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 our attention to what our scientific studies have unveiled.
For example, with the advent of sleep laboratories in which we study participants, observing 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.
- We can monitor with very sophisticated instruments:
+ 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 can spend around eight hours a day in REM sleep, which decreases with age.
- The dreams that happen may last from a few seconds to several minutes, in black and white or color.
- Most dreams, if complete, are like little dramas. They tell a story with beginning, middle, climax, and conclusion.
- The part of the brain called the pons (ridge") appears to be the center demonstrating most brain activity. This part of our brain evolved 505 million years ago according to more recent studies in evolutionary biology.
- Dreams are purposive.
And this proposition that dreams are purposive leads us into the ongoing debates about the nature of their purposiveness. Some studies suggest 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 viewpoint considers the role played by environmental threats that led the brain to develop what might be described as a theatre-of-the-mind in which potential dangers may be 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. And in those "threat-simulated" dreams, the dreamer is more likely to survive than those who do not mentally rehearse the ways to avoid threats. Thus, the "threat-simulation" serves a useful purpose in the evolution of the human mind through dreaming. (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 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 swings into action to resolve the matter. Again, this alls on all of the systems of the brain: the brainstem's instinctual heritage, the limbic system's development in mammals that allows for warm-blooded emotional connections with our young as well as other humans, and the frontal cortex that has brought a higher cognition to our perceptions and problem-solving.
This may remind you of the kind of experience many of us recall. This is having a problem we cannot solve and after a strenuous time and effort to resolve the matter, we "sleep on it." Then, in some incredible way—at which I marveled when I was kid—in the morning, I could easily solve the problem that had so frustrated me the night before. It may or may not come in the form of a dream, but I understood that some action takes place in the brain when I am asleep.
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 come to some impasse in their lives.
Their dreams come in a parade revealing dramas of detours, of tragedies and victories, of erotica and exotica, of moral failures, of forgotten memories, of potential never realized, of gods and demons, and more. These dreams compensate their lives, offering insight as to how matters presently stand but also 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 contemporary cabin 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, 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 cabin where it hovers 20 ft. or so above the ground. We
slowly open the door, move outside and stand with our backs to the cabin.
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 my left.
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. You might say that the dream served as an initiation into the deeper meaning and mystery of life—revealed in a dream.
And so, I will conclude as I began by acknowledging that I have no clue as to the "first dream" of human beings. But I feel certain that the first dream was a major development opening the pathway to an evolution of life and membership in the marvelous cosmos, the wonders, promise, and mystery of which we have only begun to dream.