In this day and age, we are no closer to ascertaining whether dreams are advantageous to the longevity of the human race, or indeed whether they serve any function at all. This is reinforced by the fact that few are able to recall their dreams after waking, leading us to believe that they may not even be beneficial. However, just because dreams appear to serve no biological purpose now does not mean that they never did before; the appendix, the sinuses and wisdom teeth are all body parts which via evolution have become obsolete but were once upon a time integral to the prolongation of our race.
One possible use of dreams propagated by cultural lore is that dreams aid us in problem solving and, having no immediate access to our subconscious, we are provided with the solutions through the metaphor and symbolism within our dreams. Dreams are never straightforward representations of our issues, but could be considered symbolic and furtively encoded with the answers to our problems. This ties in with the fact that we experience more negative emotions than positive ones in our dreams, the most common emotion experienced being anxiety. Freud believed that the purpose of dreams was to ward off sleep deprivation; when we dream we are purposefully made oblivious to external and internal stimuli in the form of noise or light (external) and strong negative feelings like fear, anger and resentment (internal), which may disrupt our sleep.
In spite of what Freud believed, dreams may not be the product of the manifestation of repressed wishes or emotions. However, we are still uncertain as to their significance in daily life, especially when considering different dream states and the content of dreams. Most dreams are nonsensical, lending no clue as to their importance within the grand scheme of things, especially when comparing two or more people’s dreams. As dream symbols have no universal meaning, the same symbol may appear to two different people, but would have totally disparate meanings due to the fact that no two brains are genetically alike and each has had a unique experience of the world.
So, whilst we still have yet to determine the role dreams play within our lives, the fact that everyone dreams indicates that, in some way perhaps, dreams may have been or still are conducive to our lives. Conversely, the function of dreams would be more telling if only a select group of people experience them. Blind people are still capable of dreaming and if they were born blind, then their dreams rely more on the senses of touch, taste, smell and sound. Furthermore, a vast array of known and unknown characters are shown to populate our dreams, all of whom we have actually met in real life at some point. A man from whom you bought ice cream last summer could actually occupy a specific role in your dream; the attributes which we delegate unto these characters are supposedly different aspects of ourselves projected onto others.
We experience Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep approximately 80 minutes after we fall asleep, in which time our bodies are paralysed to prevent us from physically enacting our dreams, lest we cause ourselves harm. A study carried out by the British Cheese Board discovered that cheese, rather than inducing nightmares, gives us a good night’s sleep due to the presence of a stress-reducing amino acid called tryptophan. Volunteers who participated in this study also reported that eating certain types of cheeses before bedtime gave them specific dreams; stilton cheese apparently gave the most outlandish dreams whilst British Brie is a more appropriate snack if one is looking to experience relaxing dreams.
Dreams are wonderfully complex and beautifully pointless at the present. Few are able to deduce the objective of dreams in humans and animals. Though many theories have been pushed forward thus far, we should not dismiss dreams as being obsolete just yet.
(Image courtesy of Andrew Morrell)