In 1977, two psychiatrists suggested that dreams were really just a brain hiccup. (Actually, they used a phrase much more scientific than hiccup – that was just my interpretation.) The research they conducted led them to believe that dreams were a kind of misfiring of neurons during sleep and that dreams had no meaning. Critics strongly disagreed. Who was right?
James Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley of Harvard published their theory, opening it up, of course, for both discussion and critique. The theory was labeled activation-synthesis hypothesis. They explained that the brain was mistakenly sending signals to the body during sleep and that as our voluntary bodily functions were shut down for the night, the brain was puzzled as to how to deal with the two opposing conditions – an order for some activity or movement vs. the non-responsive state induced by sleep. They believed that in order for the brain to deal with the situation, it made up a story to get past the hiccup. Upon waking, that story – most often something that has never actually taken place in our real life – was remembered as a dream.
This alone did not upset other dream theorists and psychiatrists. Instead, what caused others to take issue with this proposed explanation of dreaming was the part of the report that denied dreams have any meaning at all. The world at large had spent so many years believing dreams do, in fact, have some meaning in our lives that it became a point of contention against this new theory.
Eleven years later, Hobson would revise his theory to allow for the fact that dreams do draw from memories and desires but held the original conclusion that dreams were not repetitive or meaningful.
Others used the existence of lucid dreaming to suggest that the theory could not be accurate, stating the two theories could not co-exist. Without reading the publication and supporting material, it’s difficult to draw that conclusion.
I think it’s possible that dreams could be a misfiring of sorts and that while the brain attempts to deal with the misfiring, it draws on our memories to create the story or dream. Really, if you think of a brain as a computer, how could it do anything but? Have you ever come across an object in a dream for which you did not have a word? Or a color you could not describe? I doubt it because your brain can only work with the material stored inside – just like a computer. My computer doesn’t show my Nasa’s launch control panel because it does not have that system available for operation. My dreams, therefore, do not include objects or people who could not be created from my own experiences and memories. That’s my uneducated opinion, anyway.
So, I can relate to the fact that dreams come from my memories.
Closing the gap, though, on whether dreams actually mean something to us is more difficult.
I have my own explanation for that, too, though. If our brain is like a computer and if it draws on memories in order to come up with the images and story lines we see in our dreams, isn’t it probable that our brain grabs the memories that are most fresh and, therefore, the ones that have the most meaning to us at the time we have the dream? Maybe I’m stretching and some might disagree, but if short term memory is stored in one “file” of our brain and long-term memory in another, do dreams only grab from one file? The short-term, recently pondered, recently experienced file?
No matter which you believe, the fact that studies about the meaning of dreams, dream interpretation and the healing powers of lucid dreaming are on-going suggests dreaming certainly has some meaning to someone. Otherwise, why would we spend any time on the subject at all?