THE ONGOING DEBATE. Though mystics have long seen dreams as a message from the soul, psychologists are not so sure. Researchers are divided. Some conclude that dreams have meaning, while others theorize that dreams are random images that have no intentional meaning or message. As the nature of scientific enquiry, the debate will continue.
DREAMS AS MEANINGLESS, RANDOM EVENTS. Those who see dreams as meaningless think that dream imagery is related to the random, spontaneous firing of brain cells (neurons), which fire like blinking lights that turn on and off. This process of brain cells turning themselves on and off is thought to be part of the brain’s housekeeping and upkeep. Proponents such as Francis Crick and Graeme Mitchson suggest that cells in the hindbrain (the lower brain stem) spontaneously activate cells in higher brain centers (the cortex), which creates the nightly imagery that we call dreams. They see dreams as meaningless. In this view, the images you experience at night are random events that happen because individual brain cells fire at random (turn on and off) during the night.
DREAMS AS MEANINGFUL. Those who hold the view that dreams do have meaning agree with those who hold the opposite view—that brain cells engage in spontaneous firing. However, they consider that fact irrelevant. Instead of a focus on individual brain cells, they theorize that, like a computer, the brain has the equivalent of built-in software (neuronal mechanisms) that enables the mind to process thoughts, feelings, and experiences. One such software-like neuronal package relates to dreaming.
These psychologists point out that the brain has other similar processes conducive to information processing, such as the ability of children to learn complex language patterns. Linguist Noam Chomsky describes language patterns as “deep” versus “surface” structures; these are complex grammar and language patterns that children absorb without coaching, no matter what their language. In Chomsky’s view, such an ability in children suggests that the brain has a built-in template related to language learning. Theorists who see dreams as having meaning, surmise there are similar brain templates associated with dreaming.
Researchers Aaron Greenberg and Milton Kramer concluded that dreams have meaning, pointing to studies that suggest dreaming is linked to maintaining emotional and psychological balance. Their studies on the dreams and sleep of traumatized war veterans and those with emotional disorders indicate dreams play a key role in regaining emotional stability. Their research revealed that story lines in dreams relate to actual events in a dreamer’s life and to actual needs in a dreamer’s life. In effect, Greenberg and Kramer independently concluded that dreams are meaningful.
DO DREAMS GIVE YOU A MESSAGE? Do dreams carry specific insights for dreamers? Apart from scientific debates and hypotheses, you can check out countless dream books and Web sites that describe the personal experiences of individuals who have experienced specific messages and meaning in their dreams. No matter what scientists may speculate or conclude, dream enthusiasts will continue to analyze their dreams.