Dinosaurs, Tsunamis, and Falling Elevators
The Psychology of Dreams
“A little girl, 6 or 7 years old, has a best friend who is staying at her place for a sleepover. The girl’s grandfather transforms into a dragon to protect his grand daughter from this girlfriend who is a devil in disguise. When he goes into her granddaughter's room to check on her, both girls are gone and the window is broken. Dragon grandfather rushes out of the window and sees the two girls running into the woods…”
Sounds like a scene from an animated fantasy movie for kids? Except that it’s not. It’s a dream that I recently had and wrote down right after I woke up, which is why it is fairly detailed, but at the moment, I have absolutely no memory of this dream.
Most of the dreams that I remember are like that. Like movies. Intense, vivid, elaborate storylines, characterization, and complex imagery. Some are even worthy of cinematic adaptation. When I wake up, I can describe my dream in detail. Some dream memories fade soon after I wake up or after a day or so, others I can recall months or years later. Not only that, but I can also wake up from a dream, get up, drink water, go to the toilet, etc. and get back to my dream exactly where I left off. Strangely enough, the dreams that I remember are mostly nightmares, or crazy or disturbing, and I cannot recall a single good dream I ever had. Keeping a dream journal has not been possible because I started recording my dreams more than twice in the last 15 years but always got too lazy to follow through.
Dreams have been the epicenter of perpetual debate and discussion and philosophers, scholars, scientists and researchers have been fascinated with dreams throughout the centuries. Dreams are like a mysterious puzzle that scientists haven’t been able to unravel because it’s very difficult to study dreams scientifically. That’s why we don’t fully understand the purpose, function and mechanics of dreams as yet, but research on dreams is ongoing and progress is being made.
What we do know is that when our body sleeps, our brain remains active and has a lot of information (thoughts, feelings, emotions, problems, wishes, fears, anxieties, etc.) to process while we sleep. Dreams are a result of that processing. They are a collection of images of people, animals, places and objects, thoughts, sounds, voices and sensations.
Think of how with a few clicks on your smartphone you can select pictures from your gallery, add some music and slap them all together to create a video to show to your friends and family. That’s exactly what brain does when we dream. It pulls images of people, places or objects out of our memory, adds in words from our memory to create sentences and plays in our mind like a movie.
Isn’t it remarkable how the brain and memory function during sleep? It feels like dreams are another dimension of reality, a portal that transports us to another parallel universe where we experience things we do not or cannot experience in this universe.
My fascination with dreams started back in grade five or six, when I realized that some of my dreams are recurrent. One particular recurring dream that I’ve had at least 100 times over the last 20 years had a dinosaur chasing me around the bungalow I grew up in. Later, when we moved from that bungalow to an apartment, the dinosaurs were replaced by King Kong, who would peek into my apartment through the windows or balcony, trying to get his hands on me. Luckily, he could never catch me or eat me alive. At 31, I still occasionally dream of King Kong. I would be concerned about such intense and frequent dreams of dinosaurs and King Kong if I had not been obsessively watching Jurassic Park and King Kong so much (all parts, multiple times). Another recurring dream had me trapped in a falling elevator or an elevator that is endlessly going down or up with no way to escape.
My curiosity was so stirred by my crazy dreams that I decided to dig deeper. Based on my personal analysis of my dreams and existing literature, most of the dreams we have can be categorized into the following eight types:
1. Recollection of Recent Past
These dreams have traces or fragments of our recent past, i.e. events we experienced the day or night before or a week before. For example, you watched a movie before going to bed and then had a dream about some character or place from that movie. Or you talked to your best friend after a long time, and the same night you dreamed about her.
This happens to me a lot because I am usually engaged in heavy reading right before I go to sleep every night. Next morning, I wake up feeling like I was reading all night, because that’s what I had been doing, in my dream. Recently, while I was analyzing research data for my final thesis, I would dream of running statistical tests or writing my thesis in my dream. These dreams are vague and fragmented, not vivid, because when I wake up, I cannot describe the dream but I have a very strong feeling about what it was about.
2. Recollection of Distant Past
These dreams are a reflection of our more distant past, ranging from a few weeks to years. I still dream of people I met and places I visited years ago. In one of my recurring dreams, I would find myself trapped in this spooky old house of my great-grandfather that I used to visit in childhood. The house was haunted in my dream, not in real; it was spooky in real though and always used to give me an eerie feeling.
