o Introduction: Why Dream Science and Dreamwork?
So why should a dream worker or someone just
interested in his or her own dreams care about the science of dreaming?
There are several reasons. The first is that if you work with the meaning of
dreams you will eventually be confronted by someone who will tell you that
science has found that dreams are random and have no meaning and are nothing but
the mind getting rid of garbage.
Is this really what science really has found?
If so, what on earth are we doing when we comment on the meaning of dreams,
why talk about it at all? Understanding what dreaming science is about will
allow you to not only come to your own conclusions on this, but can also lead to
new discoveries and techniques in dream sharing.
Lucid dreaming, for example, has come about in part due to some clever people
utilizing dream science studies on REM and realizing that if the eyes move
during dreams, that we could use them to signal from the dream state. Also,
Pre-sleep stimulus experiments help us understand and develop techniques in
dream incubation and other pre-sleep intentions we want to carry into the dream
state. Clinical observations and content analysis allow us to make intelligent
statements about what we do and don't dream about. Understanding of dream
physiology helps us to understand and control the amount of recall we want with
dreams. And these are but a few of the ways that dreaming science contributes to
In this quick survey, we can't really cover half a century of science - but
what I can do is give you a peek into the issues being investigated and
discussed, and provide references for those areas that are of interest to you.
Also, the story of the discovery of REM sleep is interesting and helps to
understand the different kinds of consciousness that can be studied.
o The REM story in short - Discovery
Before the discovery of REM (Rapid Eye Movement during dreaming) it was
believed that there was just one kind of sleep state.
In 1953 at the University of Chicago, Nathaniel Kleitman and his student
Eugene Aserinsky found otherwise. (Aserinsky & Kleitman, 1953) Dr. Kleitman
had been studying sleep difficulties in infants and wanted to explore the slow
rolling eye movements that babies have at sleep onset. He had his student
Aserinsky watch these movements of sleepy infants. What surprised Aserinsky and
changed the notion of sleep forever, was the occasional occurrence of very rapid
movements of the eyes at various times during the sleep cycle. Though the eyes
remained closed, they moved just as if the child was awake and outside playing
games. Aserinsky and Kleitman then monitored adults and found the same thing,
and that these eye movements lasted anywhere from three to fifty-five minutes
(Van De Castle, 1994). Since the movements appeared as if the sleepers were
scanning, they decided to awaken them and ask what they were looking at. They
were, more often than not, dreaming. When they woke sleepers up when there was
no eye movement, they rarely reported dreams. These discoveries were reported in
_Science_ on September 4th, 1953 and again in an expanded article in 1955. It
was the beginning of what is now 40 years of dream research in the sciences.
While Aserinsky finished his medical program and left the labs, William C.
Dement (1976) filled his place and soon was able to characterize sleep in
stages. Part of understanding that the REM state is different is that it is a
physiologically different state than waking or other kinds of sleep. During REM
sleep, there are irregular patterns in breathing, heart rate and blood pressure.
Our muscles are tense, though they can twitch and jerk. It is often said that
all motor commands from the brain to the muscles are cut off during REM, but
this may be a little misleading. As Alan Worsley has stated about the lucid
dream state, though somewhat paralyzed, there is a bit of an ability to control
the twitching and spasms.
o Stages of Sleep
Here is a characterization of REM and sleep based on the Sleep Laboratories
and Dream Research pamphlet put out by the Association for the Study of Dreams.:
"In sleep, people tend to move through REM and nonREM (NREM) stages in a
predictable way. When first falling asleep, people move into stage one sleep. In
this transitional period, they sometimes experience little "dreamlets".
