The Stories We Tell in Our Sleep
What are dreams, and what do they mean? Here we discuss how dreams connect the past and the present, and how we watch them as we sleep.
I was having a conversation with a young woman. Knowing of my interest in dreams, she said, “I had a dream last night which I think has something to do with my pregnancy condition. I dreamed I was skiing with my husband. We skied down to a road where there were large women. One asked us to help her and the child she was holding by the hand into a wagon. I was annoyed because our skiing was interrupted. What do you make of it?”
“Well, one thing is obvious. Your pregnancy is interfering with your husband’s and your pleasure together.”
She agreed it was.
We went on talking.
It turned out that the woman was an only child: Her mother had given birth to twins years ago, and both children died very young.
“Then my hunch could be correct. The big woman in your dream could be your pregnant mother and the child she was holding was you.”
Dreams Connect Current and Past Conflicts
The conversation illustrates two points about dreams.
- First, a dream often—probably always—represents something about the dreamer’s present life. In this case, it was the dreamer’s pregnancy and its effect upon her relationship with her husband. She was portraying in a dream what was on her mind during the day.
- But there is good reason to believe that a dream also represents an early experience associated emotionally with the present problems and preoccupations of the dreamer.
Photo Credit: Thinkstock. Often, a dream is an attempt to find a solution to a bothersome problem.
In fact, it is more than likely that our current anxieties and conflicts bother us as much as they do because they are related to the much more terrifying anxieties of infancy and early childhood. We see this often in dreams.
You’ve probably once told someone about a dream and they’ve responded, “I had a dream just like that!” This is because some dream themes seem to be universal.
What Are Dreams?
My definition of a dream is a moving picture that is projected on the sleep screen. It gets its plot largely from events, experiences, and feelings of the present, but it gets its emotional impact from childhood. It is a representation of something that is on the person’s mind. Often it is an attempt to find a solution for a bothersome problem.
Dreams sometimes appear to be prophetic because what we are thinking about during the day and put into a dream at night comes true. How often does one have a prophetic dream that doesn’t come true? Conveniently, we forget them.
In fact, we dream much more than we think we do.
How We See Dreams
Photo Credit: Thinkstock. Our eyes move while we dream because we are watching what we are dreaming.
Several University of Chicago investigators who were studying sleep observed that the eyes of the sleeping person often moved. They had a hunch that these eye movements meant that the person was dreaming. So they awakened the person while his eyes were moving and, sure enough, he reported a dream. Of course, they also awakened him when his eyes were not moving, and at such times he could hardly ever report a dream. Thus, eye movements can be used as an objective indicator of dreaming. So can brain waves and perhaps other changes and movements of the body.
Why do the eyes move while we are dreaming? Because we are watching what we are dreaming. The eyes move just as they do when we are awake and watching something.
What we need is a method for putting dreams on a television screen. Science being what it is, the day of television dreams will surely come. Then we can see for ourselves what we dream about.
Editor’s note: Contributor Calvin Hall (1909–85) was a behavioral psychologist who believed that dreams were part of a cognitive process, a conceptualization of our experiences—all long before REM (rapid eye movement) sleep became known. This article appeared in The 1963 Old Farmer’s Almanac, when Hall was at the height of his fame.