What’s the deal with dreaming?

My patients often ask me about dreaming. Why do we dream? Is dreaming important? What does my dream mean?

Many cultures would not dream of questioning the relevance of dreaming. Aboriginal tribes have “Dreamtime” which they feel connects them to all time; past, present and future. Some of the Native American tribes highly regard dreams as a source of information and guidance.

Scientists have long wrestled with the question of why we dream. Sigmund Freud, who wrote “The interpretation of dreams”, said that dreams were the “highway to the unconsciousness”. He felt that by examining our dreams, we would understand our “libidinal forces” better. Libidinal forces are those unconscious forces which motivate us and drive our actions.

A neural psychiatrist, Allan Hobson, came along in the 70’s and said rubbish: dreaming is just a byproduct of physiological function. He postulated that REM sleep, the sleep cycle where we do most of our dreaming, is triggered by the Pons – a structure deep in the brain stem. The brain then dreams to make sense of these impulses.

Prof Solms, a South African neuroscientist, studied people with brain lesions. He found that people with brainstem damage continue dreaming, disproving Hobson’s hypothesis that the Pons triggers dreaming. Prof Solms determined that the forebrain is responsible for dreaming, fueled by the neurotransmitter Dopamine. Dopamine directs our attention and makes us seek out what we yearn for and drives our goal-directed behaviour. (Very similar to Freud’s libidinal drives.)

Prof Solms says that we dream so that we can sleep. (Contrary to Hobson’s theory which states dreaming is a byproduct of sleeping). During REM sleep, the sleep cycle where most of our dreaming occurs, our muscles are paralysed. Without movement, the body can use all its resources for important housekeeping functions like clearing away waste products in the brain. To stop the brain from a constant outward scanning of the environment, the brain puts on a show for us – our dreams.

Dreaming is a very physiological function, with important psychological benefits. If you pay attention to your dreams it is an ideal way to check in with yourself. It’s like a therapy session delivered to your bed.

During your dreams, your brain pays deep attention, uninterrupted by stimuli from the outside. It will go to your emotional hotspots and link it to different parts of your brain. You may be upset, anxious, aroused or stumped by a problem at work. The brain will then link this emotion to all your sensory centres, your memories, your creative areas and your logical areas. Thus all parts of your brain get focussed on this issue, a task almost impossible to do when we are awake.

Some dreams have changed history. The father of quantum mechanics, Niels Bohr, was struggling to understand the structure of an atom. In his dream, he saw planets spin around a sun and conceptualised an atom nucleus with electrons spinning around it. Albert Einstein described his theory of relativity after a vivid dream of sledging down a mountain so fast that time stood still.

Einstein and Bohr were grappling for months with their problems. Their intuitive breakthroughs came in their dreams. You too can “sleep on it”. Some of my patients say that they don’t dream. They do, they just do not remember it. Keep a notebook next to your bed and prime yourself before sleep to write down one word of your dream. In the morning you can you can then trigger memories of your entire dream with that word.

But there is a catch. Dreams speak in a metaphorical language. A deeply personal metaphorical language. So it won’t necessarily work to google “what does my dream mean?”. There may be some obvious associations which are fairly universal. E.g. If you are being chased in a dream, you can ask yourself what are you running away from in your waking life. Or if you dream of walking into a room naked, your dream might be trying to tell you that you are feeling vulnerable or exposed. Despite the commonality of many dreams, only the dreamer can accurately interpret the meaning and symbols of their dream.

If you do decide to take note of your dreams, ask yourself how you felt in your dream and what your dream could represent. Pretty soon you will become an expert at decoding your dream’s language. You might start finding intuitive solutions to logical problems; you might see things from a different angle. Sleep tight.


  1. Although dreaming occurs mostly during REM sleep, it has been found to occur in all phases of sleep and in many parts of the brain, including quite often in the occipital lobe as well – no wonder many of our dreams are so vivid. I agree with what you say about the housekeeping functions of dreams but they are also important in forgetting so that we are not overwhelmed by an avalanche of irrelevant information from the previous day. I am however skeptical about the meaning of dreams: they have the meanings we give to them, which will be a function of our emotional and cognitive state at the time of recall. A brain is not like a computer that can be “shut down” at night; so it continues produce electrical activity, some of it as random firing, during sleep. Because we humans are wired so as discern patterns everywhere and everywhen, we are going to make “sense” of that subconscious activity by hook or by crook, when we become conscious of it, even when it is self-contradictory or doesn’t make sense. No wonder they are so weird or is it we who are so weird?

  2. I’m sorry, I should have also said that consolidation of memories happens during sleep as well so that you have both processes going on, both the strengthening and loosening of associations. (Again nothing like what goes on in a computer.) Finally, one can often draw a good moral or useful analogy from interpreting a dream but remember we are master confabulators so we should never rely on dreams or their interpretation as evidence of anything. Therapists know this but sometimes they encourage their patients with again, sometimes, disastrous consequences. We really do need to stop ourselves from time to time and do a reality check.

    P.S. My favorite song about confabulations: Tracy Chapman’s “Telling stories”

  3. Would it surprise you to know that she graduated from Tufts University with a degree in Anthropology and African studies? Maybe that’s where she honed that skill for putting her finger on the very pulse of the human condition in her songs.

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