They then move into stages two, three, and four, with each stage marking a
progressively "deeper" sleep. But then, usually about an hour or two
after they've gone to sleep, people move back "up" through states
three, two and one, and enter the first REM stage of the night. REM sleep is
sometimes called "paradoxical sleep" because it is both light *and*
deep. REM sleep brings people very close to waking, and yet it is clearly the
time when they are most "out of it". The first REM period of the night
usually lasts only a few minutes, After that, people go back "down" to
stages two, three and four, As the night goes on, the REM periods get longer and
longer, until they last for an hour or more, At the same time, people spend less
time in non REM sleep. By the end of the night they stop having stage four
sleep, and basically alternate between stage two and REM. Thus, people have most
of their REM sleep towards the end of the night."
o Why we have REM
Though little talked about in the general culture compared to the
consciousness, unconsciousness and sleep in general, the REM state takes up a
significant portion of our lives (Fishbein, 1981). About one out of every 13
days of hours is taken up by REM sleep, which comes out to about 7 or 8 years of
dreaming in a lifetime. So what's it for?
At first it was thought that REM equals dreaming, but soon it was found that
dreaming could occur in non-REM (NREM) and other states. Still, one can get a
dream report from a person awakened from REM about 80% of the time and many
researchers still seem to confuse or combine the two (Hunt, 1989). Watch for
There are now several theories how REM sleep may be adaptive to our survival
("Survival" being one of the few paradigms that science can talk
about). We don't have the time or space to do much more than mention them, but
I'd like to at least do that.
- The Arousal/Sentinel Theories. These theories suggests that the animal
needs to be somewhat ready to interact with the outer environment (Cohen, 1979).
Sleep puts the animal in a dangerously un-alert condition. REM sleep corrects
this by activating the brain without fully awakening the animal.
An offshoot of this theory is that REM sleep is a less advanced sleep than
NREM and will someday simple disappear (Hunt, 1989). This theory is hard to
refute, but just as hard to accept or prove. A variation of this includes the
need for arousal to maintain the ego-self structure and for visual processing
particular to mammals (Ellman, 1991).
- The Learning Theories. These range from postulates that REM is actually
coding our genetic structure to ideas that REM facilitates learning. See below
"Dream Recall and Memory Process" for more on these theories.
- Theories and REM Deprivation
One way to study what REM does is to not let sleepers have any. In REM
deprivation experiments, sleepers are allowed stage 1-4 sleep, but awakened
during REM. Some findings (Goodenough, 1991) showed that for the next few nights
there is a rebound effect and we go into REM faster and have more of it. Lack of
REM seems to impair our functioning and self image, though this effect is very
subtle and highly controversial.
Also, not only does REM deprivation lead to more dreaming in subsequent
nights, but more *intense* dreaming. Still, the final word on all this is not
out and the conservative researchers are saying at this time that there is no
provable injury to one's mental health. Nor does there seem to be enough
evidence to judge the theory that REM sleep is for memory consolidation, though
many still hope to prove this. One thing that is clear is that individual
differences are significant. The strongest example is that inner directed
individuals, those who can easily fantasize, seems less disrupted by REM
deprivation. Again, the future of REM deprivation experimentation will have to
better be able to distinguish between REM and dreaming
o Recall Science
I'm going to use Dream Recall Studies as a kind of sample of what has been
going on in dream science and how it can be useful to us as dream concerned
individuals. I'm hoping this will demonstrate how you can explore dream science
for more personal skills and techniques.
As an Exercise: Rather than just reading this information for knowledge about
dreaming and sleeping, see if each piece of evidence my give you a hint for
something you might be able to do to control the amount of dream recall you
have. Devise a technique you can apply to dream recall.
Generally, dream recall research looks at issues of *content* or *process* (Goodenough,
1991). The content theories include: salience (relevancy, novelty, bizarreness,
affectfulness, or intensity), its opposite - dream disorganization (too chaotic
to be remembered), interference (example: body movements disrupt recall),
disinterest in dreams, and repression. The process theories are mostly memory-
process oriented, with the inclusion of arousal theories, state dependent
learning and the new neural net connectionist theories.
