Sally felt herself being driven along a rough, undulating path to be confronted by the head of an enormous mouse.....
After someone pushed Alan off the edge of a cliff, he found himself falling into a dark, fathomless abyss....
Jennifer desperately tried to escape as a gang of sinister men approached with pickaxes in their hands, but her legs refused to move....
Flapping his arms vigorously, David began to gain height until at last he could soar above the treetops, taking care to avoid the telephone cables overhead....
No, not horror films or scenes from science fiction, but experiences many people have while safely tucked up in their beds.
Dreaming is not only normal but absolutely vital for our mental health. Without it, we become tetchy and anxious, undergoing personality changes and finding it difficult, even impossible, to concentrate.
According to researchers, infants dream for up to 70 percent of their sleep time, while adults get by with just 24 percent REM activity (Rapid Eye Movement) when the brain is at its most active. Even cats, dogs and other mammals are thought to dream, a fact borne out by their yelping, twitching, growling, grunting and other animal expressions during sleep.
But whoever we are, wherever we live and whatever our circumstances, we all have dreams, although not everyone remembers them; the dreams we DO recall are the ones we have immediately before waking, before they slip like threads of gossamer from our minds.
What happens when we dream
When we nod off, our sleep becomes progressively deeper, reaching a state of total unconsciousness until starting to get lighter. It’s during this lighter phase of sleep when dreaming, or REM activity, occurs - a cycle that is repeated 5-6 times. On average, we can expect to dream for a total of 90-120 minutes throughout the night – roughly the same length as a feature film, though maybe not as thrilling. This is because the most common form of mental activity isn’t dreaming about incredible situations, but ‘sleep thinking’ – a process involving real-life events which tend to be rather mundane. Sleep thinking may however help us resolve any problems or worries we may have.
In fact, with the exception of neurons related to concentration and memory, our brains are actually busier when we dream than when we’re awake. But that’s only to be expected from such a complex organ; the brain has up to 50 billion elements generating between 100-300 signals every second! No wonder it never stops working.
Some dreams can be decidedly unpleasant. Past events and impressions obviously play a part – army veterans may be haunted by horrific wartime experiences, while victims of crime may re-live the fear and panic of their original ordeal.
Nor do they have to be particularly dramatic. Some of the most terrifying dreams can centre on normally innocuous objects, like dustpans or cupboards or mirrors which may suddenly seem sinister and threatening.
Children are particularly prone to frightening dreams. According to a study by mental health experts in Mannheim, Germany, 9 out of 10 youngsters are awoken by nightmares such as being chased, falling, natural disasters and war. Interestingly, gender has a bearing on how dreams are dealt with; boys tending to forget them altogether, while girls talk or even write about them, something which experts encourage. Drawing pictures of the dream or acting it out can also help children to overcome their fears so, as a result, the nightmare eventually occurs less often.
Humans have been fascinated by dreams since the world began, with many pagan nations including the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians using them as a guide to various aspects of life. The Babylonians were particularly in thrall to the subconscious, having “such trust in dreams that on the eve of important decisions they slept in temples, hoping for counsel”.
More recently, Sigmund Freud viewed dreams as “the royal road to the unconscious” and tried to interpret them in the light of patients’ repressed desires. Such case studies have since been dismissed by many scientists as over-simplified.
Then there are the ‘dream books’ in which various pundits attach meanings and psychological insights to certain features of a dream – in some cultures, snakes, for example, are thought to represent disease. However, in her book The Dream Game, Ann Faraday believes such books are “equally useless, whether they be traditional or based on some modern psychological theory.”
Another specialist, Dr Rosalind Cartwright, is impressed by the differences between dream interpreters, with many psychotherapists insisting their interpretations are correct, “... apparently quite oblivious to the fact that their colleagues, on the basis of the same dream, may see quite different things for you.”
Can dreams foretell the future?
Many people believe so. For instance, a 1999 survey by sociologists found that over half of Russians believe in prophetic dreams and omens. And they’re by no means alone.
The Bible has several instances of divinely inspired dreams, including Joseph’s warning to flee to Egypt with Mary before Herod could harm their child Jesus. Jacob, his son Joseph, Daniel, Ezekiel, even pagan rulers Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon and the Pharaoh of Egypt had visions. Yet these were related specifically to God’s purpose and, once the Bible was completed, dreams were no longer used as channels for divine communication.
On the contrary, dreams are just a normal if essential part of life, helping us make sense of our experiences and enhancing our memory. So enjoy them for what they are and, if you’re disturbed by nightmares, instead of looking for any ‘meaning’ in them, look for causes nearer to home.
And cut out the cheese!