When you have a dream, your first inclination is to wonder what it means. Few ask, “What is a dream?” and even as a dream expert, I did the same. For years, I focused on what the dream meant and never questioned what it was. From sleep lab studies, we know about Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, brain wave activity during sleep, and sleep stages. However, such facts do not explain the origins or the function of a dream. Mystics, on the other hand, spoke of dreams as a message from the soul. That may be true, but again, does not define the mechanics of how a dream comes about. It finally dawned on me that I had no clear conception of what a dream really “is.”
My curiosity led me on a ten year trek to find the answer. I read books and explored scientific journals. These helped me see what a dream does, but not what it is. The closest link to an answer emerged from Freud’s “day residue” idea which looks at dreams as leftovers about daily concerns, a concept later expanded by Montague Ullman. Dreams as day residue became the seed thought that led to a true definition. Mobilizing a lifetime of observations about dreams, a picture slowly unfolded about the mechanics of how a dream comes to be and what it is. As the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, here is the ultimate definition of a dream, the one that satisfied.