Perchance to Dream: Part I

Since the dawn of human consciousness, we have been fascinated by our dreams, visitations from the depths of our psyches.  Nothing brings us into contact more intimately with our own mental mechanics than a profound dream.  Universally appealing, no other topic of mind is quite as compelling, confounding or captivating.  Almost everyone has an opinion about dream origins and function.  Why do I dream?  What do my dreams mean? Why don’t I remember my dreams?

Explanations abound.  Mystics, scientists and philosophers all weigh in with thought provoking contributions.  No one captures the expressionistic intensity or artistic flourish of a dream like a poet.  Time and space are uncoupled as we enter the unconscious workings of our own minds.  Volumes have been written on the subject, yet we remain entranced by the most mysterious of our own mental processes.

Freud and Dreams

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, proposed that if we unravel any dream, we will eventually find at its core the kernel of an unresolved childhood concern.  Now, Freud, a 19th c. figure, has become a fairly controversial fellow in our 21st c. world.  However, because he brilliantly gave us the first framework for thinking about how our minds work, I’ll reference him from time to time.  Wouldn’t you wonder about me if I didn’t?  Hey, she must know something about psychoanalysis.  She talks about Freud.

Dream fancies and musings are embedded in our very unique human faculty, the capacity for self-reflection.  Not only capable of complex thought, we actually think about our thoughts.  As a result, human beings seek not simply a generically satisfying life but a richly meaningful one.

People begin psychoanalysis or psychotherapy because they feel unhappy, stuck or stagnant in their lives and long for purpose.  Because we can think about ourselves, we experience both the burdens and joys of trying to create meaning.  Exploring our dreams helps us accomplish this.

Dreams invite us to reflect upon ourselves

Unlike the family dog that awakens from a twitchy, dreamy snooze and without delay heads straight to his dish, we are intrigued by our nocturnal creativity.  We awaken and pause, holding the wispy tendrils of a dream dissipating in the sunlight.  What was that I dreamt? Unbidden and surprising, dreams invite us to reflect upon our inner world.  Wow, I had the strangest dream…

Evocation of butterflies
Evocation of butterflies

Though dreams serve many vital functions, from a psychoanalytic perspective, they help us work through conflicts and concerns that we can’t (or don’t want) to tend when we’re busily awake.  Dreams occur when we are asleep and most alone with ourselves.  Dreaming may serve a physiological function as the brain’s nocturnal pilot light, but it also enables us to link our conscious concerns with our unconscious ones.

Shifting states of consciousness

To understand the distinctions between sleep and wakeful states of consciousness, it’s useful to consider how any state of mind differs from another.  Every specific state of mind or state of being has defining characteristics.  The facial expressions of someone in a sad state are quite different from that same person in a happy state.

States can shift subtly, say between very relaxed and slightly drowsy, or quite dramatically over the course of a day.  If you want to watch states shift quickly, just observe a small child for five minutes and you’ll see several emerge.  Rapt attention with a toy may be followed by frustrated crying and, after a moment of soothing, happy contentment.

We might also say that certain characteristics cluster around specific states, and what we experience or feel in one state, doesn’t necessary transfer to another.  Here’s an example.  I happen to be quite fond of poetry.  Now imagine I’ve had a bad car accident and am standing on the curb awaiting the tow truck.  My heart is pounding, my limbs feel rubbery, and my thoughts are racing.  Because I’m clearly in an anxious state, I’m not likely to quote Byron.  I doubt I’d even be able to remember a single verse.

Likewise, when in a relaxed state and not pacing about, I’m more inclined to think poetically.  In fact, if you were a policeman at the scene of my car accident, and I was waxing poetic, you would probably find my behavior somewhat inappropriate, and you’d probably be right.  Unless I was quoting Shakespeare.  This is just my opinion, of course, but I think Shakespeare befits all occasions.  After all, he had some interesting things to say about dreams.

Wakeful and sleep states explored

Consider how sleeping and waking states differ.  Waking states are characterized by mental engagement with the external environment and animated body movement.  When asleep, we are less engaged with the external world and our body movements slow significantly.   There are various stages of alertness just as there are various stages of sleep.

Unless you are a mathematician who regularly solves complex equations in your dreams, when the alarm goes off at 7:00 a.m., you’re probably not quite up to doing that yet. You might need to focus and organize yourself a bit.  I’m never up to solving mathematical equations, but I do solve emotional ones and can’t do that when I’m feeling slightly muzzy.

Sometimes, after struggling to find just the right combination of words to express a specific idea, I’ll “write” the perfect sentence in a dream, awaken and run to the computer so as not to lose it.  My patients have had similar experiences.  I’m sure you have, also.

During slumber, mini shifts occur as we transition from one stage of sleep to another, ascending and descending the ladder-like stages of sleep depth.  During the REM, or rapid eye movement, phase of this quiet, resting state called sleep, we dream.

Dream formation

What are dreams and how are they formed?  Dreams are the products of our unedited, raw thought processes and are often filled with strong emotion that we conveniently and necessarily avoid during the day.   Oh, I’ll think about that later… This is referred to as “primary process” thinking.

Young girl dreaming
Young girl dreaming

Unlike the more processed thoughts we have during wakeful states, those intended to guide us through daily life or social interactions, dream thoughts and images are not prettied up yet.  We haven’t erased the parts we don’t like.  We might say that dreams reflect the very private relationship we each have with ourselves.

When you’re not moving your body, discharging energy “out there,” your protective defenses are turned off, so your more primitive, unadorned dreamer is revealed.  While this sometimes feels scary, regularly connecting with your primal dreaming self permits you to explore and integrate feelings and thoughts more effectively.  Dreams help you confront or resolve pressing conflicts and concerns.  While your body is still, your mind can’t run away.

Dream as personal myth

It’s been suggested that our great stories and myths are communal dreams, while dreams represent our very personal myths.  In our technologically advanced society, we might consider movies our modern day mythic dreams, as they contain both imagery and story.  In Perchance to Dream Part II, I’ll discuss dream imagery and ways in which you can better understand and appreciate your own personal myths.

Contact Dr. Heller at or 714/662-7975

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