Dreams are not random machinations of the unconscious.

By Milton Kramer, Marc Ian Barasch, published September 1, 2000 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Dreams are a theater of the emotions, where we playout the day's dramas that were left "to be continued."

Research has shown us that dreams are not just the machinations of the unconscious on random play.

We all go to bed with the problems of the day still on our minds. Unfortunately, a day is not like a play, which gets resolved by the time the final curtain falls. But dreams, with their colorful characters and settings, can play out that final scene while we sleep, processing the emotions we encounter in our waking lives.

Forty years of research on dreams suggests that they are not just the random firings of our brains. Neither are they highly symbolic visions that should chart the course of our lives. But dreams do, in fact, have meaning. And our research shows that the nature of that meaning helps determine our mood the next day. That, in turn, determines how we function and what we can accomplish. Quite simply, the dreams we have at night set the stage for our actions the following day, priming us .to either rise and shine and conquer the world, or crawl back under the covers and duck the challenges that lie ahead.

For 13 nights, we monitored the dreams of Linda, 24, a volunteer, in our sleep laboratory. Whenever she was in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep—with her eyes darting from side to side, her brain waves speeded up, and her pulse, breathing and blood pressure fluctuating—she was awakened and asked to report any dreams she had experienced. One night, she reported the following series of dreams.

1) "This little girl was asleep. She was being real cute, prolonging things for money or to stay in the hospital longer."

2) "I passed Frank's wife in the car. She saw me come ....She pulled away. I got kind of mad. I decided it didn't make any difference."

3) "I was playing tennis. I hit it back real hard. We won the game."

4) "A patient didn't need the doctor after all. She started out thinking she needed a doctor but she didn't. She had a big bandage on her stomach."

5) "Doctor was not able to treat the patient. He was not properly licensed. Patient is planning to use surgery against the doctor."

Although she had hit the sack feeling sleepy, a bit foggy, a little unhappy, and annoyed (she had mistakenly assumed the experiment was for one night and that she would be paid), Linda slept for her usual seven-and-a-half-hours and awakened refreshed, alert, happier and no longer irritable, ready to engage the day.

Was the change in Linda's mood a consequence of what went on during her sleep? My colleagues and I otter a resounding yes. Our work has led us to develop the Selective Mood Regulatory Theory of Dreams and Sleep. It holds that for Linda, as well as for everyone else, feeling better upon waking is a result of both getting uninterrupted sleep for an adequate length of time and of experiencing a series of otherwise unremembered dreams that engage disturbing feelings. (In our testing, the periodic awakenings were brief enough and the subjects young enough that sleep was not effectively interrupted.)

Linda's dreams were of a progressive nature. In them, she went from a clingy little girl to an assertive woman in charge of her life. It started with a dependent longing to be cared for by the doctor (father figure). This desire stirred the fear of being rejected by a married woman (mother figure). The tension between the desire to be cared for and the fear of rejection was resolved in the third dream, in which she had a victory with a partner of her own. In the fourth dream, she tried to reject the desire to be cared for, but the need for care still existed (the bandage). In the last dream, she asserted a more vigorous rejection of the doctor, serving to deny her need and the doctor's ability to meet that need.

We all have multiple dreams across the night, but not all of them succeed at untying our emotional knots. After examining a large number of dream series, my colleagues and I have discovered two modes of dream processing, two ways of responding to our unresolved problems. One mode, which we call a progressive sequence, resolves emotional problems by working through them step by step, and by comparing them to previous challenges that at some point or another we met successfully. The other, called a repetitive sequence, fails to resolve emotional problems but simply repeats them metaphorically over and over during the night's dreaming without charting any progress. With a repetitive sequence of dreams, we can awaken in a worse mood than when we went to bed.

If Linda had been more on edge, or if her problem had not been well-handled in the past, she might have experienced a repetitive sequence, the dream equivalent of just continuing to worry about a problem and not resolving it. On another night in the laboratory, she did have one such dream sequence:

1) "Somebody was lost. It was a dog and they were trying to find out where it lived. A little kid or somebody couldn't tell where he lives. It wasn't my dog though. I wasn't lost. The person who was lost was fumbling around leading everybody else around because he didn't know what he was doing. Somehow, we had phone numbers and we were trying to find the right one. It was supposed to be the little boy who was lost."

