“Such fantastic images give us great delight, and, since they are created by us, they undoubtedly have a symbolic relation to our lives and destinies.”
Dreams: An ancient puzzle
ONE bright morning, long ago in Greece, perhaps after pondering the meaning of a particularly vivid dream, the brilliant polymath Aristotle gave voice to a scientific challenge that has echoed down the ages: “We must inquire what dreams are, and from what cause sleepers sometimes dream, and sometimes not; or whether the truth is that sleepers always dream but do not always remember; and if this occurs, what its explanation is.” In the shade of sun-drenched olive trees at the Lyceum in Athens, where he and his brilliant band of thinkers used to meet, the father of natural sciences urged them to “obtain a scientific nature of dreaming and the manner in which it originates”.
Since those seminal times, 23 centuries have come and gone but, despite the best efforts of many of the world's greatest minds, no satisfactory explanation was found. The answer to the question of what dreams are for, and their evolutionary cause, remained tantalizingly out of reach – a baffling mystery. In the 20th century, one of the pioneers of modern scientific dream research, Dr David Foulkes, reminded our own scientific community of why the central issue raised by Aristotle was still so important. “Dreaming,” he wrote, “needs once again to be recognised as a problem so central to the study of the mind that its resolution can help to reveal the fundamental structures of human thought.” We are going to make the case that, since he wrote those words, the problem of what dreaming is, and why we evolved to dream, has at last been solved. And, as a result, a richer mental landscape is revealed to us, one that provides new opportunities to expand human understanding – not only for scientists but also for every curious individual. We can now view a scene quite different from what might have been expected by modern neuroscience and psychology, but one that is full of psychobiological explanatory power. This is the territory that Aristotle had the prescience to know was vital for us to explore and understand.
The breakthrough discovery of why we dream was made by Joe Griffin, one of the authors of this book, and offers a truly significant ‘organising idea’. All good scientists recognise that the devil is in the detail but that real understanding comes from the type of thinking that produces organising ideas that are big enough to make sense of that detail. An organising idea is always needed to shape our perception and our thinking. This is because we organise what we see through what we believe we know. Thus an organising idea determines where we look and will guide our research endeavours. A new organising idea is always bigger than earlier ideas because it has to explain the anomalies that previously caused confusion. All progress comes from this type of thinking, a fact that is in tune with the recent recognition that understanding human nature requires an open-minded, holistic approach – in this case, a recognition of the interdependence of the biological and the psychological. What is now commonly referred to as ‘mind-body’ research has developed rapidly in recent decades and has produced enormous advances in our knowledge of the relationship between the brain, immunity and disease, for example, as well as in psychology and behaviour.
Joe’s breakthrough occurred because accumulated research data about dreaming and new technologies to facilitate sleep research had made it possible. It is truly an organising idea, in that the discovery of why we dream could only be made by integrating the findings of many disciplines, and thinking deeply through the implications until new insight occurred.
In the 20th century, the theories that arose to explain why we dream were divided into two broad categories - psychological and biological. Psychological theories, mostly of the psychodynamic type (such as those of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, which we describe in the next chapter), held sway during the first half of the century until, in 1953, Eugene Aserinsky and Nathaniel Kleitman made a groundbreaking discovery. They identified a special brain arousal state, occurring periodically during sleep, that became known as ‘rapid eye movement’, or ‘REM’ sleep, because of the darting, swiveling action of the eyes during these times. REM sleep was found to have a close relationship with dreaming.' (Further research soon showed that, during REM sleep, breathing became more rapid, irregular, and shallow; heart rate increased; blood pressure rose; and genital engorgement occurred in both males and females.) All this gave a great boost to the search for biological explanations for dreaming.
However, for any theory to account for the full complexity of human dreaming, there was clearly a need to integrate its biological and psychological aspects, as psychologist Dr Liam Hudson foresaw when he wrote: “This evolutionary puzzle [dreaming and REM sleep] and the question of the brain's operating principles are tied together, as [scientists] correctly assume. What they do not entertain is the possibility of an altogether more sweeping synthesis, and at the same time more rigorous explanation, in which these biological considerations are gathered together with another more strictly psychological one: the question of the formal properties implicit in the meaning of dreams themselves. In such a synthesis ‘bottom up’ and ‘top down’ theorizing about the sleeping brain and its products would knit together, and the conceptual gap within psychology between mechanistic and interpretative modes of explanation would close ... Such a synthesis is as exciting a prospect as any psychology now offers, and eminently achievable - although at present it hovers in mid-distance, still out of reach.”
was the realisation that Hudson was right that prompted Joe to set off on a
research programme of his own (after reading all the available literature on
the subject that he could lay his hands on). It became his passion. But it took
12 years before the full fruits of his work were realised. Since his theory was
published as The Origin of Dreams? an [out of print] academic monograph in book
form, no scientist has disproved it and even more evidence has emerged to
support it. (In 2004 that monograph was superseded by Dreaming Reality.)
When Joe first published his answer to Aristotle's challenge, he had no idea of the wider significance of his findings. However, as a result of ongoing work over the ensuing years, remarkable new connections have emerged. For example, the relationships between dreaming and how we learn, dreaming and daydreaming, dreaming and creativity, and dreaming and problem solving, have made an important practical difference to the work of educationalists, whose attention has been drawn in increasing numbers. Many psychologists have realised that Joe’s insight provides a unified theory of hypnosis and a new way to think about the nature of consciousness. Furthermore, the relationship between dreaming and emotional distress, depression, anger, addiction, anxiety and psychosis – has had such a direct bearing on psychological treatment that it has produced a new school of scientifically grounded, effective psychotherapy known as the human givens approach. This has had a powerful impact on thousands of lives in the UK, Ireland and beyond.
From the speed with which practical
applications have arisen from this discovery about why we dream, it is clear
that the synthesis Hudson looked forward to is no longer “hovering in
mid-distance”; it has been made.