Theories of Dreams: Some revision for my exams which might interest you!


Right, I've found a way to be able to surf Aeclectic AND revise at the same time... So, you guys are gonna have to bear with me here, and listen whilst I explain all about the Theories of Dreaming and their implications.. Something I need to know about for my Psychology exam. I find I learn things best if I explain it to others, and why not explain it to a worldwide audience??!!! :D

Here goes...

There are many theories of dreaming... They an be spearated into two groups: Neurobiological theories, which focus on functions of the brain and neurones which cause dreams, and Psychological theories, which focus on the dreams themselves. The Neurobiologial theories have a significant difference to the Psychologhical ones in that the Neurobiological ones always see dreams as a by-product of the brain and body functions during sleep, whilst the Psychological theories all see dreams as actual useful functions in themselves...

In 1977, Hobson and McCarley purported a Neurobiological theory known as the Activation Synthesis theory. It is based on the fact that, during REM sleep (Where 80% of our dreams are dreamed), we go through what is called Sleep Paralysis, a process caused by an output blockade at the top of the spinal column, which paralyses us. During REM, the sleeper always experieces neorobiological signals from the barin, which resemble those that come from the eyes and ears... But, because we are in Sleep Paalysis, these signals such as those of seeing, hearing, running, flying, etc, cannot be acted out. This is confusing for the body and brain, so the sleeper processes the signals mentally instead: Causing the dream. Research to support this theory came from Hobson, 1988, when he discovered that there definitely is random firing of neurones in our brains during REM sleep (The signals of running, flying, etc). In 1994, the same researcher produced more research to back up this theory, when he found evidene that internally generated signals (Those of flying, running, etc) can be mistaken for external ones. He noted that levels or noradrenaline and serotonin are lower during REM sleep than during NREM sleep or waking life: These low levels of noradrenaline and serotonin prevent the sleeper from distinguishing between external and internal sigals, thus causing the brain to feel confused when these signals cannot be acted out, and thus causing it to dream...

This theory certainly explains why tastes and smells hardly ever appear in our dreams (Research showed that the signals we recieve are those resembling those we receieve from the ears and eyes, not from the other senses...). It also explains the often incoherent nature of most dreams. However, it doesn't explain those dreams which are of a coherent nature, and have meaning. It doesn't explain why many people have dreams that are relevant to their concerns/previous day, and doesn't explain why some dreams repeat themselves night after night...

The second Neurobiological theory of dreaming was put forward by Crick and Mitchison in 1983, and is known as the Reverse Learning Theory. This theory states that the main function of dreaming is to get rid of useless information stored in the brain, because this info takes up valuable space in the cortex. Dreaming is a by-product of the un-learning process, by which the cortex is bombarded by a barrage of impulses from the brainstem while a mode of synoptic modification ensures that the unwanted elements of each circuit in the brain are unlearned... (Pretty heavy stuff, eh? :D And I've gotta repeat all this in a 2hr exam on Thursday!) Research support for this comes from Crick and Mitchison, 1983: They claimed that the size of the cortexes in different species provides support for their theory: The only two mammals which do not have REM sleep are dolphins and spiny-anteaters (Useless fact for you there!). These species also have unusually large cortexes, and therefore do not need to jettison unwanted activity through dreaming... (REM is a sign of dreaming) However, this is the only support for this theory... The theory has only one strength: It explains why we only remember about 5% of our dreams. (If dreaming is a by-product of unlearning, then it isn't meaningful and doesn't need to be remembered.) It also could explain why we often dream about things that are concering us or have happened to us the previous day... BUT it as has plenty of limitations: It doesn't explain why our dreams are often significant, and doesn't explain why a foetus, which has no meaningless info to get rid of, still engages in REM sleep. It also doesn't fit with new reseach which shows that our brains have a vast potential for info storage, and thus we don't need to save space, which is what this theory suggests.

Right, that's the two most boring and heavy theories over with... I hope I can remember all that when the exam comes! *Biting finger nails* Now onto the nicer Psychological theories... :D

The first one is obviously Freud's Wish Fulfillment theory. This theory, first purported by our dear ole Siggy in 190o, claims that all dreams are wish fulfilment, mainly of repressed/forbidden desires. Dreams are symbolic, but the symbols are personal, not universal, and dreams require analysis in order to understand them, and thus, your psyche and own self, and dreams are relevant to current concerns... So, if a woman who is married fancied another bloke, she may dream about making love to that bloke, as a dream is a safe way of getting rid of desires and forbidden lusts... Freud said that there were two parts of a dream:

  • *Manifest content: What is actually dreamed
    *Latent content: What the true meaning of the dream is.