Due to the strong influence of psychodynamic dream theory, a major reason
postulated for the lack of dream recall is that dreams contain things we just
don't want to remember. This is content that the waking self just can't handle
or would cause too much distress if remembered. This dream material is referred
to as "ego toxic". This follows from Freud's notion that dreams are
mediating desires that are pushing for expression and attention and counter
forces keeping those thoughts and impulses from disturbing the sleeper. Most of
the content is disguised before reaching consciousness, but some gets kept away
from the waking ego altogether. Hence the memory loss. Or at least, this is the
The clinicians feel that the notion is useful and the process easily observed
over time (Goodenough, 1991). New patients recall less dreams. As patients begin
to show other signs of less resistance to the material that the dream content is
displaying, more of this dream content shows up. The higher the repression, the
lower the content. However, these ideas are more anecdotal clinical observations
than tested research. Attention to dream recall seems to bring more of it about
- do we have to postulate that this is due to being less repressed? The tests
that look at personality are not very conclusive. The typical approach (Witkin,
1970) is to test people that seem to be more repressed and the results are just
not very convincing. There is little difference in recall between those
considered repressed and those who are not.
o Summarizing the repression study clues for recall.
Generally, it seems that repression plays a role, but just how it works is
not at all clear. Therapies and activities we take up that reduce our repressive
habits could increase our recall. Becoming more internally cued and allowing for
more divergent activities looks like a possibility. Reducing anxiety before
bedtime may decrease anxious images that could lead to a repressed dream. Not
always telling our dreams to the same person(s) or internal person(s) might open
up new channels of dreams that would be repressed by our habits of dream sharing
to just one real or imaginary person. Included in this may be re-visioning our
inner mothers to tell us when we have a dream something like "Oh, boy,
that's a great dream, tell me more!" And this may also lead us in another
important direction. If we learn to engage anxiety and imaginal fear a little
more, we will be able to have alternatives to just pushing odd and stressful
things away. It is a useful basic strategy to delay and set aside stressors, but
not a long term solution to everything. And so, one approach, like the child who
is encouraged to tell or draw a dream, is to do so ourselves. Different forms of
storytelling and dreamsharing may allow us to play with material that otherwise
might be too toxic and forgotten as useless.
Though we have but barely touched upon the idea of dreams and repression by
going through a general summary of the empirical research, its clear that the
studies can support and enhance our control of dream recall. There are some
other interesting areas that might be explored here. For one thing, we have
focused only on *amount* and not on *quality* of recall. But more important than
putting out a perfect summary I wanted to show that we could as individuals use
the available research to our advantage.
- Dream Recall and Memory-Process
When we view dream recall from the standpoint of content, the focus is on how
that content disrupts recall. In memory-process theory the focus is on how *all*
memory and information acquisition is impaired during sleep, (contrary to the
recently pop ideas on sleep learning).
There is a little evidence, according to Goodenough, that state-dependent
learning is part of the issue. State-dependent learning theory came from
observations in drug studies where information learned in a drugged state was
forgotten in the non-drugged state, but then remembered again when the subject
was again in the drugged state (Tart, 1975). The same can be found in dreams -
that a task taught to a dreamer in REM would not carry over into NREM nor
waking. And dreamers sometimes report recalling in a dream something they had
previously dreamt about, but hadn't recalled until memory of the dream occurred
in a new dream. But state-dependency seems to account for only a small part of
the loss of memory during sleep (Cartwright, 1977)
This information may still be helpful to us as dream recallers. Long term
dream recallers do know that if one tries to remain in the sleeping position,
and close to the sleep state, that recall in enhanced.
Memory Consolidation or Arousal-Retrieval?
Traditional memory studies divide memory into long term and short term
memory. Short term memory is temporary and information held there disappears.
For information to be stored in long term memory in a way that it can be
retrieved, requires more that just loading short term memory.
One popular theory (Polombo, 1978) is that the transfer from short to long term
memory requires waking consciousness. The further from the dream in time one is
awakened, the less chance there is of that dream being remembered. If one is
distracted upon awakening from a dream, the chances of recall go down. If one
wakes up in the middle of the night with a dream, the longer one stays awake,
the greater the chance that dream will be re-remembered in the morning.
