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Why Do We Dream?

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The function of dreams – what are dreams?

Why Do We Dream? The causes and meaning of dreams have been the subject of study by intelligent and learned men and women throughout the ages. Cave paintings and records from the ancient Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and many others did a great deal to propagate dream lore. Their ideas about the meanings of dreams and their methods of interpretation and recall endured for centuries.The general belief was that dreams were messages and visions given by the gods. Others believed that they were stories or related to the functions of the body. For example, Plato, writing in the fourth century B.C., believed that the functioning of the liver caused dreams. Similarly, Aristotle argued that dreams had sensory causes.

T he Sophist philosopher Artemindorus of Dalis cataloged many of these ancient ideas about dreams in the second century AD. His set of five dream books were called the Oneirocritica and proved so popular, they remained in print for 1600 years. The first English translation had been reprinted 32 times by the year 1800. Some of the meanings given to dreams by Artemindorus now seem a little strange, but sometimes he comes close to modern ideas. For example, he states that many of the images found in dreams have sexual meanings. Some of his ideas sound surprisingly similar to Freud’s. Similarly he recognizes that some images represent the masculine and feminine side of a person’s nature, a concept that suggests the psychologist Carl Jung’s theory of the anima and animus. He even proposes that some dreams are symbols. “Sometimes, there are dreams that cannot possibly happen; as when you dream that you fly, have horns, go down into Hell, and the like: These are allegorical.”

Aristotle was one of the first philosophers to come close to a scientific theory to why we dream. He spoke of the soul exercising special clairvoyant powers, in accord with its divine nature, when freed from the body’s constraint in sleep. However, he later claimed that the function of sleep and dreams was to dissipate the vapors that rose from the stomach after food. For many centuries it was believed that blood rose to the brain and caused congestion there. Sleep enabled the blood to drain back into the rest of the body.

Although Aristotle and others were clearly wrong about their science, they may have been correct in saying that dreams are a physiological process. Some of the latest theories propose that dreams are the body’s way of “rebooting” the brain. Dreams dispose of memories that would otherwise clutter the mind with unnecessary remembered experiences. In particular they enable the emotions to become balanced.

These ideas resemble the first scientific theories from early in the 20th century, which proposed that during sleep and dreams, chemicals such as lactic acid, carbon dioxide, and cholesterol that were collected in the brain during the day were dissipated. Sleep and dreams were thought to be a function of the elimination process of the body.

Today many scientists believe that dreams are the brain’s way of cleansing itself and allowing the brain’s complex chemistry to stabilize. Dreams also allow the emotions to quiet down. According to this theory, without them we would simply overheat. Recent experiments with “dream withdrawal” suggest that if a person deprived of dreams begins to show psychotic tendencies while awake. In the light of this fact some scientists have proposed that the function of dreams is to allow for a time of quiet insanity. It is not sleep that is necessary for well-being, but dreams. According to this theory, we do not remember dreams because there is no need too; dreams are just psychological junk.