Sometimes a traumatic event has happened in our past (e.g. abuse, death of a loved one, divorce, disaster, accident, etc.) and our brain keeps replaying it in the form of dreams. Apparently, this is brain’s way to reduce the overall intensity of pain and trauma caused by the event.
These dreams are associated with our current mental and emotional states and reflect our emotional concerns and our preoccupations.
For example, you have an exam in the morning and you dream that you fail the exam. Or you have an important meeting or appointment in the morning and the night before you dream of missing or being late for the meeting.
Traumatic experiences can also trigger intense dreams or nightmares. For about a year after my divorce, I used to have recurring nightmares of catastrophes like tsunamis, earthquakes, buildings on fire, etc. that would cause me to wake up. I would find myself in the middle of these disasters, either trying to escape or trying to save the lives of my parents or siblings. But interestingly, in each of these dreams, I always managed to survive. These dreams were very elaborate and I used to remember them down to the tiniest detail when I woke up, but I was unable to sleep well because of these disturbing dreams, until about a year later when they finally stopped. Later, I learned that these recurring nightmares were a symptom of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).
4. Desires and Fears
These dreams represent our wishes, repressed desires and deepest fears.
You wish to buy a new car, or travel the world and end up dreaming that you bought that car or traveled the world.
Sometimes while dreaming, you lose all your inhibitions and engage in socially unacceptable or forbidden behavior and act out your suppressed desires, for example, criminal or immoral behavior, sexual fantasies, etc. Let's say you hate your boss in real life, so you might find yourself acting out on your hatred by killing or trying to hurt your boss in your dream. Or you might dream of sleeping with someone you hold in the highest regard (a father figure, a relative, colleague, boss, or teacher), something you would never even think of doing in your waking life.
Fear could manifest itself in your dream literally or symbolically. If you have a morbid fear of dogs or spiders, you may be bitten a dog or spider in your dream. If you have a fear of public speaking, you may dream of giving a speech in front of a large audience and forgetting your speech or saying something wrong, with audience laughing at you. Your fear of losing a loved one could manifest in your dream through the death of that person.
5. Physical Needs
Some dreams are triggered by our actual, physical needs, like thirst, hunger, sex, etc. For example, dreams about peeing are usually induced by the need to go to the toilet and empty our bladder.
I often dream that I am looking for a toilet but either I am unable to find a toilet or the toilet is occupied by someone else. There are many other interpretations of this dream, but at least in my case, this dream is ALWAYS triggered by my actual need to pee, because as soon as I wake up from this dream, I have to rush to the toilet.
Sometimes you dream about food, people eating, yourself eating or feeling hungry but unable to find something to eat, etc. which may be an indication that you are actually hungry.
By the same token, wet dreams or dreams of sexual experiences are triggered by your actual, physical need to release sexual energy.
Sometimes, elements from our environment or physical surroundings become a part of our dreams. I have woken up so many times to the doorbell or alarm or phone ringing in real, after I heard them ringing in my dream. Or someone is calling your name in dream but you cannot see who that person is, and then you wake up to find that your mother (or whoever) is actually calling your name.
7. Universal Dreams
A number of dreams have themes that are common across all cultures, nationalities and religions, such as flying, falling, falling elevators or buildings, being chased, losing teeth, being naked in public, failing exams, being late, death, etc.
I’ve had almost all of these dreams, some of which have been recurrent (being chased by dinosaurs or King Kong, falling elevators, falling buildings, and losing teeth).
While I’ve not bothered with interpreting most of my recurrent universal dreams, I did try to dig deeper when I started to dream about my teeth falling out, one after another, or all together. So I read up about this dream and found that one of the many potential causes of this dream is teeth-grinding. I realized I have a habit of teeth-grinding all the time since childhood, even in sleep, which led to loose front teeth after I turned 26. The thought of losing teeth or having to wear braces used to bother me a lot, and I used to spend a good chunk of my day just looking at myself in the mirror and worrying how I would look with braces. That’s when these dreams started. Finally, the problem of loose teeth was fixed when I got periodontal therapy done (scaling and root planing). Since then, the dreams of my teeth falling out have stopped.
8. Precognitive Dreams
Many people claim that their dreams can predict future events of personal, national or global significance. Someone dreams of a loved one’s death, or any other event of personal significance, and then that event happens in real life. Many people around the world claimed to have dreamed of 9/11 before the event happened. Such dreams are called premonitions or precognitive dreams. I have not yet had a precognitive dream and I hope I never do.
Can dreams really predict future?
That's what I will talk about in my upcoming article To Interpret or Not to Interpret A Dream, That is The Question!