At first it was thought that the problem was that consciousness was needed to
move the dreams in short term memory to long term memory. But later it was felt
that the problem was not so much getting the dream memories in long term memory,
but getting them out. Dreamers often report not recalling a dream in the morning
and then later in the day something will trigger the whole recall of the dream.
This is not a case of the dream not being consolidated in long term memory, but
of the addressing system to get it out.
That does this tell us to help us recall dreams? First of all its important
to talk about the specific tasks that short term waking consciousness performs
that facilitate recall. They seem to be repetition/rehearsal, recording, and
reorganization. Any distraction during waking (or guilty complexes distracting
us) will make it more difficult to recall the dream. Going over the dream,
recording (or pretending to record) the dream and reorganization or seeing the
dream from various viewpoints all will increase recall.
For those interested in dreamwork, recall is often the main issue. Study and
readings of recall research can lead to new techniques for dream concerned
individuals and cut down the time spent on approaches that are unlikely to
o The Content of Dreams
Although there have been only a few major studies before Calvin Hall and
Robert Van de Castle's work, these two are the names that come up most often in
connection with dream content studies.
Hall wanted to discover the cognitive factors behind the images that might
support his cognitive dream theories. From the late 1930's to the late 1950's he
collected and sorted through thousands of dream reports of students at Western
Some of the Results: (Hall &Van De Castle, 1966)
The most common setting: Home or other Building. Yet while familiar living
places were common, work places were very infrequent. Automobiles frequently
appeared. Strangers appeared more frequently than not, though friends and family
also were abundant. Men seem to dream more about men than women, but women dream
about both sexes equally. Usually the people we dream about are about our own
We really like to move in dreams. Body movements, walking and running
especially. After that, we like to talk, only occasionally sitting and watching.
We hardly ever cook, type or fix things.
Statistically, more than not, dream encounters with others are hostile and
the feeling in the dream unpleasant. And yet when you ask dreamers if they like
dreams, most say yes! It seems the chance to indulge in surreal events outweighs
the negativity surround this happening.
The content analysis of dreams is still in its infancy, and there are hopes
that the Internet will bring about wider ranged studies. The possibility of
having thousands of individuals typing dreams each morning into the computer and
having these dreams immediately sorted has intrigued more than one researcher.
o The Effect of Stimuli before and during Dreaming
In the Nineteenth Century it was popular for scientists to believe in
associationalism. In the mind, one stimulus would lead to another, and so on. If
perfume were introduced to a sleeper on a hot night, it was thought that it
would elicit dreams of tropical romance. The influence of psychoanalysis
challenged this simple one to one correspondence, but it would be half a century
before science would test these and other theories with rigorous science.
What better way than the modern clinical sleep lab, for example, to test
whether dreams are compensating daytime activities as Jung suggested, or hiding
anxious memories as Freud thought?
Well, it has not been quite so easy. It is clear that dreams can be
influenced by external stimuli, but this still tells us little about the way the
dream is constructed.
Stimuli During Dreaming Sleep
It appears that when we dream there is a barrier which surrounds us and
filters out much of the external stimuli, allowing us to sleep peacefully and
undisturbed. But as we all know, there is a limit to what is blocked. Loud
noises and lights and shoves can wake us up. Furthermore, as every mother knows,
significant sound like a child's crying that may not wake up Dad, will arouse
Mom. But what about sounds and events that are not strong enough to wake us up,
but strong enough to get incorporated into an ongoing dream?
Berger (1963) tested a variety of influences and found many stimuli do get
through, the most often incorporated being water sprays. In his experiment,
sprays of water to the sleepers face during REM were often incorporated as
sudden rainfall, leaky roofs and being hosed by someone.
Castaldo & Holtzman (1967, 1969) tried a similar experiment and found that
while some loud sounds are blocked, a person's name could get through and be
incorporated into the dream.
Thus we can say that some stimuli does influence dreams during sleep, but it
will be a long time before we can make generalizations.
