Why We Dream

What makes us dream? Have our dreams significance? What does the "nude" dream mean? The "falling" dream? Here-with a psychologist’s answers

DONALD A. LAIRD June 15 1944

Why We Dream

What makes us dream? Have our dreams significance? What does the "nude" dream mean? The "falling" dream? Here-with a psychologist’s answers

DONALD A. LAIRD June 15 1944

Why We Dream


It WAS a philosophical Chinese who dreamed he WAS a butterfly and upon awakening could not be certain whether he was a man who had dreamed of being a butterfly or a butterfly who was then dreaming it was a man.

This same question which is the dream?—sometimes liothers others. Children have difficulty at times in telling their dreams from fact. One four-year-old lad had been wanting a pony for some time. One morning he proudly announced that he at last had a pony, that it had arrived during the night and said to him, “Hello, Harry! I*m your new pony.” The lad cried when he could not find the pony in one of the rooms of the house, for the dream had the semblance of reality to IUH child mind.

Unfortunately children are sometimes punished for telling lies when they are merely relating something they have dreamed and believe. Daydreams, too, which are very similar to night dreams, are often believed by children and a few erratic adults.

It has been said that the mentally disordered are as if living in a world of their own dreams. It is true that some of their peculiar daytime behavior may be the direct result of a dream.

A spinster librarian, for example, had to be relieved from her work because she develojjed not only the idea that she wras married but that she was about to have a family. Her mental breakdown had been precipitated by a series of dreams in which she dreamed she was first being courted by a well-to-do bachelor, then engaged, and finally married. The dream series extended over several weeks and became so vivid and were so pleasant, l might add that shortly she could not distinguish them from actuality.

Why do we dream about the particular things we do? Some dreaming is apparently set in motion by the experiences of the previous day. This means nothing more serious than that our deeper mental activities get started on a topic during the day and keep working on it through the night. Often they have more stick-toitiveness than our consciously directed thoughts.

A few dreams are instigated by some passing disturbance. A medical student, lying on his arm until it became numb, dreamed he was watching an operation when suddenly the professor turned on the student and started to amputate the sleeper’s arm. He awoke with a fright, discovered his arm was numb and turned on to his back.

A scientist was peacefully sleeping when he abruptly began to dream he was in the French Revolution and being beheaded on the guillotine. He awoke with a

fright, too—only to find that a part of the canopy of the bed had fallen down and was lying across his neck.

Everyday examples of dreams started by some passing disturbance are the dream of being in the arctic wastes when the bed becomes too cold for comfort, or dying of thirst on the desert when one becomes thirsty during the night. Surveys indicate, however, that only a small proportion of dreams are started by some such environmental cause, perhaps one dream out of 20.

Slight bodily changes, which are not ordinarily perceived, will set oft' dreams. I have a dream of having a severe cold once or twice a year. I used to pay no attention to it, but have learned that 1 have this dream about a day before I notice the usual symptoms of a cold. That does not mean, of course, that the dream causes the cold. What it means is that the slight tightness in the throat, which I cannot yet notice consciously, is noted by the deeper mental levels, and a dream is set off on the subject of colds. This is a kindly warning for since I have learned what this deam forecasts 1 immediately begin to coddle myself and drink enormous quantities of citrus juices to abort the cold. As a consequence my colds are lighter than before I was smart enough to catch on to what the dream was trying to tell me. There are innumerable cases where people have dreamed of having some ailment a couple of days before the objective symptoms appeared.

Patients with heart disease are inclined to have dreams of a horrible death, but this type of dream is doubtless colored by their anxiety over their possible fate. Dreams of smothering or drowning are frequent among people with tuberculosis.

Most dreams, however, are not started by some irritation of the body or senses. They are started by un inflammation of the wishbone. When we daydream it is usually about the things we would like to do. Our night dreams, in like vein, are mostly about the things we would like to do or have.

This is obvious in children’s dreams—as Harry and his pony—and also in the dreams of people with simple mentality. Dr. John E. Lind reports these dreams from some simple-minded people, which show how their dreams are often plainly started because they want something:

An 84-year-old man in dire financial straits: “I

dreamed I was getting a pension each week.”

