Sigmund Freud claimed that they reveal our innermost desires, Gabrielle never stopped insisting that they can come true, and Inception piled on so many layers of them that by the end of the film things were all getting a bit silly.
Whether we like it or not, we all have dreams once we enter the Land of Nod. Dreams have the power to inspire us, frighten us, and make us vow never again to scoff Cheddar before bedtime. In the 2006 film, The Science of Sleep, Stéphane gave his own cutely original explanation of what goes on in our heads when we dream…
There is, believe it or not, a branch of science dedicated purely to dreaming: oneirology. It turns out that understanding how and why we dream is a preoccupation of experts in neuroscience, psychology, anthropology, and a lot more -ologies besides.
During childhood, many people have particularly vivid dreams – sometimes recurrent – that leave a lasting impression. These early reveries can help scientists to understand why we dream, as well as revealing more about the development of human consciousness.
Childhood dreams were of great interest to the two big guns of dream psychology, Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939) and Carl Jung (1875 – 1961). Freud believed that they provide evidence for his ‘wish fulfillment’ theory, where dreams are our unconscious attempts to satisfy impulses and needs.
On the other hand, Jung believed that childhood dreams are related to the ‘collective unconscious’, a universal consciousness that has no relation to personal experiences, but is a kind of repository of worldly knowledge. For Jung, then, childhood dreams are often highly significant, with intense imagery and connections to religious and mythological themes.
A few years ago, Dr. Kelly Bulkeley, a self-confessed dream nerd, led a study into childhood reveries, asking eighty-five adults in a rural area of northeast America to recall the very first dream that they remember having.
After separating the dreams into categories (e.g. ‘mystical’, ‘family’, ‘threatening’, ‘wish fulfillment’), the overwhelming picture was that of a very unhappy slumberland: three-quarters of the dreams were nightmares, with the most common theme being threats from creatures such as the Bogeyman, Frankenstein’s monster, ghosts, and a mysterious wolf:
“I had a dream about a wolf standing on the edge of my bed with his forepaws on the brown metal frame. He was just looking at me. He made a noise similar to a low growl but it was not menacing. He climbed onto the bed. I woke up, frightened in real life.” (Dream 11, from an 11-year-old girl).
Other common nightmarish themes included threats to family members and the feeling of being lost in a strange, abstract environment, as in Dream 18 from a 5-year-old boy:
“I am in the fields, like the poppy fields in The Wizard of Oz. It is light out. I hear booms from a cannon or something. I do not recall anyone else being there but I remember being alone in the field. That was the scary part…the aloneness.”
Happily, a quarter of the dreams were lighter in tone. These included fantasies about wish fulfillment and spiritual beings, as well as lucid sensations of flying.
So do these childhood dreams agree with the theories of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud? Well, yes and no, according to Bulkeley and friends. Although there were some ‘wish fulfillment’ dreams, Freud’s theory cannot account for the full range of dream imagery: “children’s imaginations are capable of more complex thought and creative expression than Freud gave them credit for”.
Jung fares better: his assertion that childhood dreams are intensely memorable ‘big dreams’ is backed up by the vivid accounts of the participants. Several dreams also contained religious elements, such as appearances by Jesus and Mary. However, the weakness in Jung’s theory is that it is rather ambiguous and cannot really be disconfirmed.
The large number of threatening situations in these dreams may also support the theory of another psychologist, Antti Revonsuo, who believes that the primary function of nightmares is to prepare us for threats in the real world. He would argue that we are more likely to experience these nightmares at an early age, when we feel more of a primal threat from the world around us.
Heavy stuff, maybe, but the authors of this study finish with some words of reassurance for parents with young kids: nightmares are a natural part of child development, and discussing them can even help to turn the nightmares around. They give an example of a girl who turned a threatening octopus in one dream into a friendly, huggable octopus in a later dream. Awww.
Right, on that note, I’m off to bed for some quality dreams about affable molluscs…
Bulkeley, K., Broughton, B., Sanchez, A., & Stiller, J. (2005). Earliest Remembered Dreams. Dreaming, 15 (3), 205-222 DOI: 10.1037/1053-07188.8.131.52