What The Wild Things Are

Understandings of Self, Awareness, and Mental Health in an Ever-Changing World

Only in your dreams

Why do we dream and what does it mean?

The Farallon Islands is the largest seabird and marine mammal colony in the continental United States and for that reason always houses a handful of biologists studying the cornucopia of life there. However, for the past 20 years, the scientists at the Farallones have been documenting more than just sea lions and puffin nesting habits; they've been keeping a daily log of their dreams, which tend to be strikingly similar to each other.

Why are these scientists having similar dreams and what does it mean? Part of the answer might be obvious: these are people doing similar things all day and being exposed to the same thing, so it makes sense that the same environment (and desire to protect it) would show up in their dreams. But the dreams are not just about the sharks and birds, they are also about the absurd and things showing up that don't belong.

There are many theories about dreams and meaning; the study of dreams and their role in life has been around as long as language and culture have. Some cultures, for example, make a common practice of consciously influencing dreams. Liza Solomonova, a psychology and neuroscience graduate student at the University of Montreal who has studied dreams extensively, says that for many (and for scientists in particular), dreams can be a way for new ideas and breakthroughs to form. While asleep, the brain can sort information in new ways, giving the dreamer new understanding upon waking, she says.

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Eleanor Rosch, a psychology professor and dream researcher at UC Berkeley, has stated that part of the purpose of dreams is to help our brains remember and make connections between events, emotions and information we experience while awake. By repeating the experiences in our sleep, we're learning from them and imprinting them on our long-term memories, she says. Some studies have indicated that memories get consolidated and sorted while we sleep. Other studies suggest that we are actually developing more connections between neurons in our brain while we dream, enhancing our sensitivity and creativity.

While the importance of dreams is accepted, the meaning of dreams is more debatable. Some scientists believe dreams are set off by random firings of our brain stem, while others follow a more psychological interpretation, that dreams originate in our deep subconscious as a way to express and resolve conflicts and tell us something important about ourselves (ala Freud). If this is the case, perhaps it is not just being exposed to the same environment that causes the dreams for scientists and the Farallones to have similar dreams. Perhaps it is what that environment (and being alone in it for 10 hrs at a stretch) evokes in their unconscious that is similar as well.  Perhaps (ala Jung) there is something archtypal, even, that is evoked for everyone who sleeps there. 

But whatever the content, most would agree that dreaming is incredibly important. Dreams give us a way to have access to and sort through parts of ourselves we wouldn't otherwise, and a way of remembering. For that reason alone, dreams should be cherished. As Solmonova says, dreams are "essential to our sanity;" in the truest of the word.

 


Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

 

Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D., is a clinical and forensic psychologist and co-founder of the Pathways Institute for Impulse Control in San Francisco.

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