The purest experience of imagery in mental processes occurs when we dream. Visual language is the medium of dreams. We are shown the way to look at something where the goals of waking life may obscure an important ingredient. Dreams are a mechanism in our ongoing adjustment for balance. The current idea about the dream compensating for the one-sidedness of waking life dates back to early Taoism, which has many passages where the dream functions as a counterbalance.
Since many researchers connect dreaming to learning and solidifying memory, this would reinforce the idea that what we learn has to be integrated into our inner model, connected to our existing representation of reality. Ulrich Wagner of the University of Luebeck, Germany, says sleep develops our capacity for insight as adjustments are made in the hippocampus, consolidating new information within that organizational center. The hippocampus is considered to be the headquarters of our internal model of reality and these nightly revisions and additions include the felt significance of our experience. With conscious purposes focusing most of our attention during the day, subtle feelings about experience are missed. In his book, Travels with Charlie, John Steinbeck wrote about the dramatic nightmares Charlie had the day he saw his first bear. The dog enacted the movement and sounds of terror during REM, establishing his sense of the danger. Dreams reinforce circuits and display unconscious evaluations. They show us how we feel.
Dreams almost always occur in settings, drawing from and developing the existing inner model. Just like none of the individual objects is symbolic without the context, the setting itself can stay the same but host a range of different feelings, an ordinary living room shot with feelings of terror.
Judaism has always regarded dreams as important to deep level understanding. One of the many passages about dreaming in the Talmud states, “Dreams that are not understood are like letters that are not opened.” Rabbi Jonathan said, “A man is shown in his dreams what he thinks in his heart.” Psychiatrist Erich Fromm was saying the same thing when he wrote,” A dream is the true picture of the subjective life of the dreamer.”
Having a dream journal, even if I only remember one dream every few months gives me the opportunity to reflect on a dream at a distance. Looking back at dreams, seeing a larger context with more development over the intervening time, the picture can seem much more understandable than the morning after having the dream. My persistent nightmares of quicksand as a child, I now can see as a fear of suffocation, and the horror of disappearing completely from the surface world.
Most of us are pretty good at suppressing our fears, but to ignore them altogether is to not see a danger apparent to the unconscious mind. The dream insures these evaluations will be integrated into overall memory. Researchers have found that two-thirds of dream content is unpleasant. So bad dreams don’t mean something’s wrong with us, they show how we feel about what’s happened to us, or what we fear might happen. The idea that the unconscious mind is broader and smarter than the conscious mind is certainly supported by the many stories of dreams solving problems or predicting outcomes. There’s a rich history of predictive dreams (Lincoln dreamed of his assassination the week before it happened) and a parallel history of dreams showing solutions that eluded the waking mind (Mendeleyev’s organization of the Periodic Tables of the Elements). We are all artists at night, creative imagination unbound by the assumptions in our ideas about reality.
I think when we don’t remember our dreams it’s because they did their work, the adjustments have been made in the image that underlies the way we think and doesn’t need conscious attention. When we do remember, just by the act of remembering in the day, we perform another act of reinforcing the circuits and weaving it into the fabric of conscious memory. I remember some of my childhood nightmares more vividly than any particular episode from waking experience.
The correlation of sleep problems and depression shows how a lack of time sleeping and dreaming deprives us of the opportunity to balance the negative feelings. Understanding the value of this nightly development of our perceptive intelligence, we might value sleep more, and appreciate that important work is being done.