What Are Dreams?

Dreams, as we all know, are very queer things: some parts are presented with appalling vividness, with details worked up with the elaborate finish of jewellery, while other one gallops through, as it were, without noticing them at all, as, for instance, through space and time. Dreams seem to be spurred on not by reason but by desire, not by the head but by the heart, and yet what complicated tricks my reason has played sometimes in dreams, what utterly incomprehensible things happen to it!

- Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man (1877), II.

Podcast of the Day

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the interpretation of dreams. Over a hundred years ago, Sigmund Freud declared confidently, “The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind”. He was writing in his famous volume, The Interpretation of Dreams and his ideas made a huge impact on the century that was to follow. However, despite the cultural influence of his work, there is still no agreement in neuroscience as to the function or mechanism of dreaming; this is partly because for much of the century the prevailing wisdom was that there was no meaning to dreams at all. What is the mental circuitry that creates our dreams? If they have no meaning, why do we dream them? And why is the tide turning with neuroscientists starting to find reasons to take dreams seriously again?

Listen to Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss dreams on the In Our Time podcast

Video of the Day

Short Article of the Day

...One prominent neurobiological theory of dreaming is the “activation-synthesis hypothesis,” which states that dreams don’t actually mean anything: they are merely electrical brain impulses that pull random thoughts and imagery from our memories. Humans, the theory goes, construct dream stories after they wake up, in a natural attempt to make sense of it all. Yet, given the vast documentation of realistic aspects to human dreaming as well as indirect experimental evidence that other mammals such as cats also dream, evolutionary psychologists have theorized that dreaming really does serve a purpose. In particular, the “threat simulation theory” suggests that dreaming should be seen as an ancient biological defence mechanism that provided an evolutionary advantage because of  its capacity to repeatedly simulate potential threatening events – enhancing the neuro-cognitive mechanisms required for efficient threat perception and avoidance....

Continue reading Sander van der Linden's short article: The Science Behind Dreaming

Further Reading

Dreams and dreaming have been topics of philosophical inquiry since antiquity. Historically, the topic of dreaming has mostly been discussed in the context of external world skepticism. As famously suggested by Descartes, dreams pose a threat towards knowledge because it seems impossible to rule out, at any given moment, that one is now dreaming. Since the 20th century, philosophical interest in dreaming has increasingly shifted towards questions related to philosophy of mind. What exactly does it mean to say that dreams are conscious experiences during sleep? Do dreams have duration, or are they the product of instantaneous memory insertion at the moment of awakening? Should dreams be described as hallucinations or illusions occurring in sleep, or should they rather be described as imaginative experiences? Do dreams involve real beliefs? And what is the relationship between dreaming and self-consciousness?

Continue reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Dreams and Dreaming by Jennifer M. Windt

Related Topics

 CognitionConsciousness | Freud | Memory

Each day I post short quotes by great thinkers on a particular philosophical, scientific or historical topic, along with videos, interviews and articles by contemporary thinkers that explore each topic in more detail. Find me on Facebook or Twitter or enter your email below to learn about the ideas that helped shape our world.