Dream Theories


The interpretation of dreams has a patchy history. They formed a fundamental part of Sigmund Freud’s work, and of the development of psychoanalysis at the turn of the 19th century. He argued that dreams were a form of wish fulfilment during sleep, arising from our sexual urges. But Freud’s argument was entirely subjective. By attempting to work out associations between the dreamer and the various elements of the dreams, he tried to uncover the latent thoughts he hypothesised must be causing them. Freud said these latent thoughts were always wishful.

In 1953, two American researchers discovered a physiological state known as “rapid eye movement” (REM) sleep. This is a paradoxical state: we remain fast asleep but our brains are as highly aroused and active as during normal waking hours. It occurs every 90 minutes during sleep. Experiments in the 1950s showed that 80% of people woken from this state of sleep reported dreams, whereas only 10% of people woken from non-REM sleep said the same. This led to the conclusion that REM sleep was the physiological equivalent of dreaming.

By the 1970s, Freud’s theory of dreaming was in trouble when Allan Hobson of Harvard Medical School and Robert McCarley laid bare the mechanism behind REM sleep. It is controlled by a switch located in the brain stem, called the pons, that has very little to do with mental life aside from regulating levels of wakefulness. Hobson had established that REM sleep, and hence dreaming, had no connection with any conscious desires and that it had nothing to do with wish fulfilment. Hobson went on to say that dreams were generated by the random activation of the forebrain.

Mark Solms is a professor of neuropsychology at the University of Cape Town, who originally trained as a neuroscientist but began studying dreams after later training as a psychoanalyst. “You see things in dreams because your visual cortex is excited. You hear things because auditory cortex is excited,” he says. “The forebrain connects all the images together in a futile attempt to make a story or an episode out of what’s happening. The narrative doesn’t mean anything.”

Hobson’s “activation synthesis theory” remained the accepted explanation for how dreams are generated and Freud’s ideas were discounted by mainstream scientists. That is until Solms made the chance discovery that people with lesions on their pons were still having dreams.

“I was taken aback – we know that damage to this structure leads to a loss of REM sleep and therefore it must lead to a loss of dreaming,” recalls Solms. He had disassociated REM sleep from dreams but it left the question wide open once more: what part of the brain was causing dreams?

The answer came as another surprise. “There were brain structures which, when damaged, led to a cessation of dreaming,” explains Solms. One was the part of the brain that processes spatial cognition. But more interesting was the fact that dreaming also stopped with damage to a part of the brain that controlled motivation.

It was an excerpt of the GNM content. Read the full version on their website.

Courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd

PART 4. Analyse the following dream using the dream theories mentioned in the text.


The Torre Glòries, is a 38-story skyscraper in Barcelona: Wikipedia

 The other day I had an unusually tough day at work as a waitress so when I got home in the evening I fell fast asleep.  In the dream I had, I was back at work. The restaurant was filled with big, well-built Chinese men taking part in a rice-eating contest and we were all running off our feet to make sure there was enough rice on the tables. After two hours of the contest, we ran out of rice and the Chinese men became very angry. They started shouting and breaking the bowls. I wanted to come up to them, but my feet were glued to the floor and I couldn’t move an inch. I was terrified. Then I looked out of the window but instead of the familiar view of the park surrounding the restaurant, I saw the Torre Glories. I blinked in disbelief but the building was still there! When I was struggling to free myself I heard church bells ringing and I woke up.