2) "They filled up the car. There wasn't enough room, unless I went back with the people we went back with before. I could go back with someone else. The place we were going was an orphanage someplace, some house, a place like that."

3) "I was dreaming about visiting. I think it was some EEG laboratory or something like that where the mothers could leave their children and go shopping. I doubt whether they could, though; there wouldn't be enough room for all these people."

In the dreams of this night, Linda illustrated a fear of being abandoned and an uncertainty as to whether her efforts to reconnect would work—calling on the telephone, riding in a car, or being picked up. It was no wonder she awakened disgruntled the following morning, having failed to engage her issues metaphorically during the night.

What determines whether we will have a helpful or unhelpful sequence of dreams? It depends on two factors: whether there is in our emotional arsenal a solution to the kind of problem at hand, and whether we happen to be up to the task. Just as some days we are more productive than others, seemingly without rhyme or reason, so some of our dream experiences are more useful than others in solving life's quandaries.

Research has shown us that dreams are not just the machinations of the unconscious on random play. They have order, and they reflect important psychological aspects of our lives and personalities. When we examined the dream reports from a representative sample of people from Cincinnati, we found that there were similarities among the dreams of distinct groups—men and women, young and old, blacks and whites, married and single people, and between those of lower and middle social classes. If dreams were random, we would not have found any similarities.

We also have shown that dreams vary from person to person—they are individualized, like fingerprints—as well as from day to day, reinforcing the idea that the events of each day play out in the night's dreams.

These psychological regularities prove that the dream experience has order, and as we have seen in the laboratory, order paves the way for meaning. The nature of that meaning—how Linda interacted with Frank's wife, for example, and whether the outcome was favorable—can change our mood for better or worse from night to morning.

Changes in mood across the night turn out to be related to the people and activities that populate subjects' dreams. The production of a happy mood is particularly related to the types of people who appear in the intervening dreams.

In order to study the relationship between mood change and a night's dreams, we recruited 20 volunteers, both men and women, to sleep for 20 consecutive nights in the sleep laboratory. We had them rate their mood before and after going to sleep in terms of how friendly, aggressive, happy, clear-thinking, sleepy and anxious they felt. During the night, we awakened them at the end of each REM period and had them report their dreams. We found that their mood changed across the night along with changes in their dream content. And that as in Linda's case, the key to those mood changes was a matter of who starred in the dream and what scenes they acted out.

It is important to note that the specific individuals in the dream are unimportant. It is the roles they represent that carry the meaning. In Linda's dream, for example, Frank's wile was merely playing the role of wife, any wife. Rather than Jungian archetypes, the characters in our dreams—an older man, a female peer—are the vehicle for helping us deal with a central issue. They are actors in the theater of our unconscious, playing out the day's emotional dramas that have been left "to be continued."

Freud, a careful and astute observer of the manifestations of a variety of behavioral states, including sleep and depression, claimed that dreams are the guardians of sleep continuity. Since sleep can potentially be interrupted by emotional surges—from the day's unresolved issues bubbling up to the surface—the function of dreaming, Freud has suggested, is to contain or "diffuse" these emotional surges, which biological studies have confirmed exist.

We need sleep to be continuous if we are to improve our mood over the course of the night. In our experiments, we found a decrease in the capacity to contain the emotional surge among patients having nightmares. In other words, nightmares occur when dreams fail to blunt the body's emotional response, whereas successful dreaming controls and suppresses the feeling in dreams and protects the continuity of sleep.

REM-stage sleep, when the body undergoes changes in breathing, heart rate and blood pressure, presents the greatest risk for waking up. REM sleep is distributed during the night, with more in the second half, in such a way that as the likelihood of awakening increases, so increases the likelihood of the occurrence of REM sleep—and its protective dreams. Patients who report loss of dreaming after a brain injury experience poorer sleep than those who continue dreaming.