Stimuli Before Going to Sleep
The influence of pre-sleep stimuli is just as much as mystery as sleep
stimuli. The big question in this research has been whether in dreams we act
like we do in life. Are we trying to master situations in fantasy that we have
in life? What if the dream is giving us something completely different than our
waking style of being or if the dream is hiding all our anxieties and worries so
we can rest? The answer seems to be "Yes!" to all. Depending on the
various studies looked at, each hypothesis seems to work under some conditions
and not under others.
Consider for example Wood's (1962) experiment were he kept his subjects
socially isolated during the day and then tested to see if they would report
dreams about being with more people than usual. They sure did. Bokert extended
this experiment to other needs, depriving subjects of food and water. And they
tended to dream more about food and water.
When Breger (& Hunter & Lane 1971) introduced problem solving tests
before sleep, found that the style of the dreamer in life was incorporated into
sleep. One might be led to conclude that dreams are trying to problem solve. Yet
this is not always so
But when other stressful situations are introduced before sleep, (such as
showing a gruesome film) the results really vary. Foulkes and Rechteschaffen
(1964) for example, found that after a violent film there was no apparent
corresponding violent dreams, though the dreams were generally more active than
usual. For many children there was a opposite reaction, with an increase in
Bertini's experiments (1968) suggests that stress before sleep leads to more
early childhood memories. This would be consistent with Alan Siegel's idea that
dreams that incorporate stress seek earlier patterns of resolution. A later
experiment by Goodenough (et at 1975) seemed to indicate that stress films cause
stress dreaming only in those prone to stress. So are dreams mastering anxiety
or just deflecting our attention away? It seems there is not going to be an easy
answer, nor one coming soon.
One last note on pre-stimulus influence. The use of pre-hypnotic suggestions
have been found to increase incorporation. See for example the Breger, Hunger
& lane 1971 experiment and Cartwright, 1974). This kind of research may help
us in dream work in areas of pre-sleep preparation to use dreams for problem
solving and other kinds of incubation.
o Dreams as Meaningful vs Nonsense
It was hoped that with the discovery of REM sleep that soon all the questions
about the meaning of dreaming would unfold. But with the discoveries of dreams
occurring outside of REM, not only in NREM but in hypnosis, daydreaming and
waking dreams, the hope faded. A shift was made away from the content analysis
to the process of dreaming itself. The gist of the thinking behind this is as
follows - If you want to study muscle functions, its not really necessary to
know if a person is using his muscles to pick up a can of tomato soup or chicken
And so why focus on the particular dream to understand dreaming? The general
question was how dreaming might function to help the biological organism. REM
dreaming has been found in not only non-humans (most all mammals have REM sleep)
but also in new infants and pre-natal infants. How might this be adaptive to the
survival of a mammal? The current thinking on this is that REM might be used at
different developmental times for different purposes (Hunt, 1989).
In infants, REM might be stimulating associate neural development while in
adults it might be functioning a little this way but also serve other functions,
such as allowing the brain to be prepared and stay oriented in sleep.
All these theories are still quite distant from any proof.
Another track that has developed is the case for dreaming having to do with
learning and unlearning. Earlier suggestions and research focused on dreaming as
processing the residue of the day and coding it into long term memory.
Hobson and McCarley (1988) found that dream activity in cats begins after
random firings in the brain stem. They feel that the sleepy brain gets
stimulated by these random firings and tries to make sense out of them and the
memories that are initiated. Flying and paralysis, for example, would simply
correspond to periods of brain stem activity and inactivity. They do suggest in
the Activation-Synthesis model that there is some synthesis by the higher brain
functions and thus the dream does contain some higher cognitive actions.
Crick and Mitchison (1983, 1986) combined this research with a model of
neural networks to suggest that the brain is actually unlearning during
dreaming. They suggested that the neural networks that the mind loads during the
day get saturated with information and create false links between neural nets
that produce what we see as bizarre dreams. The random firing cleans these out
during the night. Thus, they hypothesize, remembering dreams may be counter
productive to the unlearning process.
