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Why Do We Dream? (Part One)

Updated: Jun 11, 2020

Before ajja (my granddad) passed away he asked me three questions. One of them was, “Why don’t I have dreams anymore?”.

I found that interesting --- partly because of the question, but more so because he had asked it. How was he so aware that they had stopped? And why did he care enough to ask why? Some might say he still had dreams, just that with age, he stopped remembering them. And yeah, maybe he did. But when I came back to Toronto that summer I knew it was something I wanted to explore.

I think his question started with a curiosity about why we have dreams in the first place. And so that’s the question I started with too.

Why do we dream?

After ajja passed away, amma (my grandmum) would wake up in the middle of the night with panic attacks---“I distract myself in the day but when I go to bed there’s not much I can do to fight the loneliness and panic.” Which makes sense---you can put in conscious effort to keep yourself busy in the day but when you go to bed, you’re left to your subconscious.

I’ve had a pretty diverse mix of dreams. For some of them I wake up and it all makes sense, others I’ve understood at a later time and several have just left me confused. Freud suggested that our dreams are essentially our subconscious trying to work out all the problems we consciously avoid solving. Recurring dreams then, are dreams which involve an unresolved conflict---the dream repeats itself because we keep denying it consciously. I know you’re reading this with a degree of skepticism considering sometimes we dream of (seemingly) irrelevant people and things. But Freud would say the elements that appear random in our dreams are symbolic of real characters and themes in our lives. He differentiates between the manifest content of the dream and the latent content of the dream. The manifest content is what your dream literally is, which might seem random and irrelevant (e.g. you flying) and the latent content is what it implies (what the flying signifies when put into the context of your life).

Dreams might also help us process emotions associated with bad memories. Research on Palestinian children living in the Gaza Strip vs Palestinian children living in the Galilee area of Israel backs this up( At the time of the study, the children living in the Gaza Strip had experienced years of violence while the children in the Galilee area had had a relatively peaceful existence.

The dream reports revealed that the children who endured a more stressful time (the Gaza Strip group) had more dreams than the Galilee group. The Gaza Strip group also dreamt of events that included darker and more malevolent elements than the Galilee group.

Their dreams were reflective of past and potentially threatening experiences. In other words, their dreams mirrored their fears.

Other than dreams being reflective of our fears, a Freudian concept called 'wish fulfilment' suggests our dreams have to do with unconscious desires.

Freud said that our minds are composed of the id, the ego and the superego. The id is the part of our mind that seeks instant gratification. The superego, on the other hand, is concerned with social and moral values. The ego tries to mediate between the two, often suppressing the id's desires in service of the superego. When these subconscious desires are suppressed instead of acted upon, they play themselves out in our imagination, and often in our dreams. This is called wish fulfilment. It’s what happens when we have strange, and sometimes dark thoughts that we wouldn’t act on, but still cross our minds. Any dream you can categorize as inappropriate is a good example. Sometimes we can trace these dreams back and understand the underlying desire behind it and other times we’d rather not.

In this sense dreams are also functional, because they provide a ‘safe’ outlet for expressing these desires --- satisfying the id’s raw desires while simultaneously conforming to the superego’s societal standards by dreaming about the thought instead of acting on it.

Both, dreams as reflecting fears and dreams as satisfying unconscious desires, are just the beginning of a long and complex answer to what dreams might mean. Applying these directly to ajja’s “why don’t I have dreams anymore?” would mean considering that at some point he stopped having fears and/or that he stopped having unconscious desires. It’s unlikely though that any one theory will answer the question and there are several theories and criticisms that this post hasn’t considered.

I chose to start with these two theories because they were part of my Personality Psychology class last year. I remember marking the section in class so I’d look into it later---partly to address my curiosity and partly to address my grandfather's. I’m not sure about the extent to which I can form a definite answer to his question, and I don’t know if it’ll be the answer he was hoping or looking for. What I do know is that if he were still here and if we were to talk about it---this is what I’d start with.

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