In another study—on the relationship between mood change and the physiology of sleep—we ruled out the possibility that the mood change was the result of other Factors: the amount of sleep a person got during the night, the amount of REM sleep a person got during the night, or the mere passage of eight hours. We did this by depriving a group of individuals of sleep and seeing how their mood changed compared to those who had slept well. We found that, the following day, the sleep-deprived felt mentally foggy, more groggy and more aggressive—physiological conditions that sleep would have improved. Most importantly, they were also less happy, because they did not experience dreams, which would have regulated their mood. This mood alteration is one that anyone who has stayed up studying, working or partying knows well. (Interestingly, the group did feel more friendly, however, having spent the previous eight hours in a group, rather than alone.)

Although it has been a bone of contention among scientists, we believe our research shows that the change in the happy mood during the night is related to dream content and not just the fact of sleep.

Whether or not we are happy is not just a touchy-feely, quality-of-life issue. Employers have a tendency to say, "You may feel good but it's not going to produce more Nike sneakers or design a better building," but we believe it will. How we feel influences how well we function in waking life. Happiness affects performance.

Fortunately, most dream series are of the progressive type, repairing our mood from bedtime to morning. In our studies, such decreases in mood intensity occurred on about 60% of the 1,000 nights we studied. It's as if an emotional thermostat kicks in during the night to warm the mood that may have chilled during the day.

Our waking and dreaming lives have a great deal in common. With whom we spend the night and how well things work, awake or asleep, largely determine our happiness.

dreams of glory

Western culture has privatized our dreams, regarding them solely as products of our innermost life. But certain dreams take us well beyond ourselves, tearing down the gated communities of our psyche.

There are dreams and there are dreams. Most of us have had—or will have—at least one dream that stops us in our tracks, when the evanescent wisps of the night gather the force of a Kansas tornado barreling straight for Oz. Such dreams are more than emotional coffee grounds and crumpled up impulses toward sex and violence that the waking mind nightly ditches down some inner disposal. Such dreams tell us that we are not who we think we are. They reveal dimensions beyond the everyday. People the world over have described such experiences. But we in the West have had only a sketchy understanding of what I call Healing Dreams—ones which, if we heed them, can guide us toward greater wholeness and have the power to transform our lives.

It has been standing policy in psychology that dreams are not meant to be enacted on the social stage; they are treated as personal creations that speak to the dreamer alone. But Healing Dreams chafe at such boundaries. They convey in symbolic terms surprisingly accurate images of disease and healing. They are also well-informed about our intimate relationships. But what is more, they are shrewd observers of our wider social backdrop. They are remarkably attuned to the clamor of community, to the nuances of the body politic, even to the fate of the earth. A Healing Dream wants to wriggle free of our solitary nets and head into open water, toward communion with the greater conclave of souls.

This may be a little frightening. Dreams are often socially transgressive. They champion the rude, lewd and wholly unacceptable.

People who act out their dreams on the social stage can be dangerous, becoming prey to delusions, dragging others along with them. When Julius Caesar dreamed he was sleeping with his mother, his royal dream interpreter told him he would soon possess Rome, the mother city. Caesar duly marched southward to take the capital. Would he and the world have been better off if, rather than setting out on the road to conquest, he had brought his dream to a therapist to work through his Oedipus complex?

In dreamwork, psychologists wisely counsel that we "keep the lid on the pot"; "withdraw the projections" back into the inner world. Our tradition of "psychologizing" the dream rather than, as in some cultures, acting upon it, is no small cultural achievement. But has Western psychology been too eager to bottle up the dream in the consulting room, forbidding it a wider life? Healing Dreams often speak to collective issues. They crave the give-and-take between the inner and outer worlds.

They confront us with our own unmet social potential, calling upon us each to know ourselves as part of the whole.

In The Forgotten Language, the neo-Freudian analyst Erich Fromm writes that in dreams, "we are concerned exclusively with ourselves...in which 'I am' is the only system to which thoughts and feelings refer." Yet the privatization of the dream remains a peculiarly Western practice. Dreams in many cultures—the Plains Indians, for example—are a key component of social problem-solving, with vital public and even political implications.

The Zuni Indians of New Mexico have a custom of making public their "bad" dreams ("good" dreams, however, are sometimes withheld even from close relatives). Among the Quiche of Guatemala, all dreams, even small fragments, are shared immediately with family and tribe. An Australian aborigine told me, "We tell our dreams to the group because different people have different gifts and might help understand it. We have a saying, 'Share it out before the next sunrise.'" It sounded to me like the informal dream-sharing groups that have sprung up in Western societies over the past several decades—until, that is, he added a comment I found particularly intriguing: "We often meet each other while we're sleeping."

