For thousands of years, people have wondered about dream interpretation and what these nightly visions might mean. Ancient societies used dreams to guide them and to help them make decisions. Dreams were thought to be a sign of divine guidance. They are even mentioned in the Bible.
Until about 300 BC, people attributed dreams to the spirit world and thought that dreams came from somewhere outside of themselves.
Then Aristotle and Plato, two Greek philosophers, decided that dreams were a natural phenomenon and hypothesized that dreaming was a safe way to "act out" unconscious desires.
Later, 19th and 20th century psychoanalysts expounded on this theory, but scientists still are uncertain why people dream.Generally, dreams occur during one of five stages of sleep known as REM sleep, which occurs about an hour and a half after falling asleep.
During this sleep stage, the sleeper's eyes move rapidly back and forth. Blood pressure and heart rate increase, and breathing becomes shallow. Dreams occur in this stage.
Scientists think that as people dream, the brain's learning and memory regions are stimulated and information is gathered and sorted during waking hours.
Traumatic events often have a tangible effect on people's dreams. For example, one study showed that following the tragic events of September 11, 2001, many people experienced dreams of fear and powerlessness. For this reasons, dreams are thought to be related to emotional arousal.
Some scientists question the value of dream interpretation. They have proposed that dreams are merely the result of random bursts of energy from nerve cells in the brain that happen when a person has entered the REM sleep stage.
If this is the case, these scientists say, dream images have no meaning. The images are merely the higher brain's efforts to make sense of random impulses from the lower brain.
Other scientists think dreams are a way for the brain to keep from being overloaded with information.
Dream interpretation has changed over the centuries and depends upon social traditions, cultural beliefs, and values not only of the dreamer but also of the person interpreting the dream.
Entire books about dreams and what they mean are readily available from online retailers, as well as on the shelves of bookstores. Often dream books are arranged with a reference index, offering clues to what specific topics, items or other information in a dream may mean.
For example, in Zolar's Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Dreams, buying chocolate indicates "a short period of major expenses followed by prosperity." The dreamer, however, might simply believe she was hungry for something sweet.
The meaning of dreams have long fascinated people and undoubtedly will continue to do so until scientists can definitively answer the question of why people dream what they dream. For more information on dreaming, please see the related articles listed below
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