Dreaming mainly occurs during REM sleep and takes the form of vivid, dramatic stories of a highly visual nature. Participants woken during REM sleep reported dreaming 80% of the time. REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement. Content of dreams may be linked to real events before or even during sleep and sex differences have been found: Men are more likely to dream about sexual content and outdoor events than women.
REM sleep is a physiological sate of the brain and body, defined using measures of the EEG (Electro Encephalogram), eye movements, muscle tone etc. New born babies are said to spend about 9 hours per day in REM sleep compared to adults who spend about 2 hours, this is to process all the new information that is received during the day. We only remember 5% of our dreams because during REM sleep a part of the hindbrain is inactive and this structure is important in helping us form memories.
Dement and Kleitman studied 9 participants, 7 of which were male and 2 female adults. These 9 participants reported to the labs just before bedtime and were told to eat normally but avoid caffeine or alcohol. An EEG was attached to the face and scalp to amplify and record signals. Two or more were attached near the eye to record electrical changes caused by eye movement and three or more were attached to the scalp to indicate the depth of sleep. During REM sleep and non-REM sleep, participants were asked to wake up to test their dream recall. They were woken up by a loud doorbell ringing and had to speak into a tape recorder near their bed. Firstly, whether or not they were dreaming and then the content. Different participants were woken to different schedules.
To eliminate experimenter effects, there was no communication with experimenter at night. The findings are that all participants went into REM sleep every night. REM EEG was characterised by low voltage, fast pattern. In between REM, EEG patterns were either high voltage, slow activity which suggested a deeper sleep. REM periods occurred at regular intervals. REM is associated with dreaming. All dream recall in non-REM was 8 minutes after REM sleep which showed that it was recalled from previous REM. Estimation of length of dreams were correct. This study provides scientific evidence to show that dreaming occurs during REM sleep. However, it is an artificial setting which could interrupt the natural sleep cycle which reduces ecological validity. There is a high level of control of lab experiments and they are easy to replicate and technical equipment can also be used. It may be well-controlled but it relies on subjective reports of participants who may lie about their dream content.
The storyline of the dream is known as the manifest content. Freud believed that dreams have a hidden meaning and the actual meaning of the dream if known as the latent content for example dreaming of climbing stairs means you are dreaming of sexual intercourse. However, sometimes a ‘cigar is just a cigar’. Dreams are an attempt to fulfil our wishes. According to Freud most people dream about forbidden and unacceptable wishes and that dreams are rarely straight forward. Dreams are designed to protect the dreamer and they are ‘the royal road to the unconscious’.
Some recent biological evidence is consistent with Freud’s ideas. Hajek and Belcher studied dreams of smokers who were trying to quit. Most smokers dreamt of smoking with fulfilment for up to 18 months after giving up. Many psychologists disagree with Freud. Dement and Wolpert reported that volunteers who were sprayed with water while asleep were more likely to dream of water than volunteers who did not get sprayed with water. Freud’s theory was a starting point to dream theories and has been a topic which has been frequently discussed in psychology. It has had many practical applications such as dream therapy. However, the therapies may be based on interpretations which may not be true or they may be distorted. Also, the dreams may be dated as the dreams may have been seen when they were children.
Another research that was carried out on dreams was by Cartwright on ‘dreams as problem solving’. Cartwright believes that problem-solving takes place during dreaming to deal with the preoccupations of waking life. It relates to solving problems with solutions. The chemist Kekule reputedly dreamt about a ring of snakes each one biting the next ones tail. He used this to describe the atomic structure of benzene.
Barrett studied students who were instructed to select a problem of personal relevance that had potential solution. The problem could be of personal, general objective or academic nature. Over a period of a week, about one half of the participants had reported a dream that independent assessors judged as offering a solution. However, neurobiological theories would suggest that dreaming is simply a result of electrical activity in the brain and the experience of the dream is irrelevant. Problem-solving could be more effective when we are awake. There is little supporting evidence with this theory as yet more research is needed.
During dreaming, there are different kinds of dreams that we have such as lucid dreaming and nightmares. Lucid dreaming is where the dreamer is aware they are dreaming and can manipulate events within the dream. Some researchers claim that a lucid dream can actually provide the dreamer with a better understanding of the real situation, which is the theory of Cartwright. The critical factor is recollecting that during the dream you have questioned its reality and decided, during the dream, that it was not real. Nightmares occur at all ages and mostly occur during REM sleep and take the form of vivid and frightening dreams.
Night terrors are a more extreme version of nightmares. These are characterised by screaming and often violent physical movements. The Old Hag was thought to be a spirit that visits people in the night while they sleep. Those who survive this visit report being awoken with a feeling of dread and unease but unable to move or speak. They often feel a great pressure on their chest making it difficult to breathe and sometimes see an old hag before them or near them in the room.
Overall, it is virtually impossible to interpret dream symbolism in a scientifically rigorous way. We have to rely on the subjective reports of the dreamer which is not a scientific method. Many dreaming studies are often done on humans and animals that are deprived of stages of sleep – the findings may be a result of disruption of biological rhythms. Dream reporting often takes place in a sleep lab which differ significantly to those reported under normal conditions, so it lacks ecological validity. To try and reduce this researchers often ask participants to sleep right through one night in the lab before research starts.