There is little research evidence in suport of this, but one study seems to: Hajek and Belcher (Unfortunate name!) studied the dreams of smokers who were on a Quit Smoking regime. They found that most of the quitters had dreams about smoking during the course of the quitting regime, and for at least a year afterwards... They also found that those who dreamed about smoking found it easier to cope with quitting, and those who had the dreams about smoking were less likley to re-start smoking than those who didn't... These quitters were having a desire which they were forbidden in real life through a dream, and apparantly, this made it all alot easier for them in the lng run!

This thery as quite a few strengths: It explains why many dreams contain actions not 'allowed' to the dreamer IRL, and it explains all those weird symols that appear in our dreams, aswell as repetitive dreams. BUT it has serious limitations... For starters, it is improbable that there is as much represion of unacceptable desires in today's society, compared to when this theory was formulated in 1900. Secondly, if this theory is true, then why don't the things we 'repress' and dream about change with the times? For Freud's era, the repressed dreamed about desires were sex, but in today's society, can it really be said to be this aswell? Wouldn't it be something like food and eating? This theory also desn't explain nightmares (How on Earth can these be fulfilling??!!! and and the fact that the 'latent content' of a dream is dubiously identified could point to a possibliliy that it may not actually exist! So long Freud, you're nothng but a Fraud... ;) :p No disresepct for Freud fans out there! :D



The final main Psychological theory of dreaming is known as the Problem-Solving Theory, set out by Webb and Cartwight in 1978. This theory states that the function of dreams is problem solving, and dreams are a way of expressing our concerns, which are often expressed symbolically, and rely heavily on metaphor... (Sounds familiar, right ? This is a theory very popular with today's psychologists and dream interpretors worldwide. It is one of my personal favourites...

Research evidence to support this was found by Webb and Catrwright in 1978, when they gave partipants problems to solve then allowed them to sleep. Some of the participants were woken whenever they entered REM sleep (The stage of sleep where dreams occur) and the others were left to sleep undisturbed. Those who were disturbed and not allowed to dream were able to provide more realistic solutions to the problems the next day... Although it can be argued that lack of dreams isn't the problem for those who were disturbed, but rather the fact that they were disturbed! They were woken up about 5 times in one night! I'd be bloody tired the next morning too!

More 'evidence' for this theory was produced by Cartwright in 1984. He interviewed women who were undergoing divorce and were either depressed or not. The non-depressed divoring women reported having longer dreams and ones that dealt with marital issues. This suggests that the dreams helped the women actually become non-depressed in the first place.

Hartmann in 1973 also found some support for this theory, when he discovered that people who were undergoing sigificant problems in their lives had more REM sleep than the non-troubled individuals... This suggests that when we are troubled, we have more REM sleep to help us solve the problems through dreams.

This theory explains a helluva lot: Repetitive dreams, dreams about things we did that day, dreams about our worries, etc... But it doesn't explain why people and animals also have dreams which are not related to the solution of problems. It also doesn't fit into the fact that we forget 95% of our dreams (If our dreams are for problem-solving, why forget them??!!) It also ignored the physiological processes that take place during dreaming...

There are two more theories of dreaming which are less well-thought out and less supported... The first of these is the Survival Strategy theory set out by Winson in 1997. This theory claims that dreams are a way of juxtaposing the events of the day with past memories and learning fom them, to form a 'survival strategy'... This is based on the findings that people who are deprived of REM seep find it hard to remember the key events of the previous day, but otherwise, it is pretty much on its own by way of research evidence! It also doesn't explain why we remember only 5% of our dreams.
The second theory is called the re-programming theory, twice thought out, first by Evans in 1984, and secondly by Foukes in 1985. Evans' theory claims that the brain needs to periodically shut itself off from the sensoy input so it can progress and assimilate new information and update things. The dreams we experience are the brains' attempt at interpreting the updating. This is supported by a very interesting study done by Herman and Roffward in 1983: Particpants in this study spent their waking day wearing vision distorting lenses that made everything appear upside dowm. After this day, which obviousy rquired alot of mental activty and adjustment, particpants spent much longer in REM sleep, supporting the thory that the brain attempts to process unusual and new mental activity during dreams. This theory is also supported by the fact that old people spend shorter periods of time dreaming than young people...

Foukes' version of this theory is annoying and confusing, so bear with me...

It claims that dreaming helps us to relate to newly aqcuired consciousness, and it helps us to integrate and combine new knowledge with past knowedge. Dreaming programs us to be prepared for what could happen in real life... Absolutely no research to support this weird and pointless theory! :D

Anyway, these theories all seem to have very distinct thoughts on what dreams are fot... It has significatnt implications for our interpretations of dreams... If the Neurobiological theories are correct, then we are creating stories from nothing when we attempt to intrprept our dreams...

