The meaning of dreams
If you sit back and think about dreaming you’ll realize just how astonishing a phenomenon it is. Without your conscious effort, every night, whether you remember it or not, your brain creates multi-sensory environments that you live through. And what’s even more amazing is that behind every dream is a hidden pattern. This hidden pattern is the reason the dream is there in the first place.
Dreaming takes place during the Rapid Eye Movement phase of sleep, known as REM. This phase occurs around every 90 minutes during sleep. The REM state has also been observed in the womb. This is when instincts are ‘hard wired’ in the fetus. We also observe the REM response in hypnosis, and it is during a hypnotic trance state that we reprogram instinctive or emotional responses. Hypnosis, in fact, is synonymous with the REM state. So hypnotic trance, pre-birth instinctive programming REM and night-time dreaming are all connected.
It’s easy to understand why a fetus needs to be ‘pre-programmed’ with instincts and it’s clear why you might want to hypnotically exchange the instinctive response of fear for an instinctive response of calm during, say, a job interview – but why on earth do we dream at night?
We know that dreaming must be important because we spend up to two hours in every twenty four doing it. Nature wouldn’t have us doing it merely for entertainment. There must be a good reason why human beings (and many other species) dream. We also know that depressed people spend up to six hours or more a night dreaming. And we know that if we don’t dream, we quickly go mad. So, clearly, dreaming is serving a purpose.
The ancients believed dreams could foretell the future and that it was during the night dream that we left our bodies and soared through the spiritual realms. Sigmund Freud believed that dreams were a way for the subconscious mind to present to us our secret desires. His theory of dreaming seems dubious when we consider that even birds dream. It is unlikely that they are having access to their socially unacceptable desires when they enter the REM state!
There have been a number of other dream theories knocking around but the most recent, and convincing, understanding of why we dream comes from a man I had the pleasure of working with for many years.
Dr Joseph Griffin gained his PhD for his ground breaking dream research. Through ten years of studying his own dreams and the collected dreams of hundreds of other people, he found that dreaming serves, firstly, to keep instincts intact. You may have seen a cat dreaming of hunting a mouse. Now if your cat has food dished out to it every day by you, then clearly it is not using the hunting instinct. But during REM the instinct is renewed.Secondly, Joe found that in humans dreams are connected to what is emotionally important to us.
This much has been obvious for generations. He also concluded that we always dream in metaphor and that the metaphor is just borrowed – from, say, recent TV watching or anything in the environment, or your imagination. The symbolism of the dream isn’t necessarily important. A better clue for unwrapping the meaning from the dream is to match the feeling of the dream to feelings from the previous day.
So those popular so-called dream dictionaries that tell that if you dream of bananas it means you are about to win the lottery are kind of outmoded. We all concoct our own unique metaphors which are – to use a metaphor – merely the clothes used to dress the real meaning of the dream. So the metaphors of dreams aren’t important in themselves and vary for all of us.
Next, and most importantly, Joe discovered that dreams were not created by the emotions from the day before if the expectation caused by the emotional arousal had been fulfilled.
So, for example, if you had been angry at your partner and had then shouted at them, had a row, made up and agreed to love each other better in future, then the ‘emotional expectation’ had been played out. All that emotional expectation would have been completed. No dream required.
But if you had got mad with your boss at work but couldn’t shout at them because you thought they might fire you, then you’d have a build up of emotional expectation, with no fulfillment. It’s like stretching a rubber band to ping it at someone, but never letting go.
Your brain would need to be freed up from that emotional expectation, and this happens by dreaming it out at night, metaphorically. This completes the emotional circuit and switches off the arousal, leaving your brain clear for tomorrow’s emotional arousals.
So dreaming is like an emotional flush system. Joe found he could predict what people would dream about by listening to their emotional concerns. The ones which were clearly ‘unfinished business’ were the ones that fuelled the content of that night’s dreams.
If you want to understand how people work, is it essential to grasp just how vital expectations are.
Trying to recall a name that you have forgotten produces an emotional expectation which is fulfilled once the name eventually pops into consciousness. Whew, what a relief it feels when you finally get that name!