One society which reportedly followed a dream-sharing regimen was the Temiar Senoi, a jungle tribe of 10,000 living in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia. Researcher Kilton Stewart reported in 1954 that if, for example, a child dreamed he had been attacked by a friend, his father would advise him to tell his friend about it. Then the friend would be advised by his father to give the dreamer a present and go out of his way to be friendly to him, in case he had offended the dreamer without wishing to.

"Thus," said Stewart, "the aggression building up around the image of the friend in the dreamer's mind thereby became the basis of a friendly exchange." Later in the day, dreams would be discussed by the entire community, and the messages and insights they contained would become part of the ritual and behavior of waking life.

Whether Stewart's Rousseauian portrait can be taken at face value or was a confabulation, remains an open question. Yet decades of research have revealed that tribal cultures the world over give dreams a central role in their collective lives. Barbara Tedlock reports that dreams are of such integral importance to Mexico's Quiche Maya that one out of four are initiated as "daykeepers," their term for dream interpreters. And the tales of the Temiar Senoi, whether apocryphal or historical, have been an inspiration to those seek Aborigines claim to meet each other during sleeping to bring dreams into the realm of social discourse.

One such person is the Unitarian minister Jeremy Taylor, who began running dream groups while performing civilian alternative service during the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector. He was assigned to do community organizing in Emeryville, California, an "all-black, working- and underclass" community. Tensions between blacks and whites in the group ran high, and meetings often degenerated into name-calling sessions.

One day Taylor suggested that they stop talking about waking life and instead start sharing their dreams. Many confessed they were having "nasty, racist dreams...of being attacked and menaced by sinister, hostile and dangerous people of other races." Though he feared such dreams could be like pouring gasoline on the fire, soon a more open form of dialogue began to emerge. It became clear to everyone, he says, that the "nasty" dream characters were unintegrated, undeveloped aspects of their own personalities, denied and projected onto others. They realized, writes Taylor, that "these ugly, scary, dark, powerful, sexy, violent, irresponsible, dangerous dream figures are vitally alive parts of my own authentic being." Gradually, he reports, "repressions were released, projections withdrawn. ..."

He notes that cynicism, too, started to evaporate: "Authentic personal likes and dislikes began to replace ritual 'politeness,' blundering patronizing comments and repressed fear," Taylor writes. "The energy that had previously been squandered counterproductively in maintaining the repression and projection suddenly came welling up...as spontaneous surges of vitality and welt-being...creative possibility and enthusiasm." The group dreamwork contributed to a style of interracial, grassroots political organizing which eventually helped elect the first black public officials in what had been called "the most corrupt community in California."

The dreamer may be dismayed to find himself face to face with, even in thrall to, denizens of circles and rungs of society he in waking life tries to avoid. Dreams are the great leveler. But it is hard to avoid the fact—indeed, it is a little mortifying-that these images come close to cartoonish stereotypes. Even for those of us who pride ourselves on having a social conscience, our prejudices against the "other" have deep psychic roots. Such broad-stroke dream images function as emblems for what is ignored, repressed and denied—not just in my psyche, but in society at large.

Such images serve to undermine the ego's view of status and social position, its preposterous belief that we're not all in this together, that some of us are "above" others, that we can really wall ourselves off from our neighbors. The psyche has no such gated communities.

Though most of us are only too glad to see the upside-down world of the dream dissipate in the morning sun, these images are a potential source of social healing, telling us we cannot remain comfortably distanced from others' suffering. In our prejudices, fears and abdications of human connection, it is ourselves we are rejecting—the tender, wounded parts that contain our greatest wealth of soul.

Marc Ian Barasch

Reprinted from Healing Dreams: Exploring the Dreams That Can Transform Your Life by Marc Ian Barasch (Riverhead Books, Penguin Putnam Inc.). Copyright October 2000.

PHOTO (COLOR): Aborigines claim to meet each other during sleep.

PHOTO (COLOR): For the Ute Indians, dreams are a key component of social problem-solving.

PHOTO (COLOR): dreamspeak

Adapted by M.D.

Milton Kramer, M.D., is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine and Director of their Sleep Consultation Service.