So, what do you guys think? Firstly, did you understand all that, or did you fall asleep half way through? Secdonly, which theory is your personal fave? (Mine's the Problem Solving Theory by Webb and Cartwright in 1978)



From 1990-1995 I was a corporate trainer for Nintendo of America. I taught folks how to be professional video game players (It really is a real job). At the end of the first two-week session, I would ask for a show of hands in answer to the question, “Who has found they are dreaming in ‘video game’?” The hands that rose, usually ‘made’ it as gamers. Those who did not, usually found their way to the customer service department.


That was an interesting study break for me :)

Are there any theories out there that are a combination of the ones you've talked about, Kiama? Because it seems to me that people might dream for different reasons at different times (like sometimes it might be wish fufillment, sometimes it might be solving problems, sometimes it might be just a result of randomly firing neurons etc)...

Good luck for Thursday!


And following on from the dolphin and anteater, here's another interesting fact:

Did you know that humans and armardillos are the only animals that can catch leprosy?

It beats me how people figure these things out. :)

Back to study *sigh* I'll see you folks later.


I really enjoyed reading that, Kiama.

I'm not quite sure what I think about dreams but I do think they have some sort of meaning. Even if they have a purely biological basis (which I suspect isn't the whole story) but even if they did, I still believe that the stories we make out of them are meaningful. After all, when we make up stories they don't 'come out of nowhere' they come out of something inside us :)

Good luck for Thursday :)


Great job, Kiama!

That was a wonderful encapsulation of dream theories! Nice breakdown...pros and cons of each one...names and dates for footnote value...I think you'll do great on your exam!

I have a Dream Theory of my own, but as Mermaid suggested, I too believe the ultimate answer lies in a combination of the theories that have been put forward. I also can't remember any 'footnote' references at the moment, so take the following theory with a grain of salt, please! ;)

The problem with a theory that combines psychological and neurological aspects (such as the one I have in mind) is that it is nearly untestable. So, instead, you end up testing ideas that are narrower in explanation than is practicable in biology simply because they are testable. There is tremendous scientific value in the testing, of course, but I think too many people get hung up on the narrow ideas and miss the big picture. After all, animals are so incredibly complex...would a 'simple' theory really be able to completely explain the function and purpose of something as major as dreams? My opinion is no.

As you pointed out, Kiama, the human brain is capable of storing a huge amount of memories. But is that the most efficient use of the brain? I think our brain organizes the information coming into it through the senses into patterns. This eliminates the need for us to remember every single sensation that we feel, which is incredible efficient. If asked to recall a particular moment, our brain uses the patterns it has built to induce (or deduce? I always get those two mixed up!) the information that is not hard-coded into the brain. There are plenty of studies that show that the human brain makes up info, creating false memories to fill in the gaps in the real ones.

But I think the nervous system does get 'full' at some point, and so the brain uses dreaming time to fit the day's sensations into the patterns that are familiar to it. This reduces the storage space necessary for that day's memories. That's what dreaming is, in my opinion.

But there is also an emotional aspect involved, because you can't simply pull up memories and sensations in the brain's various cortices without firing up some emotions, too. It goes with the territory when you mess around in the brain! That's why things that trouble us during the day can carry over into the dreams we have at night. Every memory or sensation that comes up as the pattern-matching of dreaming goes on stirs up emotions of its own. These emotions bring up their own bundle of memories, and so on, and so on. This may explain why emotions that come after the fact can sometimes confuse our memory of the event that preceded it.

Wow. Sorry for the length. And sorry if it's too hard to follow. This is probably a whole lotta hooey, but it's my own theory, gosh darn it. Covers several of the bases, but is nearly impossible to prove. Convenient, hey? Got that easy-out from "Crackpot Theories-R-Us". ;)




Makes sense to me, Melvis! :D

Can I ask a question about your theory though? (I know you said you had no references at hand, so I beg forgiveness - but I'm interested!)

When you say that your brain/nervous system gets full, is that a 'proven' fact or just a theory?

What I'm talking about is the well known theory/urban myth that says that we only ever use a very small proportion of our brain. If that is right, it stands to reason that the brain wouldn't ever get full. So do you think that that theory is wrong, or do you mean that a certain part of your brain gets full, or am I just plain confused here? :confused:

Thanks Melvis!


EVERYTHING you post interests me!

in light,


Wow, that was an interesting one (and pretty amusing for an open anti-Freudianian like me!), go on Kiama, you'll manage your exams, I have no doubt in you!