The placebo expectation is fulfilled with the completion of the cure or pain relief.
When a hypnotist builds powerful expectation using the imagination, then that expectation is fulfilled with the activation of a post hypnotic suggestion. We humans have a powerful drive to fulfill our expectations. If this wasn’t so, we wouldn’t be compelled to act in the world and nothing would ever get done!
Many years ago I was sitting in a room with three other people. I was reading a paper and the TV was on. The program was about cancer and the narrator said words to the effect that one in four people get cancer.
I was only half listening, but some emotional expectation must have been activated within my mind. One of the people in the room said, perhaps inevitably, ‘I wonder which one of us that will be!’ That was like a hypnotic suggestion setting an unconscious expectation.
Later in the evening I watched a program about an explorer traveling through a desert and that night I had a nightmare, which is something very rare for me. I found myself wandering alone through a huge open space – a bit like a desert. This symbolism was clearly just borrowed from the TV show about the explorer. Next in the dream I started to become aware of feeling very thirsty and thought that I would die of thirst if I didn’t find water soon.
Suddenly I came across a little old woman standing behind a counter. Because of dream logic I didn’t find this weird at all! She had four cups of water in front of her on the desk. I asked her for a drink and she told me I could choose one cup only but she had to warn me that one of the cups was poisoned. I chose one and drank but found that I felt unwell -she informed me regretfully that I was dying because I had chosen the poisoned cup.
At this point, thank goodness, I woke up. I had no idea what the dream could have been about until I recalled the cancer TV show and realized that the pattern fitted – one in four people get cancer – at least according to their statistic.
My nightmare had effectively completed the circuit, therefore switching off the anxiety by using a close metaphorical fit – being poisoned rather than getting cancer. Now my mind, thanks to dreaming, was clear of that particular expectation and I’d only need to dream more about cancer if I continued to focus on it or worry about it during following days.
Dreams are meant to be forgotten about, but we all do dream. If you recall your dreams you should be able to fathom their meaning by linking them back to emotional expectations from the day before. We can have positive unfulfilled expectations too. If you are excited about an upcoming event that is yet to happen, your brain may attempt to complete that expectation by giving you an exciting enjoyable dream. So if you tend to problem solve, think positively and not worry then you’ll have fewer dreams and when you do dream they’ll be more pleasant.
If you are very unassertive or spend a lot of time worrying about stuff you can’t change then you will have to dream more to switch off all that unfulfilled emotional arousal and expectation. Remember, if you spend time ruminating negatively about the past this is still creating an emotional expectation as far as your brain is concerned.
Over dreaming causes daytime exhaustion because too much time spent in the REM state exhausts the orientation response. This response is a basic brain function that switches your attention from one thing to another. If you have over-dreamed through the night then in the morning you have no capacity to orientate to anything new on the outside.
Over dreaming gives you a flat battery, which is why depressed people wake up feeling so very tired. Depressed people dream more because they worry more, but they don’t switch off the worries by active problem solving. In fact, depressed people increase their negative expectations through catastrophising. This is something we go into in depth on our Depression Learning Path – if you are interested just search for it in Google. We also give strategies for breaking the cycle in our Depression Recovery Program on the same site.
To have energy and focus during the day you need to have the right proportion of dream-free sleep. When we use hypnotherapy we are often tapping into the dreaming brain and completing emotional circuits, which frees up the brain, which is why even highly stressed people can feel so much better after a short hypnosis session.
For example, if I help cure some one’s post traumatic stress response after a car crash then we find they stop dreaming about it or having flash backs. This is because we have safely and calmly completed the circuit using hypnosis. We have done what nature had failed to do in its attempts to dream out the trauma.
So now you have learned what dreams are for and how they work and also why over dreaming happens and how it can cause the symptoms of depression by leaking energy and leading to exhaustion.Dreams are endlessly fascinating and once you start to see the pattern you can begin to get a unique insight to the workings of your own and other people’s subconscious mind. Using Joe Griffin’s understanding of what dreams are for and what they mean supplies us with a fantastic tool to discover what really worries us.
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