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Why Do We Dream?

Why Do We Dream?

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I dream; therefore, I become… Dream is not only a derivative of our sleep but also a foundation of our well being. For ages, this fascinating and mysterious human experience has been investigated and deliberated by different civilisations. Through the Vedas & Upanishads, the Hindus have established a roadmap to decode the secret message of the subconscious, whereas the ancient Egyptians even had dream interpreters. Oneirology–the  Science behind dreams quantitatively studies the state of the brain in REM, NREM & lucid dreams. Neuroscientists, psychologists & philosophers such as Aristotle, Hippocrates, Sigmund Freud and many others have put forward related conspicuous theories which are much followed & recognised. If dreams excite you and you are interested in understanding and working on them, read this beautiful write up on dreams by the writer Somashis Gupta who believes in his dreams and makes them happen.

This incident was way back in the 80s. Seating on the balcony of our house in Shillong I was engulfed in the story of Cinderella with Dada my grandfather. A voice distracted us. It was a stranger. He said “Phi Phohsniew aiu mynnien mied?” Confusion made my brain go round. I asked Dada after the stranger left “Who was he? What did he ask?”

Dada laughed “I don’t know who he is. He asked me what I dreamt yesterday”

“Why was he asking about your dream?”, I asked.

“He will do a numerical calculation to find out if he will win the Bow & Arrow gambling (Teer Khela) today” Dada replied.

I was confused to the core and asked “Dreams? Numerology? Gambling?”

“You will know when you grow up” Dada smilingly replied.

Long days have passed. I have grown now and realized that dreams have fascinated humans for centuries. Though most of our dreams remain dreams, some are powerful enough to make us laugh or weep real tears or even grip us in total terror. Dreams are a complex phenomenon researched since ancient times.

The first evidence of dream research goes back to 3000 BC. Clay tablets discovered at Nineveh has dream book of the Assyrians and Babylonians. Similar tablets were found during excavations of a pyramid-type temple E-zida, in Mesopotamia. These tablets record that Gilgamesh, the warrior king of Sumerians, got his dreams interpreted as they were troubling him.

Egyptians too had worked on dream research. The ‘serapeums’ temples were dedicated to “Serapis” the God of dreams, can be seen all across Egypt. The most famous of these was at Memphis, dating back to 3000 BC. Evidence of dream incubation can be seen at the city of Thebes, located along the Nile. Hieroglyphics on Chester Betty papyrus, inscribed around 1350 BC, containing 200 dreams, shows that dream interpretations practised were complex and lasted for several days as early as 1770 BC.

Oneirology, the study of dreams, is derived from “Oneiros” meaning dreams in Greek. Greeks were quite sophisticated in dream research. Homer(750BC), a Greek author, gave a revolutionary concept of “Gates of Horn and Ivory”, where he described dreams to be true and false. Prior to this theory, dreams were considered as messages from Jesus, communicated by Hypnos, the god of sleep. Such dream analysis often resulted in unnecessary wars like the battle of Thermopylae where Xerxes 480 BCE attacked Athens basis his dream.

Heraclitus (450-375 BC) was the first to give a rational approach to dreams. He felt dreams were not an influence of the outside world or gods rather simple personal experiences had less significance than anything that happens while in waking consciousness.

Hippocrates (460-377BC) the father of medicines used the symbolism of dreams to diagnose the patient’s state of health. He associated the microcosm of the human body with the microcosm of the universe. He states dreaming of flowing rivers indicates problems with the urinary system while dreaming of floods points out excess blood. Such dreams are referred to by Hippocrates as prodromal, from the Greek word prodromos, meaning “running before”.

However, it is Aristotle (384 to 322 BC) who comes closest to the modern ways of dreams research. Aristotle concludes from his observation of sleeping animals that it is not only humans who have dreams. He uses this as evidence to encounter any theory that dreams have any divine or cosmic pattern or that they have any particular significance. He also notes that subjective sensations must be highlighted since all external sensations are reduced or absent during sleep. Aristotle’s theories were outlined in three seminal works: On Dreams, On Sleep and Waking and Prophecy in Sleep.

Artemidorus (2 nd century), a soothsayer, laid down the first-ever dream dictionary Oncirocritica consisting of more than 3000 dream records basis his research all across Rome. Artemidorus gave a rational explanation by suggesting that dreams are entirely individual. He further classifies dreams into two broad classes: Insomnium, dreams about everyday things, and somnium, which concerns the future.

