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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwartz's Weblog

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: May 2nd 2006

Dreams, a Brief History:

Why do we dream? Dreams have been of great interest to people as far back as ancient times and most probably, long before. Most of us are aware of the Old Testament Biblical account of Joseph and his many colored coat. Basically, Joseph was able to interpret dreams and helped rescue ancient Egypt from famine by interpreting Pharaoh's dream that there would be five years of rich harvests followed by five more years of famine. Pharaoh, according to the bible, then had Egyptians store wheat and other foods in preparation for the five years of famine, which did occur.

Jumping ahead to the late nineteenth and twentieth century, Sigmund Freud found new meanings in dreams. According to Freud and his psychoanalytic theory, dreams represent wish fulfillment of those desires and strivings which we find unacceptable in our waking state. Dreams, according to psychoanalytic theory, are metaphors, symbols, riddles which can be understood with the help of a psychoanalyst using that same theory.

Towards the end of the twentieth century and into the twenty first, psychology veered away from psychoanalysis because it was not possible to scientifically measure the results of psychoanalytic practice. Demanding clear cut, verifiable results, the mental health community and the public were demanding procedures that could more quickly end mental suffering. At that point, cognitive-behavioral psychology started to eclipse psychoanalysis as a set of techniques that reduced anxiety and depression while being verifiable in all types of controlled studies.

Unfortunately, there were some behavioral psychologists and psychiatrists who dismissed psychoanalysis and dream interpretation as worthless. In one case, dreams were dismissed as mere off-shoots of the neurons of the brain repairing them during the sleep state. In other words, dreams, according to this point of view, were without meaning. In fact, a few of these experts, in their enthusiasm to advance a new way of looking at behavior, dismissed the importance of emotions while focusing solely on behavior. This is a common human folly: "throwing out the baby with the bathwater." Thankfully, we have recovered from extreme position and once again value emotions and dreams along with behavior and cognition (thinking).

But, Do My Dreams Mean Anything?

Recent research into the structure and functioning of the brain has given us a clearer understanding of sleep and dreaming. Thanks to the use of modern MRI and related technology, it has been possible to study the brain and the very movement of thoughts along its billions of neurons. We now know that sleep is a complex phenomenon and is vital to our physical and mental health. In addition, we know that dreaming is essential to our mental health. People deprived of sleep and the opportunity to dream has run the risk of becoming temporarily mentally ill. We also know that the brain continues to work hard at night, busily running our bodies through the complex network of the nervous system. In addition, thought processes during the REM stage of sleep (Rapid Eye Movements) continue and reveal themselves through the dream process. We also know that the brain is computing and resolving problems we have been wrestling with for many days. That is why people will sometimes wake up in the morning and suddenly realize they have found the solution to a problem that has plagued them for some time.

Among the problems the brain continues to cope with during sleep and during the REM stage of sleep are issues from the previous day, which it connects with similar issues stored in its vast memory store-house dating back to our earliest childhood.

So, in answer to our question: "do our dreams mean anything" the answer is yes. The meaning may not lie in the strict Freudian interpretation of wish fulfillment of unacceptable wishes but does lie in meanings, issues, and problems that we have struggled with anywhere from yesterday to our earliest life.

So, enjoy your dreams and remember that even if they seem nonsensical to you, they have great meaning to your personal self. If you want to make the effort, write down a dream you had last night. Then, make a list of the activities of the day before. See if you can find something from the day before, no matter how trivial, that acted as a catalyst for the dream. Have fun with it.

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

- Cindy - Jun 12th 2006
The article is very interesting, however, the title choice is unfortunate - particulary on a mental health help site. "To sleep, perchance to dream" is taken out of context from Shakespere's Hamlet in the famous soliloquy begining "To be, or not to be", a speech about Hamlet's thoughts of suicide. Fearing that death may not provide him peace he continues, "For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, /When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, /Must give us pause."

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