Theories of dreaming WJEC PY4

Theories of dreaming made for WJEC board psychology unit 4



 Dreams usually occur in REM (Rapid eye movement) sleep and usually appear four to five times per night. It has been suggested by Strauch and Meier 1996 that some dreams occur in non-REM. However, they may seem vague. The dreams that are remembered are usually those that are close to the stages of waking up.

Everybody dreams. Dreams can vary in realism, information, colour and emotion.  External factors can also affect dreams even though the brain does not respond to sensory input. Dement and Wolpert 1958 done an experiment where cold water was prayed on to the faces of sleepers. They found that they were more likely to dream about water than those that were not sprayed. Bokert 1970 adds that pre-sleep events can interfere with dreams such as thirst can trigger dreams for water.

Hall 1984 explains that there may be differences in the contents of dreams for men and women. Men tend to dream about more outdoor events and have more aggressive contents than women. Women however, dream more indoor events and have been found that only 1/30 dream sexual content, whereas men 1/10. 

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AO1 studies

Freud provided one of the earliest attempts to understand dreams.  He suggested dreams are a ‘psychic safety valve’. They serve the main purpose of hiding unacceptable thoughts from consciousness that would be damaging to the person. During sleep, the wishes and impulses are freed as dreams.

This explains why not many dreams are remembered, however, for the dreams that are remembered, they may appear in a metaphorical way. This is known as the Manifest content of the dream, which will be what the dreamer reports.

The actual meaning of the dream is called the Latent content. The reason for the meaning to be hidden is for the dreamer’s benefit of not knowing their own damaging wishes. By remembering a dream, the person has the chance to understand their unconscious by converting the Manifest content in to the Latent content. Freud has suggested a few symbols and their general meaning. For example, neckties, weapons and trees all mean male genital organs. The weapon may be a gun and that may be included in a dream by using it to rob someone. This is therefore meant to symbolise the wish to be sexually dominant. If the person was being robbed, it means that they want to be sexually dominated. 

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Freud and AO2

Collee (1993) explains how metaphors can be ambiguous and allow manipulation in order to make sense of them. What a symbol may mean to one person may mean another to someone else. In Freud’s situation, he thinks a door represents female genitals. Another psychologist may incorporate a door as opportunity. Griffen 1998 objected to the fact that dreams are metaphors and think that a person thinking about impotence is just as likely to dream about it.

Freud has been criticised by both Foulkes 1971 and Cohen 1973 with dreams that make sense as it may perhaps have occurred during the day. For example, a stressful problem in the day appeared in the dream and there was no protective imagery. There is also very little empirical evidence to the suggested symbols and their relation to people’s dreams. Hall 1966 and other psychologists feel that dreams have association to the waking mind, so it is inaccurate to suggest that dreams are there to release unconscious thoughts.

As Freud’s interpretation of dreams was put forward in the 1900, it may be unreliable to apply it to this present day.

Other psychological theories of dreaming have concentrated on different and more obvious aspects of dream content. For example, The Problem Solving Theory.

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Problem solving

The problem solving theory suggests basically that when you are asleep you dream, and these dreams may help you solve waking problems that you may have. Examples of this are the inventor of the automatic sewing machine who had a problem with the hole in the needle. One night he had a dream and from it became inspired and so moved the hole to the bottom of the needle enabling it to work and solving his problem. It dates back to time such as the Greeks and the Ancient Egyptians who thought solving gave many answers and people still use it now.  A more modern psychological approach to the same idea has been presented by Webb and Cartwright (1978). 

It shares a number of elements with Freud’s wish fulfilment theory in suggesting that dreams are a way of coping with problems. Research evidence supporting this theory comes from Hartmann (1973) who found that people who were experiencing problems had more REM sleep than less troubled individuals. Webb and Cartwright (1978) also found that people who had limited REM sleep were less likely to be able to provide realistic solutions to their problems.

Problems with this theory are that you cannot 100% prove it to be true because it may just be a coincidence and we do not always solve problems in our dreams. Another is that we only remember on average 5% of our dreams so are the other 95% solving problems but we don’t remember them. It isn’t likely and even if it were the surely we would remember them in order to solve our problem. 

