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Why we Dream

Last night, while you slept, you went into the REM state and dreamed.


You probably don't remember because, for a very good reason, we evolved not to. However all normal humans go into the REM state and dream every night and most mammals show evidence of this brain pattern too.

Dream interpretation

Dreaming seems such a strange thing yet it is one of our regular everyday (night!) biological functions. Since time immemorial people have puzzled over the meaning of dreams, these often bizarre night-time visitations that can seem so intensely real and full of meaning whilst we experience them, but so unfathomable to our conscious mind when we wake up.

In all historical periods, right up to the present, dream interpretation industries have flourished to satisfy our natural longing to understand the mysterious 'messages' that dreams seem to carry. Even today the influence of the idiosyncratic confabulations and fantasies of Freud and Jung permeate our culture and illustrate the continuing virulence of the fanciful dream interpretation industry.

Why did we evolve to dream?

One of the founders of human givens psychology, psychologist and scientist Joe Griffin, was the first person to review all the available scientific evidence and conduct research that resulted in the discovery of why we evolved to dream. The new insights he had are at the heart of the human givens school of psychology. They have a richness that helps transform our understanding of consciousness and explain many previously mysterious phenomena, including the symptoms of depression and psychosis, and hypnotic states.

His research first showed that all dreams are expressed in the form of sensory metaphors.

The reason for this is found in the biology of dreaming and the REM state itself, which all mammals go into. Research indicates that instinctive behaviours are programmed during the REM state in the foetus and the neonate. This is necessarily in the form of incomplete templates for which the animal later identifies analogous sensory components in the real world. These analogical templates give animals the ability to respond to the environment in a flexible way and generate the ability to learn, rather than just react.

We can see this process beautifully when a baby seeks out and sucks on anything similar — analogous to — a nipple, like a finger or rubber teat. Once an instinct-driven pattern is activated and becomes an expectation, it can normally only be deactivated by the actual carrying out of the programmed behaviour by the central nervous system, and this clearly does not give us the flexibility we need to survive.

We can easily see this in our own lives. If we feel angry and let off steam it usually dissipates the anger. But if we were to act out our emotions every time we were emotionally aroused, that would be disastrous. So animals needed to evolve the ability to inhibit arousals when necessary and deactivate them later when they could do no harm. That is why we evolved to dream. During REM sleep unfulfilled emotional expectations left over from the day are run out in the form of metaphors, thus deactivating them and freeing up the brain to deal with the new emotionally arousing events of the following day. Without dreams fulfilling our expectations by acting them out metaphorically we would need a vastly bigger brain.

The expectation fulfilment theory of dreams

With psychologist Joe Griffin's 'expectation fulfilment theory of dreams', we have the first viable, scientifically based theory of why we evolved to dream, and what dreams are actually doing for us.

So, dreaming is the deepest trance state we go into. The three essential points to understand about dreaming are:

  • Dreams are metaphorical translations of waking expectations.
  • Expectations which cause emotional arousal that is not acted upon during the day to dearouses the arousal, become dreams during sleep.
  • Dreaming deactivates that emotional arousal by completing the expectation pattern metaphorically, freeing the brain to respond afresh to each new day.

Using dreams in therapy

Dream metaphors that clients bring to therapy can have therapeutic value. They may help clients to see objectively what is troubling them emotionally. They may also help the therapist realise how the client is feeling about the therapeutic relationship. Undisguised feelings can come out in the dreams and metaphors — or the songs into which people may spontaneously burst, as clients sometimes report doing. Calmly studying one's dreams also helps us step back and look dispassionately at the emotional templates — expectations — they were dearousing.

Hypnosis can most usefully be seen as a direct route to activating the REM state — all hypnotic phenomenon are explained with this insight — and, since hypnosis and suggestion play such an important role in psychotherapy, this fact is of great significance to psychotherapists and counsellors.

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