How did dreaming begin? When was the first dream? Who was the first dreamer? And, how is it that we dream? This is a great mystery although we have learned a lot about dreams in the past 50-100 years.
In fact, before I move on to say more about the "mystery" of our dreams, allow me to call attention to what scientific studies have unveiled.
For example, with the advent of sleep laboratories in which we study participants' sleep patterns, we have established some base-line information that also tells us a lot about dreams and dreaming. Consider the following:
- Our brain waves while asleep follow a roughly ninety-minute cycle.
- With very sophisticated instruments, we can observe:
+ rapid-eye movement (REM)
+ NREM sleep takes place in 3 stages from lighter to deeper sleep.
REM sleep follows the third stage of NREM.
- Basically, dreams occur during REM sleep.
- Newborns spend around eight hours a day in REM sleep, which decreases with age.
- Dreams may last from a few seconds to several minutes, in black and white or color.
- Most dreams, if complete, are little dramas. They tell a story with beginning, middle, climax, and conclusion.
- The part of the brain called the pons ("bridge") appears to demonstrate most dream activity. According to more recent studies in evolutionary biology, the pons evolved 505 million years ago.
- Dreams are purposive.
And the characteristic of dreams as being purposive leads us into the ongoing debates about the nature of their purposiveness. One school of psychology suggests that dreams are "activation-synthetic," the result of random activity initiated in the brainstem. From this perspective, dreams serve no psychological, spiritual, or social purpose. (See J.A.Hobson, The Dreaming Brain.)
Another viewpoint is the threat-simulation theory of dreams in the evolution of the human mind. This perspective considers the role played by environmental threats that lead the brain to develop what might be described as a theatre-of-the-mind in which potential dangers are anticipated and actions rehearsed to avoid those threats. In this explanation, the brain unites the dynamics of cognition, perception, and sensation to create dreams for the person facing threats of various kinds. By rehearsing these simulations in dream-time, the dreamer is enabled to survive environmental dangers. Thus, the "threat-simulation" serves a useful purpose in the evolution of the human mind. (See M.S. Franklin and M.J. Zyphur, online at sage.pub.com, "The Role of Dreams in the Evolution of the Human Mind.")
This "threat-simulation" theory is another way of describing Carl Jung's understanding of dreams and dreaming. For Jung, the dream is a symbolic message from the unconscious. The dream comes in the service of compensating the dreamer's conscious attitude. In other words, whenever we face a problem or a threat, our brain is activated to resolve the matter. In this instance, all the systems of the brain contribute to the formation of our dreams and our consciousness. Although the pons is noted as a center of dreaming activity, the brainstem, the limbic system, and the frontal cortex make possible the consciousness of our perceptions and judgements in the service of health, safety, and meaning.
You may be reminded of experiences many of us recall. I am referring here to problems we cannot solve and which, after a strenuous time and effort, we "sleep on it." Then, after a night's sleep, we find we easily solve the problem that had so frustrated us the night before. We may or may not recall a dream, but we understand that some action has taken place in our mind while we slept.
What is this mysterious problem-solving capacity of the "sleeping" brain, and how is that related to the mysterious creations of our dreams? In my consulting office where I work with people's dreams, listening to 20 or 30 dreams each week, I observe repeatedly this dreaming response to the problems of individuals who have come to some impasse in their lives.
Facing this impasse of tragedies and victories, moral failures, forgotten memories, threats and dangers, dreams appear. These dreams reveal a new way of living, a fresh viewpoint of life, offering insight as to what might yet be.
As an example, I offer one of my own dreams.
I am sitting in a circle of 10-12 people, holding some papers in my lap,
perhaps leading a discussion. We are in a cottage in the
mountains, and the fall day is sunny and beautiful with a hint of change
in the foliage. Slowly I become aware of a sound in the distance—something
approaching! It sounds like the whirling blades of a helicopter—no, it is
more like the loud flapping of wings! This seems impossible: the bird would
have to be a very large one. Suddenly, a very large eagle appears outside
our closed sliding glass door. The drapes are open, and we can clearly see
the eagle whose wing tips tap on the glass as if it wants to get inside.
Startled, we jump up from our seats and stare at the eagle, afraid to move
any closer. The eagle slowly backs away from the door and retreats about
100 feet from the cottage where it hovers 20 feet or so above the ground. We
slowly open the door, move outside and stand with our backs to the cottage.
The eagle's head changes to that of a human. I hear a voice speak: "It's
alright. I have come from the other side to tell you it's alright. There is
more." Then the head changes back to an eagle's head as it turns and flies
away over the horizon.
To put this dream in context, I can say simply that I had come to the edge of my professional development. I sensed there was something more, but I did not know where to turn. The traditional path of my profession held no interest for me. I felt discouraged and uncertain. Then, in that experience of feeling stuck and as if life held no further direction for me, the eagle appears with the message: "It's alright; there is more."
To say I was startled by the dream would be a major understatement. One might say that the dream served as an initiation into the deeper meaning and mystery of life.
And so, I conclude as I began by acknowledging that I cannot know when and how dreams appeared in our early beginnings. But I feel certain that dreaming was a major development, preparing a pathway in the evolution of consciousness—the wonders, promise, and mystery of which we have only begun to dream.