A 30-year-old who received a 16-day jail sentence: “I dreamed several times when I first came here that 1 was out.”

A 32-year-old Negress: “I keep dreaming my hair is straight and that my skin is turning white. Will it come true?”

Intelligent, civilized people, with good consciences, usually find their dreams much more complicated than these simple examples. A complicated dream is usually one which is camouflaged so it will not offend

What makes us dream? Have our dreams significance? What does the "nude" dream mean? The "falling" dream? Here-with a psychologist’s answers

the good taste of the dreamer. In these instances the dream enables one to imagine doing or having what was wanted, but is so disguised that the moral sensibilities will not be disturbed.

Here is such a dream of a middle-aged unhappily married man: “I am in an automobile on a road being repaired. I notice that there is a steep precipice on one side of the road, while the other side is rocky and steep. Suddenly there are noises which make me think the gasoline tank will explode. I jump from the car and walk backward very fast. Then the automobile blows up. I breathe easier and think I am lucky to get away in time.”

When this unfortunate man and his dream were analyzed by Dr. Emil A. Gutheil it was found that the automobile represented his marriage, which he was afraid would blow up. His hurrying away from the car reveals his wish to get a divorce—but he walks backward because he does not look upon divorce as being cricket. The hopelessness with which he views liis marriage is represented by the road under repair ahead, and the cliff on one side and the precipice on the other. In the dream he does symbolically what he has been wanting to do in real life for some time.

To a happily married man such a dream would have had ai>entirelv different cause, possibly a conflict with his boss and wanting to quit his job. Or in an impetuous youth it might have been a temporary way to solve the impulse to run away from a home where he feels he is not appreciated.

The reason for any dream varies from person to person. Individual aspirations, disappointments and experiences have to be considered in understanding the real life dilemma which is being resolved. Professor Warren C. Middleton of De Pauw University found about four people out of five have dreams which they clearly recognize represent a solution, albeit purely imaginary, for some of their frustrations.

Will the right dream kill a person? Some people who pass away in their sleep may have had their deaths hastened by a dream—provided they have a weak heart and some frightful dream speeds up their heart action so it cannot hold up under the increased work thrown on it by the dream’s effects.

It is an old wives’ saying that in a dream of falling one will surely die if he does not awaken before hitting the ground in his dream. There is no scientific justification for believing this. Dreams of falling are fairly common, and they usually arouse great anxiety ir the sleeper. Many awaken from a dream of falling

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with their hearts palpitating furiously.

The reason for the anxiety associated with dreams of falling Ls that they usually represent symbolically losing one’s self-control, one’s temper, or falling down on one’s moral standards. More women than men have dreams of falling through space, and there is usually great anxiety associated with the dream.

Fortunately there is not an excess of terrifying or unpleasant dreams. Pleasant and unpleasant dreams are about equally frequent for the average person.

Few Forget Dreams

ONLY one person out of 100 does not remember dreams, and there is a suspicion that everyone dreams. Those who believe they do not dream may merely sleep so soundly that they do not recall their dreams when they wake up.

Nine out of 10 adults, according to Dr. Middleton’s survey, are usually active participants in their dreams. They dream they are actually doing things, not simply watching a passing parade. Some authorities in child psychology believe that practically all children are active participants in their dreams.

It is strange that colors are seldom seen in dreams. Professor Madison Bentley of Cornell University, and many other investigators, have noted this. Our dream world is a world without color as a rule, just blacks and greys, like Whistler’s painting of his mother.

The old allegation that women ; cannot keep a secret is borne out by Professor Middleton’s finding that women are twice as likely to tell others their dreams. Men are the secretive sex when it comes to dreams. Possibly this is because men are much more likely to have dreams in which they, as active participants, violate their moral principles.

Twice as many men as women dream that they are undressed. Although more men dream of being in the nude, the women are more embarrassed by dreams of thLs sort. We can understand this difference in the attitude toward such dreams by the comment of Dr. Franz Alexander at a joint meeting of the American Psychiatric and Psychoanalytic Associations. Dr. Alexander, who directs the Institute of Psychoanalysis at Chicago, finds that nude dreams in men are likely to be a form of bragging about their bodies; whereas a similar dream by a woman Ls more likely to represent an invitation, j Just as most dreams lack colors, 1 sounds are also usually absent. Our ! dream world lacks sound as well as i color, although one person out of 10 j does have sounds in his dreams.

