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Psychoanalytic Therapy: Why Do We Dream?

by Leanne Hall
Posted: September 28, 2016

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Can dreams be used in counselling and psychology? Dr Lance Storm says yes - dream interpretation has practical significance and could broaden the range of options available to patients undergoing treatment for mental health problems, such as depression.

So we asked Integrative Health Expert and Clinical Psychologist, Leanne Hall, to break down some dream theories for us.

It happens to all of us. Sometimes we start the day with vivid recollections of the night before which at times can make us question whether it really happened, while at other times we can be left with the hangover of an exhausting night…with no specific memory of what exactly happened. The weird thing is, we were asleep the entire time! So why do we dream?

Psychoanalytic therapy and dreams 

Rainbow dream catcher against pink sky background, fluttering in the wind - analogy of psychoanalytic therapy

The concept of dreaming has fascinated researchers and psychoanalysts for centuries. Of course, Sigmund Freud was extremely interested, as he saw our dreams as windows to the subconscious revealing our deepest unconscious thoughts, fears and desires. 

His friend, Carl Jung was arguably one of the most influential dream theorists who in fact split with Freud, due in part to their differing opinions about the significance of dreams. For Jung, he saw dreams as a way for us to communicate with our unconscious, and rather than representing retrospective fears and desires, he felt that our dreams contained symbols that have universal meaning, called archetypes. 

These archetypes give us prospective insight allowing us to evolve psychologically and achieve a more balanced relationship between our ego and unconscious. In other words, they are a handy way of gaining insight into what’s bothering us!

Basically, there are loads of theories about why we dream. However, we still don’t really have the answers. If you think about it, how can you research something that’s based on a completely subjective, and sometimes vague personal “memory”? Furthermore, Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep was not even discovered until 1953. Until then, it was thought that the brain basically switched off completely during sleep. So relative to some other aspects of medical science, we are still trying to get answers. 

So let’s take a look at what happens when we sleep, in particular, what happens to our brain. Because although dream recollection itself is subjective, measuring brain waves is one way to objectively look at what happens to us when we sleep, and perhaps even why we dream.

Our sleeping brain

Why do we dream? Female and her pet dog, fast asleep on the couch

There are five stages of sleep. Now each complete cycle takes on average 90-110 minutes, although of course, this can vary due to a number of factors. Some people take a long time to fall asleep, meaning that the first complete sleep cycle may take longer as they linger in the early stages. Other people fall straight to sleep and almost power through that first cycle!

Stage 1

This is light sleep. This is where you feel those sudden muscle contractions (you might feel like you’re falling or slipping), and you are really easy to wake. Brain patterns are still fairly active, but beginning to slow down.

Stage 2

Your brain waves are starting to slow down, and your eye movements stop. If you snore, it’s likely to start here.

Stage 3 & 4

These stages are characterised by really slow brain waves called delta waves. This is deep sleep and is the most refreshing sleep. There is no eye movement, and it’s extremely hard to wake. This is when things like bed wetting, sleep walking and night terrors occur.

Stage 5

This is REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. Breathing can become rapid, irregular and eye movement can go crazy. Blood pressure rises and heart rate increases. Your brain is very active. 

Having said that, your outer limbs are temporarily paralysed (can you imagine if they weren’t?) In this stage of sleep your brain is just as active as when you are awake. However, you are completely disconnected from the outside world. 

So when do we dream? In fact, you can dream in any stage of sleep. However, the most vivid dreams occur during REM, when the brain is active. On average, adults spend around 20% in REM sleep, with each period lengthening during the night (children spend more time in REM sleep).

Dream theories

Writing dream theories in a dream diary outdoors, with wooden pencil, orange juice and fruit

If we look at what happens to our brain when we sleep and combine that information with what we know about our dreams, a couple of theories seem plausible.

1.    Dreams are a way of processing emotions and experiences (particularly difficult ones) 

This could be because there are no external distractions, as so your brain is free to process information, without the ego interfering and “avoiding”. It’s like turning off the internet and focusing only on that assignment! 

2.    Dreams allow us to problem solve

Once again, no distractions or external opinions! It’s quite common to go to bed worrying about something, and then wake up with a fresh perspective and even sometimes a solution. This is why you will often hear the advice to “sleep on it” when faced with a problem. 

3.    Dreams are a way to incorporate memories

In our busy day-to-day life, we don’t really have much time to incorporate or actively assimilate new information. This is where dreams come in. Incorporating memory is a job best done by our subconscious, which we have access to when we are asleep. 

4.    Dreams are a way to download information

Using a computer analogy, our brain may use dreams as a way to “update”, in the same way your iPhone updates during the night. This would explain the heightened activity during REM sleep as our brain re-installs information.

It may be the case that all of the above is true, or perhaps none of it! We simply don’t know for sure. There are even some deeper, spiritual theories of why we dream which lie outside the confines of medical science. 

For example, dreams are God’s way of communicating to us, or a way for loved ones who have passed over to reconnect and visit us. 

Whatever you decide, the fact remains...

We all dream. Sometimes our dreams seem “random” and make no sense, while at other times they can provide us with valuable insight. The only person who can truly interpret your dreams is you. 

So if you find yourself having a recurring dream, consider keeping a dream diary. Keeping a diary will allow you to identify patterns and themes which may very well give your conscious mind a jolt in the right direction, revealing the answer to a problem or perhaps even reminding you that a loved one who has passed on is still close by.

So if you are in doubt about what your dreams are telling you, write it down!

If you are interested in helping people with their mental health, there are plenty of ways to go about it. Learn more about a career in Counselling, Life Coaching or Mental Health today.


Leanne Hall

Leanne has been transforming lives for over 15 years as the mind and body expert for Channel 10 and as a practising clinical psychologist. Leanne Hall motivates her patients to achieve a healthy and well-balanced lifestyle using positive psychology and “mindfulness” techniques, holistic nutrition and exercise. Leanne's expertise covers everything from how the beauty myth impacts women's self-esteem, mental health and fitness.

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