Was Freud a Joke? New Study is Shifting Our Understanding Of DreamsDec 10, 2018
Freud thought dreams were the “royal road to the unconscious”, as it is in them that the ego’s defenses are lowered, enabling repressed material to come through to awareness, though in distorted form. A dream about a house, for example, might be a representation of worries about one’s security or appearance. As a result, Freud is known to consider dreams’ major role to be a fulfillment of wishes.
The philosopher famously thought that objects in dreams symbolized things from real life – for example, that sticks, umbrellas, poles, or anything longer than wider represented penises. But now that psychology studies take a more robust statistical approach, Freudian dream analyses have become somewhat of a joke in the field.
New data, however, is showing that the father of psychology wasn’t too far off when he thought that dreams served an important function in coping with reality. Psychologists have found evidence that dreaming might be helping us come to terms with new events and emotions we experienced while awake.
The dream generator
Dreams are the most random things, rarely ever making logical sense. So, where do all those odd dream factors come from? A team led by Mark Blagrove, a psychologist at Swansea University, set out to investigate the brain activities that influence what we see in our nighttime adventures.
In the study, the team recruited 20 students, hooked them up to brain wave detectors when they slept, and woke them up 10 minutes into their dreams to ask about the content and how they felt. They compared this to a diary that the students kept for 10 days, so they could compare dreams with recent events that happened in the students’ day-to-day lives.
The team found that brain waves related to memory formation – called theta waves – were more intense when students were dreaming about recent experiences. The dreams were also more emotionally intense when they were about recent events. Put together, these results suggest that the purpose of dreams is to process new experiences. And the weirdness of it all, according to Blagrove, “it’s a sign that two things are being brought together, which would normally be separate from each other”; it is the artefact of the brain trying to process new experiences, especially of those involving emotions.
“This is the first finding that theta waves are related to dreaming about recent waking life, and the strongest evidence yet that dreaming is related to the processing that the brain is doing of recent memories,” Blagrove told New Scientist.
Freud, of course, used his dream analysis for therapy. Blagrove’s team also wonders whether they could do the same; could inducing theta waves in sleep help bring experiences from wake-time into our dreams, and ultimately help us learn?
In fact, psychologists already have a wealth of information about which brain waves relate to certain functions. Although they still haven’t figured out what exactly causes the brain waves, they already do know how to manipulate them with electrodes.
If the team is able to intentionally pull recent experiences into dreams, they would have discovered a mechanism for influencing certain phases of sleep in which theta waves occur, and ramping up memory and emotion processing. One could call that a passive form of therapy – and it’s something on the team’s list of things to look into.