The Meaning of Dreams Throughout History

Have you ever tried to analyze your dreams?
The Meaning of Dreams Throughout History

Last update: 20 June, 2021

The meaning of dreams tends to change throughout history. In this article, you’ll reflect and travel through the universe of the oneiric.

The analysis of the function and meaning of dreams is different throughout history. Therefore, theories evolve, giving dreams functions linked to learning, survival, rest, and mystical beliefs.

In every culture, the interpretations have been loaded with magical content, directly influencing daily life. With the evolution of human beings and technology, the interpretation and study of dreams also evolved.

Next, we moved from the analysis of the magical content independent of the dreamer to forms of analysis that are related to scientific theories focused on the brain functioning of each individual.

What are dreams?

Dreaming is an active biological process and a universal function of the brain. Dreams usually occur during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. This period of sleep is defined by the following characteristics:

REM sleep

REM sleep is a phase in which the brain stem motor neurons are blocked. As a result, this prevents the person from moving, but their brain is very active. During this stage, the most lucid dreams appear and with a common thread, although they seem incoherent. For instance, the eyes move and brain activity is similar to that of wakefulness. In addition, the heart rate and blood pressure rise.

The first explanations of the meaning of dreams

In Mesopotamian civilizations such as the Babylonian or Sumerian, dreams signified expressions of the beyond. Actually, they saw dreams as divine expressions and assigned gods to them. But in Egypt, dreams functioned as omens, messages of destiny that they had to decipher.

The most famous account is from the biblical text of Genesis. This occurred when the pharaoh dreamed of seven lean cows walking along the Nile, the interpretation foretold years of imminent drought. Based on this, political and administrative actions were taken.

Dreams in ancient Greece

The Greeks considered dreams as messages from the soul, and they interpreted them as revelations. But when people had recurring nightmares, they would entrust themselves to Morpheus, the god of sleep.

To what end do you sleep and dream?

Polysomnographic studies allow us to establish that living beings have a biological rhythm of approximately 24 hours. This process underlies the circadian clock, a system based on the hypothalamus. In fact, this clock regulates the biological rhythm influenced by external agents, such as light and temperature, and is responsible for putting us to sleep and keeping us awake.

Are we dreaming the whole time we sleep?

The answer is no. All people have periods of NREM (Non-rapid eye movement) sleep, which means slow waves, and REM sleep. Consequently, these periods are interspersed throughout the night. Each person experiences approximately five intervals of REM sleep, which occur to a greater extent during the second part of the night.

Preservation mechanism

Several authors think that dreaming is a preservation mechanism by evolution acquired by mammals. The high brain activity of REM sleep would function as a periodic warning system for possible predator attacks. It follows that high activity of the amygdala and limbic system has been detected in dreams.

Functions of sleep

  • Rest. It allows neurotransmitters to recharge while sensory-motor neurons are uninhibited.
  • Genetic. Dreams have an adaptive feature, as they allow the implementation of programs to rehearse behavioral patterns.
  • Informative. REM sleep has been related to memory consolidation. In this phase, the memory discards the weakest connections of the previous day. On the other hand, it consolidates the strongest ones.
  • Creativity. Representation of the inner world. Imagination and the brain’s activity to recreate various situations are put to the test.
  • Cognitive development. The development of visual-spatial skills in children may relate to the quality of the expressions of the brain.

Emotional interpretation and the meaning of dreams

Sigmund Freud was one of the first authors to systematically interpret dreams. He first related the meaning of dreams to emotional experiences, where the unconscious manifests itself through symbolic language. Then, Carl Gustav Jung, already separated from the theories of his master, proposed under the synergistic paradigm, a theory where dreams reveal shared archetypes.

A door to the inner world

It isn’t difficult to realize that, in your nightmares, you express your fears and, in your happy dreams, your desires. During times of confusion or stress, you express your true desires in dreams without the constraints of everyday life.

“Who looks outside dreams; who looks inside awakes.”

-Carl Gustav Jung-

How do you interpret the meaning of dreams?

The psychoanalytical area of study has tried to classify the meaning of dreams in various dictionaries. However, this task is very difficult and not very precise when you consider the cultural variations of the language. At the same time, finding connections between the subject matter of the dreams and daily life is a way of giving meaning to dreams.

This is a girl sleeping in a boat, contemplating the meaning of dreams.

Sharing the meaning of dreams

Some people have disturbing dreams and prefer not to share them. However, there are others who are curious and want to analyze them. If you’re in the second group, we’ll give you some tips:

  • Annotations. If a dream catches your attention, you should write it down in the first minutes after waking up. This is because, the more time passes, the fewer details you can remember.
  • Objectivity. It’s necessary to see dreams objectively and analyze them for what they are, which are internal dialogues of our mind. Nevertheless, it’s been demonstrated that, many times, external factors influence them. As an example, dreaming of ice can have an explanation as simple as sleeping in a very cold room.
  • Consult. Whenever a dream calls your attention or repeats too often, you can consult with a specialist because they’ll give you a global and critical perspective of it.

What are nightmares?

Generally, they’re disturbing dreams that are evidence of moments of stress and worry. To prevent the feeling of anguish from haunting you throughout the day, you can apply two strategies:

  • Distracting homework. It’s been proven that, the more you repeat the dream upon awakening, the more it’ll permeate the memory. To avoid this, we can do simple tasks such as small mathematical operations in the first minutes of wakefulness.
  • Psychological distancing. It’s important to understand that what happened in the dream doesn’t have to repeat during the day and that they’re only manifestations of your fears.

In conclusion, it’s important to recognize that the meaning of dreams is always going to have a considerable subjective component. Therefore, both the physiological and symbolic aspects of dreams are susceptible to interpretation.

In any case, it’s ultimately up to you to decide what to do with what you remember from your dreams.