“We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep”, utters Prospero, the sorcerer and protagonist of The Tempest, as he delivers one of Shakespeare’s most infamously (and often incorrectly) quoted lines.
Dreams: ever intriguing phenomena for neuroscientists and artists alike. We don’t fully understand what they are, which perhaps explains why they make for such interesting exploration through mediums such as poetry, music, film and literature (think John Lennon’s Imagine, the blockbuster hit Inception, or Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, all of which revolve around or reference dreaming).
Ancient Greek and Roman civilizations believed dreams to be messages or prophecies from deities and/or the deceased, which has bestowed a rather mystical and transcendent quality. And despite great strides having been made in dream research since the 1950s, oneirologists (dream scientists) still aren’t certain where in the brain dreams originate. However, what is maybe most striking about dreams is their ephemeral and fleeting nature, quite often juxtaposed with the intensity of feelings, images and emotions experienced during the dream itself.
It seems commonsensical to associate dreaming with peaceful and restful sleep experiences; the idiomatic phrase “sweet dreams” conjures up images of blissful slumber, allowing the sleeper to escape into a world of imagination and fantasy, free of worldly impediments.
Unfortunately, the truth about dreaming, and vivid dreaming in particular, is slightly less idyllic. While sleep can be considered “Nature’s soft nurse” (Henry VII, Shakespeare), crazy dreams quite often signal a less revitalising sleep experience than might be desired. Although it is true that most dreaming occurs during deep REM sleep, Tore Nielsen, director of the Dream and Nightmare Lab at the Sacré-Coeur Hospital in Montreal, discovered in a 2005 study that dream intensity increased with sleep deprivation.
J. Lee Kavanau, in an academic paper published in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, distinguishes between “authentic” and “illusory” dreaming. The former refers to dreams which take place within a broadly realistic framework, while the latter implies they are much more bizarre, impossible or incongruent nature. Critically, these “illusory” dreams are not only an indication of sleep deprivation, but have been linked to delusions observed in mental disorders. This more ominous side to dreams is concerning, yet further exploration might yield fascinating scientific breakthroughs in the field of mental health.
For late 19th/early 20th century psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, dreams were merely manifestations of one’s deepest desires and anxieties, often relating to repressed childhood memories or obsessions. In a strange way, this echoes Prospero’s allusion to the thin line between dreams and reality. We might not be living in a dream, but our dreams almost always reflect our lived experiences and real memories.
Research conducted by Dr Kelly Bulkeley, a dream researcher and visiting scholar at the Graduate Theological Union in California, broadly reaffirms the symbiosis between real-world experiences and dreaming, with the five most common dreams relating to being attacked or pursued, schools/teachers/studying, sexual experiences, falling, and trying to do something over and over again. These dreams fall into the “authentic” category, occurring in a normal-ish environment with only slight aberrations, often reflective of concerns, worries or memories of real events.
A perfect example of this was a study in 2014, where scientists based at the Sorbonne in Paris extracted and studied the dreams of a large group of students the night before they took a medical school entrance exam. Not surprisingly, about two-thirds of the respondents dreamed about the exam, with nearly 80% of these dreams being negative in some way.
Dreams are an inherent part of sleep, and worthy of our attention, if only due to the fact that during a typical lifespan, a human spends an estimated total of twenty-seven years dreaming. Almost a third of our lives are spent in a fictional, cerebral world of our own subconscious making, and studying this closer can further our understanding of sleep-cycles, mental illness and our general state-of-mind. It’s time to wake up to the world of dreams.