.
"Part of us knows that eventually we need to deal with this and that is reflected in the content of our dreams," he adds.
Carlyle Smith, VP-research of the Canadian Sleep Society and a psychology professor at Trent University, agrees. He says dream intensity varies a great deal.
"The most remarkable dreams are from the people who have the most remarkable problems," he says. There is evidence, however, that dreams help soften intrusive experiences, as well as regulate one's moods, he adds.
According to James Schmeiser, a professor of philosophy and religious studies at King's College, there is indeed a regulatory role in dreams. "If we prevent a person from dreaming, the person becomes totally disoriented. People cannot function without dreams they help us maintain a psychological balance," he says.
It is clear that dreams are important, yet the question remains where do they come from? There's no definite answer to this question. According to Schmeiser, dreams do not come they simply are. "It's like life it is. It's not something that can be easily explained."
Schmeiser says there was a time when dreams were thought to come from God as a way of speaking to humanity. From a religious perspective, he says dreams reflect the deeper part of humanity what it means to be a man or a woman.
"When we dream we touch our inner core, we touch the divine and the mysterious," he says. "Dreams are one of the connecting points between our conscious awareness and that very deep part of what it is to be human."
There is, of course, another school of thought which says dreams come from a person's conscience they are manufactured by brain activity. They emerge from a whole mix of things in a day which trigger a series of memories people have. "During the night, all that stuff is up there and you don't know just how much of that memory is going to be dredged up," Smith says.
"Sometimes just mentioning someone's name will bring on a whole memory of a place where you lived, where you are now and it's hard to know exactly what triggers it.
"You also have other everyday things going on. There may be parts of television shows that you were watching and nothing is really the same in your dream, except maybe the characters, although they aren't necessarily doing the same thing. Dreams in this case are doing other things and making other points that are usually to a person's benefit," Smith explains.
Some dreams are more powerful than others. "All dreams are significant, but sometimes there is a greater urgency and that seems to move closer to our consciousness," Schmeiser says. "It will actually wake us up and say to you, pay attention, I'm here." Nightmares fall into this category, he says. They are all significant.
Schmeiser says people should pay more attention to their dreams because they create an opportunity to gain a tremendous amount of insight, offer guidance and incite intelligent questions, particularly when there are significant issues to be dealt with in life.
"Why would we have something which involves a number of years of our lives and not look at them seriously? It doesn't make sense to ignore something that is so profound," he says.
Zadra agrees dreams warrant more attention. "Certainly I think that it is a useful exercise for anyone who is inclined to learn a bit more about themselves."
He is also drawn to the realism in dreams. "People seem to be so infused with things like virtual reality, video games, IMAX and what seems to interest people most is the fact that these things come close to mimicking real life experience," he says.
Dreams can be incredibly vivid and realistic, complete with all kinds of sensory experiences smell, taste and sometimes physical pain all in the absence of external stimuli.
For Zadra, the ability to gain meaning through dreams is what holds the appeal. "The dream world is fascinating just in the impact that it can have and how reality can seem while they are occurring."
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