A Brief History

Dreams have long fascinated the human imagination. Adult humans dream for an average of two hours every night, (Vedfelt, 2017) and dreams can be seen entangled in society through art, literature, beliefs and practices and accordingly is a significant part of the human experience. Dreams span the human race and theories regarding dreaming vary broadly across time and cultures and this is mirrored in the psychological literature.  In early times dreams had a visionary aspect and were regarded as messages from the gods with dreams given particular notice in ancient religious texts (Holliman & Foster, 2015). In some cultures there was little distinction between conscious visions and dreams and this is particularly the case in the Judeo Islamic Christian complex of religions. This is similar to the Australian aborigines who rarely distinguish between waking life and dreaming (Lewis, 1995). Inklings of this concept can be seen in some more contemporary psychological thought for instance, Adler’s idea that dreaming relates to  an individual’s personality and waking life matters (Leonard & Dawson, 2018). This is of note as Adler’s idea paved the way for a multitude of later theories on dreams such as the rehearsal facet of threat simulation theory and Becks cognitive approach to the dream (Leonard & Dawson, 2018).  Dreams are a phenomenon attracting attention from many fields of study  and in  more recent times the psychological community. Dreams have become a matter of investigation among scientists, with sleep and dreaming being measured in laboratories across the world. Some scientists posit that dreaming is a way for the brain to process important data while others suggest dreams characterize the unconscious mind.

Dream Theories

Dream theories have developed within a broad range of theoretical orientations including psychoanalytic, Jungian, existential, experiential, relational, cognitive, humanistic, phenomenological, CBT, evolutionary, family systems, narrative and other constructivist approaches to dreams. Research continues rapidly and is advanced by the International Association for the Study of Dreams. Dreaming, their Journal published quarterly by the American Psychological Association attracts researchers from across the globe. Initiating psychological dream theories, Freud proposed that dreams comprise of vital knowledge of unconscious childhood experiences and perceived dreams as the body’s way to preserve sleep and safely release emotionally or culturally unacceptable desires masked in dream symbols. He created a method of free association to work with  dreams.  Jung explored the collective symbolism in dreams. He postulated that dreams encourage the development of the personality a formula he termed “the process of individuation” (Vedfelt, 2017)and was the proponent of amplification of dream images and the use of personal associations. Adler’s idea that dreaming related to  an individual’s personality and waking life concerns (Leonard & Dawson, 2018) assumes there is a correlation between dreams and wakeful concerns. This relationship is now termed the Continuity Hypothesis and was proposed by Hall and Nordby in the 1970s before “being developed into a more precise, predictive model by Schredl” (Leonard & Dawson, 2018). Existential and phenomenological therapists such as Irwin Yalom highlight what they call the ultimate concerns, proposing dreams are themes that relate to death, isolation, freedom and meaninglessness (Yalom, 1980). Erik Erikson, has explored the connection between dreams and psychosocial development and experiential therapists work with dreams through dramatization, role-playing, illustration, image creation and  embodiment (Vedfelt, 2017) . Cognitive therapist Hill created a system of dream work to restructure negative thinking patterns to stimulate problem solving (Vedfelt, 2017). Imagery rehearsal therapy is a short-term, CBT-oriented approach developed by Krakow and colleagues. It is intended for working with disturbing dreams and nightmares and encourages the dreamer to rewrite the nightmare account with a modified and reworked ending (Leonard & Dawson, 2018).

Within the natural sciences there are various theoretical models such as neuro-cognitive theory, activation-synthesis, memory-consolidation, and threat-simulation theory . Contributed by evolutionary psychology is threat simulation theory (Revonsuo, 2004) which ascertains value in nightmares as possibilities for the dreamer to rehearse new ways of managing threat to physical or emotional survival. More recent research in neuro-cognitive studies revealed that “the neural network for dreaming” is very likely a “subsystem” of the default network, which relates to daydreaming, and other forms of self-generated unpremeditated thought whilst awake. Some cognitive dream theorists suggest that dreaming does not have an adaptive function and are “the accidental by-product of two great evolutionary adaptations, sleep and consciousness ” (Domhoff, 2019).

The variety of dream theories outlined highlights the divergent yet also the voluminous nature of dream theories within in the current literature and suggests that dreams may be psychologically meaningful and valuable to psychotherapy practice as they connect with an enduring curiosity in humans. Since early history humans have searched for meaning and   understanding of their life and experiences and interest in dreams may be one manifestation of this search. Furthermore, theories that posit dreams have no psychological meaning suggest dreams are still potentially a valuable clinical tool.