1 It has been thought by some that

dreaming was a sign of mental instabil ity. Dr. F. Kenneth Berrien gathered data on this at the Ohio State University and found that neurotic persons apparently do not dream any more than normal ones. The neurotic, however, is likely to have complicated dreams which conceal his attitudes from himself, and also to be upset by his dreams the following day. The normal person can forget his dreams easily. Professor Middleton found that three fourths of people drop their dreams easily. But dreaming is certainly not a symptom of a twisted mind.

When are we most likely to dream? Many mental specialists believe we dream all the time, whether awake or asleep. During the day, for instance, when our attention is not sharply directed to some task our mind wanders in daydreams, which we usually ignore.

Factory workers who have monotonous repetitive jobs also daydream almost continuously on the job. Dr. Lorine Pruette has found that the ability to daydream keeps the work from becoming monotonous. Those few people who cannot “let their minds go” to entertain themselves with their own daydreams cannot stand boresome work. The National Institute of Industrial Psychology, London, has developed a series of tests for discovering people who do not have this facility.

But this daydreaming is going on, many experts claim, ¿ill the while, even when we are thinking sharply of something else. This implies that we have much more mental activity than we are aware of. While we are figuring out the grocery bill, for example, we may suddenly remember another article we wanted to buy. Or we may have something entirely unrelated to our figuring pop into our heads. This sudden remembering and ideas popping into mind are considered as originating in these side channels of mental activity, which are always present.

Consciously we are thinking of one thing, but the “little grey engine” inside the skull is working on two or more other ideas. The idea on which we are consciously working we can control. The other ideas we apparently do not control, and at times they may control us.

In sleep we have no sharply focused conscious ideas, and these side channel ideas, products of the deeper levels of mental activity, have free run. At the time of going to sleep and on awakening, however, we have brief periods in which we can catch glimpses of these deeper mental activities.

On awakening we have the best opportunity to observe these vagrant side channel activities before our consciousness becomes narrowly focused. In going to sleep the conscious activities are uppermost and it is more difficult to catch these fleeting deeper activities; that is why we seldom dream on going to sleep.

But on awakening we are more likely

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to find ourselves dreaming, because these deeper activities have been in full play without any competition or regulation by consciousness. These deeper activities are what we call dreams. When we awaken slowly enough to watch them we remember a dream. When we awaken suddenly we may not see them and, as a result, say that we never dream.

On a night when we have fitful sleep, and are awake, or partly awake, several times, we will remember many dreams. This does not imply that we have been dreaming more than usual, but that we have been sufficiently awakened many times and have thus noticed them. Light sleepers notice many dreams just because they are sleeping lightly enough to notice them.

So we come back to the question of “When do we dream?” The answer seems to be that we dream all of the time, but remember only those dreams taking place as we are passing from sleep to wakefulness.

By watching persons while they are asleep we can see indications that they are dreaming. People not only talk in their sleep but also make walking movements, moan, grind their teeth, make gestures as though talking with someone. At the Allentown, Pennsylvania, State Hospital observations of such sleeping activities which suggest dreaming show that they are taking place off and on all during the night. If these activities do represent dreaming we are as likely to dream any one hour as another.

Dreaming While Standing

AS IS clear now, one does not have . to be asleep to dream. The essence of dreaming is to notice the picturesque dreaming activity which seems to be ' taking place ceaselessly. People can dream while standing up at work. During the retreat from Mons in World War I, for instance, Dr. George W. Crile in talking with some of the utterly exhausted soldiers learned they had been aware of nothing but their dreams during hours of forced marching.

Since it is remembering that makes us have a dream we can talk about, it is I usually the last parts of dreams we remember. This makes them seem more bizarre than they would be otherwise, like seeing only the last reel of a motion picture.

But there is more sense in most of our ; dreams than we realize. Hungry I soldiers, for instance, have a tendency to dream about food. One company which became separated from its supply kitchens for a long time was found to be dreaming more than usual about food. The wish-fulfilling nature of dream activities is obvious in such a situation.

