Do dreams reflect our unconscious desires

dreams : The guardians of sleep

Where do dreams come from? Zurich psychologist Inge Strauch asked children between the ages of ten and twelve. “They happen in the head,” most replied. And why? the researcher asked. Remain silent. “When I have a very strong wish for something, then I dream about it,” said one boy. "When I am annoyed with my brother," replied one girl, "then I dream about it at night - and after that everything will be fine again."

Inge Strauch, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Zurich, smiles. In her career she has explored thousands of dreams made by children, adolescents and adults. She knows that children often dream of animals and mythical creatures, and only comparatively seldom do they dream of quarrels with siblings. But Strauch also knows that the ideas of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, are so broadly anchored that even children internalized them.

Freud not only asserts that dreams are linked to real life and that conflicts are processed in them. For him they are the “royal road to the unconscious”. When we dream, he writes, even our most secret desires and aggressions become visible, often symbolically encoded.

Neuroscientists, on the other hand, who use high-tech devices to observe what happens in the brain while dreaming, question this. Some of them simply think of dreams as a kind of nerve thunderstorm in their heads. And now, of all things, a new study by psychologists is giving the dream skeptics a boost. “What someone dreams,” says Bonn-based psychologist Ursula Voss, who directed the study, “reveals surprisingly little about him.” So is nighttime cinema overestimated in the mind?

Even in ancient times, people thought dreams were precious. The ancient Greeks believed that the sons of the sleep god Hypnos would whisper important messages to them at night. And when the young Roman statesman Gaius Julius Caesar dreamed in 68 BC that he had slept with his mother, dream interpreters reassured him: What he meant was the earth, they said, he would conquer the world.

Astrologers and esotericists believe to this day that dreams can be used to predict the future. The strong man of modern dream interpretation, however, is Sigmund Freud, and he specializes in the abdomen. Therefore, ever since his groundbreaking work “The Interpretation of Dreams” appeared in 1899, it has been considered suspicious if someone dreams of a pencil or a zucchini, for example. Because: "The male member finds symbolic replacement by things that are similar to him in form."

For Freud, dreams are not messages from heaven, but come from the “unconscious”, an area of ​​the psyche in which emotional rubbish is stored: envy, jealousy, thoughts of parricide, cravings for incest. In short: what we dream refers to time bombs that have to be defused in therapeutic sessions.

According to some neuroscientists, however, one might as well examine the rustling of the wind in the treetops for messages from the depths of the human soul. Dreams arise from random nerve signals, they claim. In 1953 REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep was discovered. Those who are awakened from this sleep phase usually report vivid dreams. REM sleep corresponds to dream sleep, the researchers concluded. And when the REM center was soon located in the brain stem, an area of ​​the brain that is not involved in higher emotional or cognitive processes, the American researcher Allan Hobson claimed that the brain stem produces nerve signals at random while we sleep, and the brain tries to tinker with halfway comprehensible pictures and stories - without any deeper meaning. Sigmund Freud's dream theory seemed off the table.

Then, however, in the 1980s, the South African neurologist Mark Solms came across patients who no longer had REM sleep due to a brain tumor and were still dreaming. In the specialist literature, he found examples of the reverse phenomenon: people who have normal REM sleep but do not dream. In the dreamless patients he examined, part of the frontal lobe was damaged, a region neurologists refer to as the “reward center”. It becomes active when we desire something. Be it food, affection, sleep, alcohol or even sex. Freud was halfway rehabilitated again.

The dispute has raged back and forth to this day: Do dreams now reflect the life of the soul? Do they refer to our everyday problems, our desires and desires? Or is its deeper meaning just a dream castle that Sigmund Freud imagined? Ursula Voss from the University of Bonn wanted to know more precisely: What do dreams say, for example, about the life situation of the dreaming? Her team examined how the dreams of the physically disabled and the non-disabled differ. 50 subjects kept a dream diary. Ten of the test subjects were paralyzed from birth, four were deaf and mute and 36 were not disabled.

The paralyzed can walk in dreams and the deaf and mute can hear and speak. People who have never heard anything in reality dreamed of music or their father's voice. In some dreams people were dependent on a wheelchair - but they came from non-disabled people. Deaf-dumbness also played a role in some dreams, but not in dreams of the deaf and dumb. "A central part of the life of disabled people, namely their disability, does not appear in their dreams," says Voss. Dreams are far from being as closely related to everyday life as Freud suspected.

According to the results of the study, disabled people do not dream of not having a disability that is noticeably frequent. The ability to speak, hear or walk did not play a more important role in their dreams than in the able-bodied. So they were by no means focused on areas of life that were denied them when they were awake.

"A psychoanalyst from our team was also unable to identify which of the dreams came from the disabled," says Voss. Apparently, dreaming is not about the fulfillment of wishes. "And dreams generally say much less about the real life situation of the dreaming than many laypeople and researchers believe," says the scientist.

One result of the study with children and adolescents that the Zurich psychologist Inge Strauch carried out a few years ago points in a similar direction. Pressure to perform at school has a strong impact on young people's emotional lives. However, teachers, teaching situations or exams only played a role in about every tenth dream of young people that Strauch examined. “I think young people simply dream more often of things that really interest them,” says Strauch. Scenes in the playground were significantly more common than buffalo in the classroom.

Ursula Voss suspects that dreaming is a form of creative thinking. "You experience and process topics in dreams in new contexts," she says, "and you break away from entrenched thought patterns." Studies by Martha Koukkou, neurophysiologist and psychiatrist from Zurich, could support this thesis: It was known that the brainwaves of children are each other and distinguish them from adults. Koukkou found that the electroencephalogram of adults during deep sleep is roughly the same as that of children who are awake. When they dream, adults too may have access to childlike thought patterns and are then imaginative and creative.

There are examples. The chemist August Kekulé is said to have thought of the structure of the benzene molecule in his sleep: In a dream, snakes appeared to him that bit each other's tails in turn and formed a ring structure. Paul McCartney claims he dreamed the tune for the world hit "Yesterday". And scientists from the University of Lübeck were able to show that people after deep sleep solve brain teasers better than test subjects who did not have time to dream.

The most important task of dreams, however, could be a completely different one: The South African neuroscientist Mark Solms reports that all of the dreamless patients he examined did not suffer from any mental disorders, but were nevertheless impaired: “They all had trouble staying asleep at night, and often startled. ”It is quite possible that dreams are primarily the“ guardians of sleep ”.

An answer from Inge Strauch's Zurich children's survey also fits this thesis. "We dream," said an eleven-year-old, "so that we don't get bored in our sleep."

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