Wednesday, 3 June 2015

The Science of Dreams

Photo by Marcin Mycielski

If you have come here for a course in dream interpretation you will be disappointed.  I do believe dream interpretation is a valid and useful discipline, and I am sure I will write a blog on this some time, but that is not the purpose of this blog article.

I want to focus on the purpose of dreams.  Why do we have them?  What purpose do they serve?

Science now knows that dreams fulfil a very important purpose.  They are a way for your mind to experiment with many different scenarios in a no risk environment.  This goes right back to our primitive ancestry when we needed to find better ways to hunt for our food and at the same time to avoid becoming the food of our predators.  In a dream we could try out different techniques and see the likely effect of those techniques.  Our dream mechanism is very good at mimicking the environment we are testing and responding in ways that environment might respond in a real situation.  Our ancestors would test one set of techniques, recognize the weaknesses, and modify them to make them more effective and less risky.  All in the security of a dream world rather than the real world.

If you have a cat or dog you have probably noticed your pet dreaming.  Probably your cat is dreaming of chasing a bird or mouse, and your dog is dreaming of chasing a cat.  This is not simply play, or a memory of some "real" life experience, but your pet is testing different ways to chase its prey and seeing which ones are more effective.  This use of dreams as a kind of sandbox (to use a computer programming example) is not exclusively human but is common throughout the animal kingdom.

This continues to be the role of our dreams even today.  We face very different challenges from our ancestors, but can still use the same "sandbox" to test different responses to those challenges.  When we find what appears to be the best response, our subconscious notes this and then prompts us to use it in "real" life.  The challenges may, for example, be the best way to conduct a sales negotiation, or how best to convince our children to behave properly.  They may be how best to start that new business we have been considering starting over the past few months, how to convince that young lady or young man we fancy that they should go on a date with us, or how to achieve some other goal for which we have a burning desire.

Some notable scientific discoveries have arisen from this dream testing technique.  For example, the German organic chemist August Kekulé discovered the structure of benzene in a dream.  In that dream he saw a snake chasing its tail and suddenly realized the benzene molecule was ring shaped.  This might not seem an example of testing different structures in a dream, but I am quite sure that is what was actually happening below the surface.  All Kekulé remembered was the final answer, hidden within powerful imagery (which is often the way dreams give us the final answer to whatever we have been testing in them).  But there would have been plenty of other structures which he had tested in his dreams and which turned out not to be the correct answer.  As is very often the case with this very efficient system, the only dream he remembered was the one that gave him the right answer.

Is there any way we can use this knowledge of how dreams work in order to improve the system?  I believe there is.  Firstly, simply by being aware of it then it is more likely we will unconsciously send instructions into the dream world to test for what we really want to know or do.  Secondly, we can try to experience lucid dreaming, or being aware that we are dreaming, and then actively test out our concerns.

Linked very closely to the idea of lucid dreaming is the skill of astral travelling - experiencing something beyond the physical realm through out of body experiences.

The eminent American psychologist Dr Steve G Jones, who has extensively practised astral travel, has produced a fascinating 6 part free course on astral travel.  You can access it here:

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