Woman stretching while sitting on Sleep Number bed (1170 x 600 px)

So did Shakespeare capture Hamlet’s utter psychological exhaustion, his yearning for relief for his tormented mind? Perchance to dream…but to dream of what? Could Hamlet conjure up dreams of his own choosing? Or would his dreams more likely be nightmares, tormenting him even in his sleep?


Freudian and Jungian theories of dreams

Freud famously stated, dreams are “the royal road to the unconscious”. Psychoanalysts still believe that dream contents are unconscious manifestations of subconscious mental turmoil and that the examination and understanding of that content can help dreamers rid themselves of inner conflicts.

Carl Jung, a student and later rival of Freud, believed that there is some kind of collective unconscious—a part of the unconscious—expressed in humanity and all life forms with nervous systems, and describes how the structure of the psyche autonomously organizes experience. Jung distinguished the collective unconscious from the personal unconscious, in that the personal unconscious is a personal reservoir of experience unique to each individual, while the collective unconscious collects and organizes those personal experiences in a similar way within each member of a particular species. An article in the July 27, 2010 of the NYT quotes Jane White-Lewis, a psychologist in Guilford, Conn., who has taught about dreams at the Carl Jung Institute in New York:

“Nightmares are important because they ‘bring up issues in bold print.'”

While Dr. White-Lewis acknowledged that she does not treat patients suffering from severe trauma, she said that if a nightmare is eliminated, “you lose an opportunity to really get some meaning out of it.” Reminds me of the admonition during my medical training not to alleviate pain because “it will mask the symptoms and make diagnosis more difficult”. Fortunately, we got past this nonsense in medicine. J. Allan Hobson, MD, a Harvard medical school psychiatrist who directs the Neurophysiology Laboratory of the Massachusetts Mental Health Center, summed up the scientific view of Freudian and Jungian dream interpretation: “What is at stake here is a theory of dreams that is scientifically valid. If psychoanalytic dream theory is not scientifically valid, then psychoanalytic dream interpretation is not scientifically valid. I believe it is not.”


Modern views of dreams

Into the fray jumped some real scientists, with varying degrees of reliance on data, but no dearth of theories.

In 1983, Nobel laureate Francis Crick (a molecular biologist) and his Salk Institute colleague Graeme Mitchison (an immunologist) argued in a Nature article (Crick F, Mitchison G. The function of dream sleep. Nature 304 (1983): 111-114. ) that the brain’s neural memory systems are easily overloaded and that humans experience dream-laden REM to eliminate cognitive debris. In other words, dreams are nothing more than a mechanism for the nervous system to clear the brain of unnecessary, even harmful memories.

Drs. Crick and Mitchison called their theory “reverse learning” and quipped in their 1983 Nature article that “We dream to forget.” In essence, they described dreams as garbage to be discarded from memory. In a later article in Behavioral Brain Research (Crick F, Mitchison G. REM sleep and neural nets. Behav Brain Res 69 (1995): 147-155.), Crick and Mitchison stated, “There is no evidence to suggest that remembered dreams are anything more than an accidental by-product of this (REM) function.” Furthermore, they directly attacked psychoanalytic theory by writing, “To a modern neuroscientist Freud’s theories, in spite of their appeal to the contemporary imagination, seem little better than the common belief in earlier times that dreams foretold the future, a belief which also held strong intuitive appeal.” Their views left little room for the idea that it is psychologically valuable to analyze dreams.

A welcome departure from the baseless psychoanalytic and Jungian theories, but where are the data? Unfortunately, little or none have been offered.


Finally, some real data!

Current research suggests that dreaming serves neither a discernible biological purpose nor do dreams result from random firing patterns. Rather, dreams are simply a form of “sleep thinking”, a good example of nerves firing on their own in the brain and creating their own signals within the brain. These firing patterns of the neurons are far from random; psychologist Bill Domhoff’s work in studies of sleep and dreaming would indicate a very organized network of brain structures that continue to function during sleep in very much the same way they function in our waking hours. The ability to dream in an organized, almost story-like progression arises from what psychologist Bill Domhoff calls a human “cognitive achievement”. As far as we know, animals do not dream, at least in the same storyline format that humans are able to create. Neither do very young human children; in lab settings, children under the age of 9 reported mostly static images or feelings whenever awakened during a REM dreaming episode. Older children seemed to develop the ability for story dreams, that is, a dynamic situation within the dream that reflected certain activities or emotions (Domhoff, G. W. A new neurocognitive theory of dreams. Dreaming, 11, 13-33 (2001).)

So, why do people want to believe in a greater meaning for our dreams? After all, no one believes that waking thoughts (daydreaming) are so unusual, no matter how off-the-wall any one fleeting thought may be. Why then, should dreams hold such a mystic quality if they are nothing more than a sleeping biological process? My guess is that the answer is not very different from people’s belief in religion and mysticism.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.


  1. If sleep-dreaming/sleep-thinking is no more significant than daydreaming, then it’s no less significant either, right? So in considering the utility of dream study, it should be just as valuable as examining, within a cognitive-behavioral framework, any other thoughts or patterns of thinking. I wouldn’t throw out the baby (thoughts/meaning) with the bathwater (mystical silliness).

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