How Delving into Dreams Can Illuminate Individual And Societal Wellbeing
In the early 20th century, the renowned psychiatrist Carl Jung made observations of his patients' dreams. He recorded intense visions of a Europe in turmoil, consumed by fire, and faced with overwhelming adversity. Jung himself experienced similar dreams, foretelling grim events. Upon the outbreak of the Second World War, these dreams seemed eerily prophetic. Was it mere coincidence, or an affirmation of the continuity hypothesis of dreams? This hypothesis posits that dreams mirror our daily concerns and aspirations on both personal and collective levels.
Dreams, these nocturnal narratives, have long intrigued us as potential keys to the intricate maze of the human psyche. As the prevalence of mental health issues grows globally, we're urged to ask: How does the science of dreams connect to our mental health?
Why It Matters:
Throughout history, our relationship with dreams has evolved. Ancient civilisations held dreams in high regard, often consulting skilled priests for interpretations. While early 20th-century Western society renewed its interest in dreams, the focus largely remained on individual unconscious processes, differing from some indigenous cultures that view dreams as glimpses into a shared mental and cultural space.
With mental health issues becoming increasingly prevalent today, dreams stand out as a captivating area of study. Today, advancements in technologies like neuroimaging and natural language processing are equipping us as never before to delve deeper into the connection between dreams and mental health.
How We Investigate Dreams:
➤ Methodologies to Explore the Dreamscape:
Neuroimaging Techniques: Technologies such as EEG and MRI illuminate the neural pathways activated during dreams, especially in the REM phase.
Dream Journals, Experimental Recall and Qualitative Analysis: A subjective yet invaluable tool, documenting dreams allows for a more intimate understanding of dream themes and emotions.
Computational Analysis Of Narratives and Natural Language Processing: With the surge in AI and machine learning, we can now analyze dream data to unearth patterns reflecting our emotional and shared experiences.
➤ Guiding Theories Behind Dreams:
Origins and Key Proponents: Formulated in the late 1970s by neuroscientists J. Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley from Harvard Medical School.
Development and Key Ideas: The theory suggests that during REM sleep, the brainstem sends random signals to the cortex, which then synthesizes these signals into a story. Essentially, dreams are viewed as the cortex's way to interpret and make sense of random neural impulses.
Current State: While influential, the hypothesis has been critiqued for not addressing the emotional and thematic components of dreams. Modern research tends to see the Activation-Synthesis model as a part of the puzzle rather than a comprehensive explanation for dreaming.
Origins and Key Proponents: Formulated by Antti Revonsuo, a Finnish cognitive neuroscientist.
Development and Key Ideas: This evolutionary perspective on dreaming posits that our ancestors used dreams as a kind of "rehearsal space" for potential threats. Dreaming about threats and navigating them in a dream state served as practice, allowing early humans to hone their survival skills.
Current State: The theory is supported by the fact that many dreams, especially nightmares, have threatening content. It also complements findings in modern evolutionary psychology. However, not all dreams contain threats, so the theory doesn't account for the entirety of our dream experiences.
Origins and Key Proponents: This concept has its roots in observational data from dream researchers such as Calvin S. Hall and Robert L. Van de Castle.
Development and Key Ideas: The Continuity Hypothesis postulates that dreams are an extension of our waking life. They reflect our deepest concerns, anxieties, desires, and experiences. Essentially, there's a continuity between our waking and dreaming states in terms of themes and emotions.
Current State: While there is a debate on some of the key concepts and specific interpretations of the hypothesis, many modern dream studies generally support this point of view, demonstrating that significant events and concerns often find their way into our dreams. This idea broadly aligns with Carl Jung’s observations and was exemplified in the introduction with Jung's dreams before WWII, though some researchers clearly question certain aspects of this alignment. In any case, the continuity hypothesis is considered a foundational concept in modern dream research.
What We Know About Dreams:
➤ Interesting Findings on Dreams:
Neurophysiological Links: Processes in dreaming and dream recall resemble those during wakefulness, especially in memory construction.
Emotional Processing: Brain regions important for emotion and memory, namely the amygdala and hippocampus, are actively engaged during emotionally charged dreams.
Pandemic and Dreams: Our dreams during the COVID-19 pandemic have reflected collective anxieties, showing how external events shape our dreamscape.
Physical Health and Dream Content: A link between chronic pain and distressing dream themes suggests our physical and dream worlds are intertwined.
Dreams and Mental Wellbeing: Research has consistently shown a connection between dream content and one's mental wellbeing. Disturbing dreams can be indicative of mental health challenges.
Recurrent Nightmares and Mental Health: Whilst nightmares can arise in a wide variety of contexts, their consistent presence can be indicative of underlying mental health conditions, perhaps with the most studied one being post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), in which nightmares might be a way the mind processes trauma.
Therapeutic Interventions: Therapies focused on dreams, such as imagery rehearsal therapy (IRT) and a variety of techniques within Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), can effectively address nightmares and sleep disruptions, which often leads to general improvements in mental health and wellbeing.
Dreams, while mysterious, provide us with a unique lens into our mental well-being. As we embark on further explorations into this realm, we find that dreams are not merely random stories generated by our brain. Typically, they carry personal information about what's happening in our mental space. In my own practice, I often work with these non-ordinary states of consciousness, and sometimes it happens that dreams can convey much more information about a client's emotional state than what the client's rational mind tells.
With the introduction of new tools for dream analysis, we have new opportunities to assess their role in relation to mental health and how we interact with the world.
Have you ever observed how dreams reflected your emotions or deep experiences? Perhaps some of you have been able to see current challenges you face in everyday life in a new light after interacting with them? Please share your experiences.
© Dr. Alexander Lebedev | MD PhD