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Theories of dreaming WJEC PY4

Problems with this theory are that you cannot 100% prove it to be true because it may just be a coincidence and we do not always solve problems in our dreams.

Another is that we only remember on average 5% of our dreams so are the other 95% solving problems but we don’t remember them. It isn’t likely and even if it were the surely we would remember them in order to solve our problem.

It also, in common with Freud’s explanations of dreaming cannot explain why none human animals dream. A positive point is it is one of the oldest theories (Greeks, Egyptians) and is still believed by many you be true so it must have at least a small amount of truth to it and it certainly has some face validity and mundane realism to it.

Other theories of dreaming have come from the biological school of psychology. There are two main theories.  The Activation –Synthesis Theory and the Reverse Learning theory. Neurobiological theories of dreaming focus on the brain and the nervous system. 

Crick and Mitcheson (1983) suggested dreams occur when the brain is “offline” and can get rid of useless information that is taking up valuable space Unwanted elements are destroyed and the subjective element of dreaming is a kind of “ read out” of the search and destroy activity.

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Theories of dreaming WJEC PY4

Crick and Mitcheson pointed to the fact that animals that do not have REM sleep usually have very large cortices (such as Dolphins). Possibly their large cortices mean they can function effectively without unlearning. Alternatively Winson has suggested the large cortex enables them to conduct unlearning whilst awake and removes the need for REM activity. 

Christopher Evans (1984) advanced a similar theory. He suggested that the brain needs a time when it can be removed from sensory input, as it is in REM sleep, in order to assimilate the information already received and update what has already been stored, throwing away any data that is not required. In short, dreams serve as a time for mental housekeeping.

This theory does explain why we rarely recall our dreams but it does not explain why some dreams are significant (we would be less likely to be unlearning significant connections).Modern connectionist ideas suggest we have vast potential for storage of information and so such a process as unlearning is not needed.

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Theories of dreaming WJEC PY4

The activation synthesis theory which is one of the theories put forward by Hobson and Mcarley (1977 and 1998) said sleep is controlled by mechanism in the brainstem. When activated this inhibits activity in the skeletal muscles and increases activity in the forebrain. This theory seems dreaming as an automatic part of the sleep process that may have no significance beyond the need to organize the material into coherent forms. Hobson points out that injection of a drug that increases the action of acetylcholine both increases REM sleep and dreaming.

There is a research evidence to support the activation synthesis theory. Research was taken on cats where there is apparently random firing of cells in cat’s brains during REM sleep. This then therefore produces activation in parts of the brain that are used as visual perception and the control of the motor movements and may be synthesised into a dream.

Hobson also showed evidence of how internally generated signals can be misinterpreted as external signals. He said that the cortical levels of the neurotransmitters are lower during REM sleep than during NREM sleep and when we are awake. 

However one criticism of this theory is that the supporting research which was done for this was in a laboratory where participants slept and this however differs significantly from sleep in more natural settings.

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Theories of dreaming WJEC PY4

This theory is in good in explaining why smells and taste rarely or never appear in our dreams because only those parts in vision and hearing are activated. This theory also accounts for why we often find our dreams hard to understand as it stated that dreams are not functioning effectively and due to random activity.

However this theory does not provide a convincing argument of the fact that some dreams possess clear meaning and coherence. This theory has little value in explaining why some times dreams are repetitive. No one theory seems to be able to provide a suitable explanation of dreaming. Most concentrate on one aspect of the process and it may be that more than one purpose exists for dreaming.

The four theories considered in this paper are by no means all the theories that have been advanced and all are based more on conjecture than research. Webb and Cartwright (1978) point out that none of the theories has been adequately tested but the fact that dreaming is such a subjective experience makes it difficult to test these theories empirically. It’s also worth noting a comment made by Collee (1993) and picked up by McIlveen and Gross (1996) we should be wary of making the assumption that everything we do has a purpose. Dreams may indeed have a host of functions or done at all. Dreams ‘might just be a films your brain plays to entertain itself while it is sleeping; Collee (1993

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Aarti Patel


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