The mistake in all these theories, according to Harry Fiss (1986) and others
(see Hunt 1989), is in our model of science. They way it works now, science
ignores all meaning and value. All the tools and methods of science work outside
the realm of meaning - they work on quantity, not quality. To use a method from
the beginning that has no measure of meaning and then conclude that dreams are
meaningless, is to go beyond what the tools can offer us.
One solution, on the edge of the edge, is a re-vision of neural networking.
Gordon Globus (1981, 1991, 1993) has suggested that the brain works not only
with stimulus-response and chemicals, but with models of *whole worlds*. He uses
a similar model to Crick and Mitchison, but points out that there is a complex
interactive brain system best described as neural nets that *produce* as well as
respond to events. In waking life there is feedback and corrections from a more
concrete world. In sleep we continue to produce models of worlds, but they have
their own rules and we then interact with these.
Thus we can return to the first issue raised by Hobson, that dreams seem to
begin after random firing in the brain stem. Well, yes this is so, but its like
saying that the universe began after a random big bang. This says little about
the meaning and value we give to things in life, and the significance that they
return to us. However, just as with the Big-Bang theory, the attempt to bring
together scientific understanding with value and meaning continues to inspire
new ideas in both areas.
It is true that there is still a huge gap between dream work and dream
science. But as shown, this gap can lead to creative inspiration and cooperation
as well as antagonism. The most active group working in this area in the last
decade has been the Association for the Study of Dreams, which brings together
researchers, clinicians and other dream concerned individuals to discuss the
differences and promote cross field understanding. I highly recommend the
conferences to those interested in dream science, dream psychology, dreams and
spirituality or dream anthropology, as well as lay interests in grassroots
dreamwork. If you cannot make it to a conference, ASD publishes a quarterly peer
reviewed journal and a friendlier Dream Time Magazine. See below for details or
visit the web site at:
I don't think the "friendly" book on the science of dreaming has been
written, though both Van De Castle in his Our Dreaming Mind and Anthony Shafton
in his Dream Reader have both attempted a recent synthesis of dream science.
If you are willing to take on a little more time and study, I have three
1. Harry Hunt's (1989). The Multiplicity of Dreams. Yale University Press.
This is on my TOP FIVE DREAM BOOKS list. Hunt's book is a little difficult at
times as it is often a reaction to a lot of the dream science and theorizing
that has taken place and he is inconsistent in who his audience is. Sometimes he
carefully explains his thoughts and the experiments, while at other times he
makes assumptions on the part of the reader that include having read a great
deal of the literature on dreams and cognitive science theory. Still, it is at
this time the best (intermediate) overall survey of dream science theory.
2. Moffitt, Kramer and Hoffmann (1993). _The Functions of Dreaming_. NY:SUNY
press. For a little more detailed analysis of the literature, this is a really
good book. Some areas are ignored or left out, but the ones covered are done so
3. Ellman, Steven J. & Antrobus, John S. (Eds). (1991).
The Mind in Sleep: Psychology and Psychophysiology. 2nd edition. New York: John
Wiley and Sons, Inc. This is a little more advanced of a text, but covers a
large range of topic in dreaming science and does so quite well. If there is a
fault, it the dryness and objectivity offered. I often get the feeling when
reading this that we don't really know anything about the science of dreams and
all experiments up to the present have been very inadequate.
4. A good intro for all these topics and more is Robert Van de Castle's OUR
More Bibliography and references. I've made a lot of statements in this essay
without much in the way of footnotes. The reason is that I wanted this essay to
be directed towards your doing your own research in this area. However, though
I'm not including a bibliography with this lesson, if you do want to look up any
of the references or citations, I have put a 50 page bibliography online at the
DreamGate/Electric Dreams Dream Bibs Online site, See the DreamGate Collected
Also, I suggest that you visit the ASD Web site mentioned above and check out
their articles on dreams and dreaming. www.asdreams.org If you can't find what
you want, try posting your question to the ASD bulletin board.