By Michelle Cherian
Edited by Liz Maria Kuriakose, Associate Editor, The Indian Economist
You are receiving an award for outstanding merit in academics and then all of a sudden, a plane crashes into the building. Just when you think this is going to be the last award of your life, it comes to a screeching halt, barely inches away from you. Life can present threatening, complicated, even near-death experiences but it normally doesn’t churn out such unexpected circumstances, so unexpected that it mystifies the human mind.
Mystifying the human mind seems too far a call when the question of how mystical the human mind is in itself, comes into play. The fact that DREAMS, just like the one described in the beginning, can be a product of the encephalon, weighing roughly 3 pounds, fixed atop our human frame and responsible for our very existence, lends credence to the aforementioned claim. We’ve all had dreams, some pleasurable, some frightening and some downright crazy, but have we ever wondered why we dream at all? Well, for those who have and even for those who haven’t, this article hopes to answer some questions which have remained unanswered or never emerged.
In the earlier times, dreams and their interpretations were largely thought to be the area of expertise of astrologers, soothsayers and the like. Ancient Egyptians perceived dreams to be messages from God containing important prophecies and used these to make predictions about the future. Dream research gained momentum only with Sigmund Freud’s Psychoanalytical Theory of Dreams, which stated that ‘dreams were unfulfilled desires of the unconscious mind’. To explain this more lucidly, he divided the human psyche into three parts: the ID, the EGO and the SUPER-EGO. The ID is what new-born infants are born with; it causes us to act on impulse without much care or thought about the consequences. The EGO is that part of the brain which develops a little later and helps us understand that acting impulsively can hurt others and that we should learn to take responsibility of our actions. The SUPER-EGO assists us in deciding what is right and what is wrong and this part is fully functional by the age of five. Just like that part of the iceberg visible above the water, the conscious section of the human brain makes for the smallest part. Most of our decisions as well as our dreams are indirectly and sometimes, directly influenced by the unconscious ID which makes up the larger section of the brain(similar to the part of the iceberg, visible under water). So Freud reasoned that dreams are an outlet for the desires of the unconscious human mind which otherwise don’t project themselves when the mind is conscious. Thus he said, that we dream to protect our sleep because if we didn’t, then our unconscious desires and emotions would have no channel for expression and we would be very distressed sleepers, prone to be woken up within minutes of sleeping.
It is said that the best way to refute a theory is to come up with one of your own, and that’s exactly what Hobson and McCarley did in 1977. Their activation-synthesis model of dreaming suggested that during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) Sleep, the limbic part of the brain, responsible for emotions and desires, becomes uncharacteristically active and leads to random signals being sent to the rest of the body by the brain stem. The brain tries to make sense of this internal activity and as a result, dreams occur. However, Hobson, the main author of this theory, does not completely reject the idea of dreams being related to some sort of emotional physiological activity; just that they do not necessarily have to be associated to some secretive unconscious part of the psyche. He believed that dreams revealed more than they concealed. If a person dreams that he is being chased by a monster then, metaphorically, it might have to do with something that the person is troubled by during waking hours. If a woman dreams of being pregnant, then it most certainly has to do with her desire for having a child, a desire which is not entirely “secretive”.
Studies have indicated that dreams are well dreamt when we undergo REM sleep, which happens approximately 90 minutes from the time we nod off. Non-REM sleep does not lead to dreams and if we are woken up during this sleep, we would not recall dreaming. Michel Jouvet, MD of Claude Bernard University, London, recognised that brain activity during REM sleep was similar, if not identical, to that which occurs during waking hours. He terms this phenomenon as “paradoxical sleep” where such cognitive activity is accompanied with muscular paralysis.
In a pioneering study undertaken by William Dement, the effects of REM deprivation were discovered. Subjects who were woken up just as they began dreaming, registered increased tension, anxiety, difficulty in concentration, increase in appetite and consequent weight gain, lack of motor coordination and hallucinatory tendencies. This suggests that dream deprivation could have serious consequences on human health.
Various other theories are also famous; reports show that dreams help organise the inputs we receive when we are awake and conscious. Everything from insignificant data like the colour of a passing car to more important information like that of a project that you may be working on gets stored in the brain and dreaming is described as the mechanism wherein the brain decides what information to hold on to and what to let go of. Some scientists opine that dreams provide answers to problems and sleeping on these problems would help solutions to emerge. However critics feel that if dreams do contain important solutions to the problems we face in daily life, then it is definitely a wonder that we don’t remember most of our dreams. It is also a common belief that we dream to overcome trauma; the greater the intensity of the trauma, the more the need to get over it and the more vivid our dreams seem to be during such phases of our life.
Some dreams, in particular nightmares, are subtle pointers to possible health conditions such as heart problems, migraines, to name a few. Blood pressure pills, though widen the blood vessels, also alter the brain chemicals, which then triggers nightmares. People with faint hearts also tend to have frequent nightmares because of irregular breathing patterns and lesser flow of oxygen to the brain. A sudden dip or spike in temperature can lead to an increase in the intensity, vividness and frequency of dreams as does change in hormonal level, like menopause. Even swigs of alcohol, drugs and periods under medication can cause unnaturally stark dreams because these disrupt the levels of the brain chemical; acetylcholine produced which plays a significant role in controlling dreams.
All the reasons, theories and studies mentioned above give us enough reason to believe that the life we spend in a conscious state of mind, has an unintended, yet important bearing on our unconscious self. But the reverse also holds true; dreams researchers and doctors have found that patients who have disturbed nights due to nightmares tend to be agitated and find it hard to concentrate the following day.
Despite so much research that has probed into the eternal question of why we dream, we are still not close to finding an answer, an answer that satisfies everyone. All are possible theories and people believe what they want to; in other words they think of that to be the truth which they find a good enough reason for themselves, dreaming. Science has yet to discover the actual function and causes of sleep, a state we spend one-third of our lives in, so all we can do is to wait patiently, accept the well-calculated truths lying before us and enjoy the show our brain puts on for us, every night.
The author is is currently pursuing Economics (first year bachelors program) at St. Stephens College, Delhi. She is passionate about singing, reading and writing. She has remained an integral part of her school editorial team and is an aspiring writor-editor in college too. Her greatest strength is that she believes in herself and that belief gets reflected as conviction towards her work. She wishes to pursue Economics as her field of study by specialising in the branch called Developmental Economics.