Ivory TowerScienceSpiegeloog 401: Dreams

Ivory Tower: Why do we dream?

By February 13, 2020 March 13th, 2020 No Comments

In the past centuries, science has made amazing progress. The quintessential philosophical questions ‘What is stuff made of?’, ‘How did the universe come into being?’ and ‘Why do we exist?’, which have obfuscated scholars since the dawn of humankind, have all received decent answers in the past four centuries. This does not, of course, mean that we have a full understanding of these questions or that there’s no possibility the theories we have might be wrong. It does mean that, in contrast to the situation as it existed for thousands of years, we have answers that couldn’t be immediately refuted by a bright eight-year-old.

This situation stands in stark contrast to the almost complete lack of progress in what would appear to be much simpler issues. I think that, if Aristotle would have had to guess which question would be answered earlier – ‘why do we dream?’ or ‘how did the universe come into being?’ – he would have found it inconceivable that after two thousand years the former problem would still be open while the latter is all but solved. Science is occasionally reminiscent of the evil police robot in the movie Robocop, which is able to take down an entire army by itself but is unable to walk down the stairs.

Yet that is the situation. The theories we have on sleep and dreams are scattered and weak. One who browses the scientific literature finds a fragmented set of ideas. Maybe dreams are for memory consolidation. Maybe they are for reprocessing events that happened during the daytime. Maybe they are just the result of random activity in the cortex. Maybe they are a byproduct of a clean-up process that the brain does to keep it from poisoning itself. Nobody really knows.

Even less is known about dream content: why we dream what we dream. The one great theory launched to explain this, culminating in Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, has been largely discredited. Freud imagined that the content of dreams sprang from the unconscious desires of the id, translated into acceptable imagery because these desires were too painful to enter consciousness. Thus, if you really want to have sex with your mother, you instead dream that you are riding a white horse through a dark tunnel.

No serious evidence for Freud’s ideas ever materialized, and in their place came the commonplace findings of empirical psychology. People dream about the things that occupy their minds during the day. Musicians more often dream about music, pregnant women about giving birth, taxi drivers about taxi driving. Given these results, it is no surprise that our culture continues to take its lead from Freud’s fantasies. Just imagine David Lynch films based on empirical psychology – they would just be too boring.

Sometimes the lightness of scientific psychology is unbearable. Yet, this lightness itself has an important function. It makes explicit how little is known and how hard it is even to get the facts on the table. That’s definitely the case for dream content, locked up inside the subjective experience of the dreamer until it is reported, quite possibly transforming in the process. Given the methodological limitations of empirical psychology, it seems entirely possible that our ignorance on dreams and dreaming will last another millennium.

In the past centuries, science has made amazing progress. The quintessential philosophical questions ‘What is stuff made of?’, ‘How did the universe come into being?’ and ‘Why do we exist?’, which have obfuscated scholars since the dawn of humankind, have all received decent answers in the past four centuries. This does not, of course, mean that we have a full understanding of these questions or that there’s no possibility the theories we have might be wrong. It does mean that, in contrast to the situation as it existed for thousands of years, we have answers that couldn’t be immediately refuted by a bright eight-year-old.

This situation stands in stark contrast to the almost complete lack of progress in what would appear to be much simpler issues. I think that, if Aristotle would have had to guess which question would be answered earlier – ‘why do we dream?’ or ‘how did the universe come into being?’ – he would have found it inconceivable that after two thousand years the former problem would still be open while the latter is all but solved. Science is occasionally reminiscent of the evil police robot in the movie Robocop, which is able to take down an entire army by itself but is unable to walk down the stairs.

Yet that is the situation. The theories we have on sleep and dreams are scattered and weak. One who browses the scientific literature finds a fragmented set of ideas. Maybe dreams are for memory consolidation. Maybe they are for reprocessing events that happened during the daytime. Maybe they are just the result of random activity in the cortex. Maybe they are a byproduct of a clean-up process that the brain does to keep it from poisoning itself. Nobody really knows.

Even less is known about dream content: why we dream what we dream. The one great theory launched to explain this, culminating in Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, has been largely discredited. Freud imagined that the content of dreams sprang from the unconscious desires of the id, translated into acceptable imagery because these desires were too painful to enter consciousness. Thus, if you really want to have sex with your mother, you instead dream that you are riding a white horse through a dark tunnel.

No serious evidence for Freud’s ideas ever materialized, and in their place came the commonplace findings of empirical psychology. People dream about the things that occupy their minds during the day. Musicians more often dream about music, pregnant women about giving birth, taxi drivers about taxi driving. Given these results, it is no surprise that our culture continues to take its lead from Freud’s fantasies. Just imagine David Lynch films based on empirical psychology – they would just be too boring.

Sometimes the lightness of scientific psychology is unbearable. Yet, this lightness itself has an important function. It makes explicit how little is known and how hard it is even to get the facts on the table. That’s definitely the case for dream content, locked up inside the subjective experience of the dreamer until it is reported, quite possibly transforming in the process. Given the methodological limitations of empirical psychology, it seems entirely possible that our ignorance on dreams and dreaming will last another millennium.

Denny Borsboom

Author Denny Borsboom

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