About 50 people out of 100 have dreams they remember which are obviously derived from the experiences of the previous day. A person learning to drive an automobile is quite likely to dream, if at all, about driving an automobile. At front line hospitals and dressing stations it has been observed that wounded soldiers dream a great deal about battle, not about home. This tendency to repeat, with modification, recent experiences in dream life amounts at times to sort of a repetition compulsion. A single intensely emotional experience may be I lived over again a dozen times in ! exhausting dreams.

Night terrors in children are often vivid dreams which are reliving, but ¡ with modifications, some recent un! pleasant experience. The parents may i know nothing of the experience and be j unable to understand the child’s terror. ' And the child being unable to distin-

guish dreams from the imaginative mind play of waking moments is in the grip of the dream creation.

There are a few people who have the unusual facility of being able to juggle with the fringe of consciousness, from which dreams emerge, without needing to be asleep. These are usually of an emotional type and have the ability to notice what is going on just outside the clear zones of their consciousness. This is the unusual situation of being awake and at the same time seeing dreamlike activities. Such persons may believe that these dreamlike activities are messages from another world and become professional clairvoyants or mediums. In these instances, of course, the messages come from their own deeper mental levels, not from another sphere.

Childhood Dreams

HOW early in life people start dreaming we do not know. The following report from the Psychoanalytic Quarterly, by Dr. Milton H. Erickson, suggests, however, that dreaming is present during the first year:

“A father was in the habit of playing with his infant daughter at her evening feeding. She had a definite attitude of expecting this play. When she was eight months old the father had to be absent two evenings. Returning at midnight the second evening, he paused at her bedroom door. He could see her clearly. As he was about to turn away she moved restlessly, extended her legs, flexed her arms over her chest, turned her head from side to side and laughed merrily.”

This strongly suggests she was dreaming, and of the play which she had missed for two evenings. We cannot be certain but it is easy to conclude that her dreams were supplying the play she had missed, just as older humans dream about the things they want to do or have.

Time is enormously shortened in most dreams, reflecting the saying that thought is quick as a flash. Dr. Max Levin, Baltimore, dreamed he was watching an exciting baseball game. He watched the pitcher wind up, saw the ball as it travelled toward the batter, saw the bat strike the ball with a sharp thud. At that instant he awoke just as the defective window shade flew up to the top of the window with that same sharp thud. Apparently this dream of a rather long series of events transpired before the echo of the thud had died down in Dr. Levin’s bedroom. He calls this type of dream a reconstruction dream, which has “the paradox of a succession of images seemingly culminating in the sleepdisturbing stimulus but actually evoked by that stimulus.”

Ordinarily time is much foreshortened in dreams, but interestingly enough when a person has a fever the dreams stretch out time, resembling a slow-motion movie. A pneumonia patient with a temperature of 105 deg. reported this dream: “I was dozing.

The door seemed to open very slowly. Somebody approached my bed, slowly as if it were a slow-motion picture in the movies. I felt strange. This somebody walked or moved around my bed and placed his hand on my heart. The hand was ice-cold. I woke bathed in sweat and was afraid to fall asleep again.”

Time Ls sometimes turned backward in dreams, particularly by persons who were happier in their younger days. A lady nearing 60, for instance, dreamed that she awoke late in the morning and

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SAW.' A beautiful bouquet of roses on her 1 ; dresser. The clock beside them showed ; a quarter to 12. She jumped out of bed, in the dream, of course, and ¡ started to dress. But the dress placed on her dream chair was a silk dancing ; gown, with pastel dancing pumps on ' the floor. She dreamed she dressed quickly but felt disturbed, and then awoke.

This dream turned time backward, to lier days of youthful dancing. The clock showing a quarter to 12 as much as said, “It’s getting late in your life.”

1 That is typical of the way our dreams try to solve our passing troubles and ! unhappiness, though they may at times terrify us. True, the dream solutions are only imaginary and the trouble is still there when we awaken. But give our deeper mental levels credit for trying to solve the problems and situations we do not face or solve consciously. They are at least trying, though in a primitive way that seldom reaches a solution. That is why we keep on dreaming.