Unlike other civilizations, which mostly attributed dreams to a divine agent, Indian Rishis considered dreams as a state of mind. According to legend 52 Rishis travelled to the Himalayas seeking guidance to help humanity. Their meditation resulted in the Vedas and the Upanishads.

The Atharvaveda and the Rigveda comprise many references to dreams, providing information on how they occur, what purpose they serve and how to interpret them. One such verse is 2.1.4, which states that a mortal perceives, both in a dream and in waking, by knowing that great all-pervading Ātman the wise man grieves no more.


स्वप्नान्तं जागरितान्तं चोभौ येनानुपश्यति ।

(svapnāntaṃ jāgaritāntaṃ cobhau yenānupaśyati ।)

महान्तं विभुमात्मानं मत्वा धीरो न शोचति ॥ ४ ॥

( mahāntaṃ vibhumātmānaṃ matvā dhīro na śocati ॥ 4 ॥)


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Similarly the Brahma sūtra, Katha Upaniṣad, Chāndogya Upaniṣad, Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, Praśna upaniṣad gives a vast insight on dreams. Moreover, several stanzas both in the Ṛgveda and in the Atharvaveda speak about an evil dream as a misfortune comparable with sin, disease, witchcraft and also speak about the expiration of an evil dream by performing rituals like lighting an incense stick before sleep.

It was not only the Vedas; even Buddhism has manuscripts which distinguished dreams in six different types: Ordinary dreams, day-residue dreams and terror dreams.

The Antarābhava or Bardo is an ancient Buddhist text written to help prepare the soul for death. It describes death as a dreamlike condition. When the soul leaves the physical body, it must pass through the Bardo, with three different illusory states. As we pass through each state, we face a multitude of self-created thought-forms which may be pleasant or fearful, according to our thoughts and expectations. By becoming aware at any time that what we are experiencing is an illusion, the soul is elevated to a higher plane and avoids the constant cycle of death and rebirth. Consequently, learning to remain conscious while sleeping, being aware that we are dreaming while still in the dream, is seen by Buddhists as a vital part of spiritual preparations for death. Today this is eferred to as lucid dreaming.

Dream research went through major changes in the 19 th century. It was bserved that dreams were influenced by external stimuli such as noise and smells. A huge milestone was after EEG (Electroencephalogram) instruments were developed to establish how the brain works. In 1950 Kleitman and Aserinsky made a breakthrough in sleep research using EEGs. It was understood that the brain undergoes periods of intense activity during sleep, demolishing the concept that the brain rests when we sleep.

William Dement developed the concept of REM (Rapid eye movement). REM occurs after periods of slow-wave or deep sleep, at regular intervals during sleep. REM, in common terms, means movement of eyes behind the closed eyelids. It was concluded that dreams are experienced during REM.

REM sleep falls into two types:

The phasic component, which occurs later in the sleeping period, is usually characterised by jerky eye movements, spasmodic limbs, facial twitching, and sudden breathing changes. They are strongly visual, active and real and associated with nightmares.

The tonic component is accompanied by muscle relaxation and sometimes sexual arousal. Tonic REM is earlier in the sleeping cycle. It is calm and restful and is more passive in nature.

Dream research has undergone major development since then. In 1960 some researchers concluded that the brain is somewhat like computers. It goes offline to format acquired data by the process of dreaming and discard redundant information. In 1980 Crick and Mitchison called this process reverse learning. They concluded that dreams are like a rubbish bin of the mind and have no meaning particular meaning.

The research in dreams has developed over a period of time, resulting in The eradication of superstition to a great extent. However, to me, dreams are a constant source of inspiration in story ideas. I leave it here as I refill my teapot with some freshly brewed Makaibari first flush.

References :
1. The Assyrians: The History of the Most Prominent Empire of the Ancient Near East The Assyrians by Charles River Editors
2. Ancient Greece by Eric Brown
3. Oncirocritica by Daldianus Artemidorus
4. Complete set of Puranas by various authors
5. The Dictionary of Dreams by Richard Craze
6. The Oracle of the night by Sidarta Riberio
7. Why we dream by Alice Robb
8. The interpretation of dreams by Sigmund Freud
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