Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Why Do We Believe in Our Dreams?

Lucid dreams can happen spontaneously and naturally, or we can mentally train ourselves to intentionally induce lucid dreams. But lucid dreaming is not the default - the majority of dreams, even for 'natural lucid dreamers' are those of the normal, non-lucid variety. This leads us to question why this is so - why aren't all of our dreams lucid? Why do we accept the bizarre, extraordinary and impossible nature of our dreams and question them? There are many theories as to why we don't question the reality of our dreams, which will be explored in this article. 

Depth Psychology is the study of unconscious processes and motives, typically from the perspective of psychoanalytical theory. The term 'Depth Psychology' was coined by Psychiatrist Paul Eugen Bleuler (1857 - 1939). The theory here suggests that in order for our subconscious minds to perform the psychological therapy which takes place in dreams, we must be unconscious and passive participants. 

Dreaming provides a form of psychological healing as well as contributing to memory and learning consolidation, personality integration and catharsis. Sigmund Freud (1856 - 1939) propounded the theory that dreams are a way of satisfying primal urges and desires which are unacceptable in civilised society, thereby characterising dreams as a form of wish fulfilment. According to Freud, while we are dreaming, our subconscious represses doubt and critically-thinking because the healing nature of dreaming requires us to believe in what we experience. Note that other dream researchers, such as Psychiatrist Allan Hobson, argue against the idea that dreams have any particular meaning or purpose, concentrating on biological explanations (i.e. dreams as makeshift narratives which arise from random brain activity).

However, these theories, stemming from Depth Psychology and Psychoanalysis, do not provide ground for claiming that the psychological therapy offered by dreams acts as a mechanism for non-lucidity, they simply provide a explanations of the psychological purpose of dreaming. If these theories did explain the psychological therapy of dreaming as a mechanism for non-lucidity, this would suggest that it would be impossible for anyone with unreconciled psychological or emotional conflict to experience lucidity in a dream, which we know is not true. 

Developmental Psychology suggests that the brain is pre-programmed to dream - even foetuses in the womb experience the phenomenon of dreaming, before they have any grasp on their own existence or the world they will be born into, with its laws of physics. This means that the dream world and it's bizarre and fluid imaginative constructs left impressions on the subconscious brain before waking reality. It may be that these 'foundational memories' left such as imprint on the subconscious, they they still guide subconscious expectations, which offers an explanation for why we do not challenge the 'reality' we experience in our dreams - it was the first 'reality' we experienced as foetuses in the womb. Newborn babies spend an average of 8 hours in REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep each day, again, reinforcing the fact that our first experience of reality takes place in the world of dreams, with the rules of waking reality coming later.

Psychologist Jean Piaget (1896 - 1980) studied children's dreams and found that children's acceptance of dreams gradually changes from a belief in the reality of the dream to understanding that dreams are a 'story' inside their heads. 

We have different expectations in the real world and the dream world. Obviously, rules (laws of physics as well as social norms) are much stricter in the real world than in the dream world, suggesting that our brains are hardwired to recognise the boundary between the real world and the dream world and the respective rules which exist in each - the boundary between these worlds is 'waking up' - which the brain accepts, enabling it to adapt to the different sets of rules without question. 

An example of this mechanism failing is when we experience a false awakening. This phenomenon occurs when the dreamer finds themselves on the boundary between wake and sleep. The waking self (the waking 'I') is activated, while still within the hallucinatory nature of the dream world, which in itself is an effective gateway to lucid dreaming. 

Our brains process and interpret sensory data from our environment, which is received via the 5 senses of sight, sound, touch, smell and taste. However, it is possible to trick your brain into receiving and interpreting other forms of data or information too - via the imagination, hallucinations or dreaming. The key here is perception - the brain does not necessary question the input it receives nor discriminate between different types of input. This provides an explanation for why the brain does not alert you to the fact you are awake or asleep and dreaming. 

Conscious awareness is a function of the conscious mind, which is deactivated during sleep, and therefore we accept our dreams as reality, without questioning them. Furthermore, the hallucinatory dream imagery which is triggered in the brainstem can be perceived by the brain as being as realistic as waking stimulus and perception. This profound and extraordinary effect is why our dreaming brain invents false memories and often complex narratives to explain what you are experiencing in the dream. A sudden snap to consciousness in the dream provides sufficient insight triggering lucidity. 

Professor Mark Blagrove, a sleep scientist, states that dreams - and nightmares - are a form of simulation which have an evolutionary purpose. Our dreams feel so real to us because in the dream itself, we have no other form of reality to compare - unless we are lucid, our waking reality does not exist. Blagrove states that the inability to become consciously aware we are dreaming is an evolutionary selection, as dreaming has evolved as a form of 'threat simulation' so that we can practice our survival techniques while asleep - in order for this to be effective, we must believe in the reality of the dream.

As you can see, there are a number of theories as to why we believe in our dreams, and why not all of our dreams are lucid dreams. Just like the majority of dream science, much of this is theory and guesswork and much remains to be discovered through dream science, studies of consciousness and neuroscientific research. 

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