What Are Dreams For?
An emotional account.
Posted Feb 14, 2020
In 1900, Sigmund Freud set the course for our understanding of the liminal space of consciousness in his Interpretation of Dreams.
In this foundational account, the good doctor argued that dreams are a neurotic symptom stemming from the unconscious mind so as to keep the body asleep. He also posited a set of censors that transformed the latent content, that is repressed thoughts and wishes from the unconscious, into the manifest content of the dreamwork that we experience.
While this schema is interesting and worthy of study, I will argue that there are alternative theories about dreams that build on this to portray a more accurate description of the function of dreams.
The actual images we experience in the dream state can be bizarre, paradoxical, and difficult to replicate, and yet the feelings we have in this state of consciousness are very familiar. That is not to say that the causes of these feelings are normal; for example, it is common to feel intense fear for quotidian objects or not be scared at all by disgusting monsters. Even though the causes and effects are out of the ordinary, I think it is notable that the feelings we have in dreams are very similar to the feelings we have in waking life.
The purpose of dreams may be to work through unresolved emotional conflicts. This could be an unrequited lust, or it may be looming anxiety which has not revealed its true cause in waking consciousness.
Similar to how we can talk things through in our conscious lives, the emotions we have in this paradoxical state of consciousness that is dreaming are being massaged and ordered through a type of experiential bazaar. We walk (or fly) through the whole range of emotional states in the simulations that constitute the dream state in ways that would be impossible to replicate in waking life. Indeed, there is so much to work through, so many slight and intense feelings we experience during the day that we have to put aside. Dreaming is how these emotions get processed.
Freud argued that we cloak our repressed wishes in the clothes of the day’s residue, those furtive images and stray imaginings which weren’t important enough to pursue but which remain in the mind to provide a mise en scène for our dreams. In fact, the psychoanalytic description of dreams, and daydreams for that matter, resemble nothing so much as the act of artistic creation. In many cases, art is the aestheticization of our personal feelings and thoughts, the beautifying of our aspirations and visions through processes, very much like the censors that Freud put forward.
The main censors that transform unconscious wishes for Freud were displacement, condensation, representation transformation, symbolism, and secondary revision. These processes also occur in imaginative acts: We displace elements of our experience into characters or lyrics, we condense longer narratives and complex topics onto specific formats, like short stories or rhyming couplets. We also transform across mediums, from things we heard to lines on paper, from sounds of a train to sounds of an instrument. Symbols abound in art, they serve as short-form references, they cloak our personal experiences in publicly shareable concepts. And finally, there is the process of refining and editing our inspired flights of fancy. Indeed, Salvador Dali’s paranoid critical method bears more than a little resemblance to the dreamwork of Freud.
Dali’s explanation of his own creative methodology separated out a paranoid process whereby all filters were dissolved and the imagination was allowed to make connections and foment images, from a critical process that sifted through this copious pile of unconscious ejaculations. In some ways, Freud’s explanation of dreams suggests that we are all artists; that every night, we create strange, elaborate masterpieces.
More recent psychologists have formulated interesting schemes to explain dreams. Allen Hobson argued dreams are basically meaningless and that it is only the eye of the beholder which project meaning onto them. He located dream construction in a brain structure in the midbrain called the Mesopontine tegmentum. In a series of written and oral debates, Neuropsychoanalyst Mark Solms demonstrated a more complex relationship between REM sleep and dreaming, wherein the SEEKING system in all its dopaminergic glory is the main generator of dreams. He argues this suggests dreams are not nonsensical, in fact, they are meaning-seeking states, they are motivated psychological phenomena that can enlighten us about our own minds. Not all psychologists agree with this interpretation; for example, G. William Domhoff developed a series of scientific methods to analyze the contents of dreams.
The SEEKING system is the master emotion, it is the root of all motivation, enabling an organism the urge to engage with the environment, goading the creature through appetite and attraction. This work was spelled out by Jaak Panksepp, who also put forward an intriguing evolutionary theory about dreams. Based on the observation of widespread evidence for dreaming across the animal kingdom, he suggested that the dream state is the original form of consciousness. That dream consciousness with its involuntary imagination came before what we call waking consciousness with its deliberate forms of imagination and cognition.
While it is difficult to still be a Freudian about how and why dreams have meaning and how to interpret them, I remain convinced that they are meaningful, though not in the way he hypothesizes. Maybe dreams are meaningful because they are theatrical or cinematic ballets of the subtle and overwhelming strains of emotion. The feelings are real, and although the images and their groupings may be fantastical, it is a type of unconscious expressionism from which we may learn, or at least be provided with material to elaborate upon in the act of creating aesthetic meaning. Awake or asleep, the mind seeks order, excitement, and a perpetuation of its particular vision of reality.
Asma, S.T. & Gabriel, R. (2019). The Emotional Mind: The Affective roots of Culture and Cognition. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.
Dali, S. (1993). The secret life of Salvador Dalí. US: Courier Dover Publications.
Domhoff, G. W. (2003). The scientific study of dreams: Neural networks, cognitive development, and content analysis. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Freud, S. (1900). The interpretation of dreams (J. Crick, Trans.). London: Oxford University Press.
Hobson, J., Stickgold, R., & Pace-Schott, E. (1998). The neuropsychology of REM sleep dreaming. NeuroReport, 9, R1-R14.
Panksepp, J. (1998). Affective Neuroscience. NY, USA: Oxford University Press.
Solms, M. (1997). The Neuropsychology of Dreams. USA: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.