Types of Dreams
Excerpted from: Psychic Dreamwalking: Explorations at the Edge of Self
Written by: Michelle Belanger
Deeply personal and often inscrutable, dreams nevertheless continue to fascinate us. No matter how surreal the images get, our nightly visions resonate with a profound sense of meaning that lingers always on the edge of understanding. Partly because of this tantalizing sense of deeper meaning, psychologists and neuroscientists have devoted millions of hours and dollars to researching the nature of dreams.
We have learned a little since the days of soothsayers and dream interpreters. Neuroscientists now believe that at least some dreams are involved of the transfer of information from short term memory to long term memory. This process is called memory consolidation. Memory consolidation explains why so many of our dreams are filled with a series of often disjointed images that echo our experiences from the day before. According to theories of dream consolidation, dreams are the stories our minds tell us as they try to make sense of all the varied bits of information being processed during what amounts to a memory dump. A related theory, developed in 1966 by Roffwarg, Musio, and Dement, suggests that REM sleep reinforces memory patterns by essentially exercising our neurons. Images and ideas connected to the information stored in those neurons are re-experienced as they fire in the form of dreams.
As compelling as the memory theories of dreaming can seem, they do not account for all dreams. Many dreams seem far too organized and meaningful to simply be stories built up around a data processing function, and certainly not all dreams focus on specific clusters of memory. Some thematic dreams recur again and again among diverse people separated by time as well as distance. Dreams of flying, dreams of being caught naked in public, dreams of falling, and dreams of pursuit are all archetypal dreams that have been reported by sleepers from Kansas to Canton. These dreams seem less involved in processing raw data and more involved in transmitting a message from our subconscious minds to our consciousness. These message dreams give vivid expression to fears and anxieties we have failed to admit to ourselves. Sometimes, they tell us that the things we fear are not really as bad as we’re making them out to be.
Such symbolic dreams have, for many years, been the focus of a branch of psychology called psychoanalysis. The imagery in these dreams is reviewed in terms of the dreamer’s waking life, and cues are sought that reveal the source of undifferentiated anxieties, stress, and tension. Compellingly, the dreams themselves often provide the solution to the problem. This suggests that there is a part of the human mind that knows far more about our waking lives than we can ever consciously realize.
A third type of dream dovetails neatly with psychologically insightful messages from the subconscious. Many artists, writers, and scientists have experienced a dream that shed sudden and unexpected light upon what seemed to be an insoluble problem. These problem-solving dreams may arise from a combination of data processing and subconscious messaging. Essentially, as the individual dreams and reviews the material that has been the focus of so many waking hours, the subconscious takes note of some crucial piece of data that the conscious mind has consistently overlooked. This data is flagged and presented in some symbolic context that reveals how it answers the problem.
Thomas Alva Edison very consciously harnessed this subconscious effect. Whenever he was stumped about an invention, he would sleep on it, literally. Sitting in his chair, Edison would loosely hold two large ball bearings in his hands. Metal pans were placed strategically beneath him. When he fell deeply enough asleep, his hands would relax their grip on the ball bearings. The balls, in their turn, would drop into the metal pans, causing such a clatter that Edison would snap to full wakefulness. The brief sojourn that this allowed him to take to the realm of dreams almost always yielded some crucial insight to the problem at hand.
Some dreams seem neither concerned with data, messages, or problem-solving. These dreams, vivid and engaging, tell us a story while we sleep. These are the dreams that will cast the dreamer as the main character in his or her own private night-time movie. Filled with romance and high adventure, such story dreams seem to be conjured up for sheer entertainment. Many people have recurring entertainment dreams, experiencing them as if they were night-time serials. It’s not uncommon to dream one vivid installment and then pick up the storyline in a subsequent dream months or even years later.
According to the research of Herman A. Watkin, introverted people tend to experience dreams like this more often, probably because their own internal landscape is already perceived as an acceptable source of private entertainment. Extroverts, on the whole, tend to experience less imaginative dreams. By Watkin’s definition, this is because extroverts are “less differentiated” than introverts and rely more upon the outside world for their sense of identity. As a result, they are more inclined to seek their entertainment in the external world, rather than in dreams.
At this point, we have identified four distinct types of dreams:
Memory Dreams, connected with information processing
Messages from the subconscious
Story dreams, for entertainment
There is a fifth type of dream that is not as widely recognized by scientific authorities on dreams and dreaming. This is the paranormal dream. Paranormal dreams contain information that the dreamer could not have gained through ordinary means. Telepathic dreams, dreams of recently deceased loved ones, dreams of future events, and dreamwalking experiences all fall into this final category. Although paranormal dreams certainly fall on the fringes of accepted science, they are nevertheless so persistent and so widespread that they have repeatedly been the subject of scientific inquiry.