Theories of Dreams

The dreamscape has been a source of fascination throughout all of human history. Dreams have offered relentless inspiration for artists and writers, providing the fuel for breathtaking work. Just as the art world has found greater meaning in our dreams, so has the study of psychology. 

Theories of Dreams Theories of Dreams

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Table of contents

    Let's take a closer look at the science and interpretation of dreams.

    • What are theories of dreams?
    • What is the cognitive theory of dreams?
    • What is the neurocognitive theory of dreams?
    • What was Freud's theory of dreams?

    Theory of Dreams child sleeping StudySmarterChild sleeping, pixabay.com

    Definition of Theory of Dreams

    Many times, our dreams seem logical enough, full of events that apply to our daily life. Teachers dream of events in their classrooms. Singers dream of events surrounding a performance, and servers clock into shifts while still asleep. There are also times when our dreams seem utterly bizarre. Sometimes our dreams leave us waking up in a terrified sweat.

    Dream theories attempt to account for the content of our dreams and how they shed light on our deeper psychological states. They seek to uncover the function of our dreams. What meaning or significance are our dreams tied to?

    What Do Dreams Tell Us About Consciousness?

    Some theories of dreams posit that dreaming offers us a deeper glimpse into our consciousness. These theories propose that they are representations of deeper parts of ourselves we are not consciously aware of. By analyzing our dreams we will better understand what we feel, and why we do the things we do in our daily life.

    Other theories, like the neurocognitive theory, propose that our consciousness informs our dreams. Our experiences in the world create a framework for the dreaming stage, where we find themes and events similar to what we experience in waking life.

    Dream Theories in Psychology

    There are many theories on dreaming in psychology.

    Information Processing

    As the name suggests, this theory holds that dreams help us to process memories, ultimately storing or expunging them.

    Physiological Function

    This theory looks at dreams in a more utilitarian way. The physiological function theory believes that dreams are a means of keeping our neural pathways stimulated and preserved while we sleep.

    Activation Synthesis

    This theory promotes the notion that dreams are the brain’s way of making sense of the neural activity that is produced as a consequence of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

    Cognitive Theory of Dreams

    The cognitive theory of dreams was developed by the American psychologist Calvin Hall, in the 1950s. He believed there was a certain continuity between our waking lives and the contents of our dreams. Hall didn't see dream events as shrouded in hidden meaning, as Freud did. Dreams, in Hall's reckoning, were conceptualizations of the experiences we have as we go about in the world. They were representations of our worldly beliefs.

    Of all of these concepts, Hall focused on five.

    Concepts of the Self

    The different identities we associate with, and the various roles we fill in our dreams, represent our concept of self.

    Concepts of Others

    The nature of our interactions with people in our dreams, and the feelings we have for them, represent our concept of the people in our lives.

    Concepts of the World

    The manner in which we describe the environment of our dreams, the setting, and landscape, represents our concept of the world.

    Concepts of Morality

    Our reaction and interpretation of behavior in our dreams represent our waking morality. It gives light to what we consider taboo, forbidden, or virtuous.

    Concepts of Conflicts

    Conflicts in our dreams are a portrayal of the same themes and struggles in our waking life.

    Neurocognitive Theory of Dreams

    The neurocognitive theory of dreams was founded by William Domhoff. As a student of Calvin Hall, he was largely informed by cognitive theory. Domhoff's theory posits that dreaming takes place along a specific neural network, and that the content of our dreams is informed by the content of our lives.

    The neurocognitive theory is informed by three important factors.

    Neural substrates

    This theory utilizes information found through neuroimaging. Through this, Domhoff found that the area of the brain that supports dreaming is tied to the imagination in our waking life.

    Dreaming in Children

    Domhoff discovered a developmental component to dreaming. He found that our dreams grow in complexity and frequency as we progress through childhood.

    Dream Content in Adults

    Thanks to the work of his teacher Calvin Hall, Domhoff had access to a system of comprehensive, categorical dream content analysis. Because of this, he was able to find thematic and cultural similarities and differences in adult dreaming.

    Different Theories of Dreams

    Over the years, several models of dream theory have emerged. Chances are you’ve heard of at least one of them.

    Freud's Psychodynamic Theory of Dreams

    The Austrian scholar Sigmund Freud believed that our dreams offered us a window into understanding our inner desires and contentions. He believed our dreams were a safe place for our conflicting, and often unacceptable, desires to find expression.

    According to Freud, the content of our dreams can be divided into two categories: manifest and latent content. Manifest content is the remembered events of a dream. Perhaps we slumber and dream of going to class and interacting with our teachers and friends. We remember the color of our clothes or the contents of a lecture. We remember the conflict, if there is any. We remember the rough sequence of events.

    Latent content is the essential meaning beneath the things and events that take place in our dreams. It is an expression of our unconscious drives and wishes that are often taboo or erotic in nature. A knife might be part of the manifest content of a dream. However, according to Freud, the latent content might interpret the knife as a phallic symbol. Perhaps we dream about skipping school, but the underlying meaning gives voice to our desire to escape the confines of our life or relationships.

    Freud's theory of dreams played a great role in the development of the school of psychology most associated with him, psychoanalysis.

    While we often like to muse on the significance of our dreams, Freud's theory has been criticized as being unscientific. Many argue that the elements and objects in our dreams could be interpreted in an infinite number of ways depending on the dreamer.

    Theories of Dreams - Key takeaways

    • Dream theories attempt to inform us of our deeper psychological states and shed light on the function of our dreams.
    • Important dream theories are Freud's interpretation of dreams, information processing, physiological function, activation-synthesis, cognitive, and neurocognitive theory.
    • Sigmund Freud's theory interprets dreams as a safe place for our conflicting or unacceptable desires to find expression.
    • The cognitive theory of dreams believes that dreams are conceptualizations of our experiences in life.
    • The neurocognitive theory revealed a neural network for dreams, and asserted that dreams were informed by our age and our waking lives.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Theories of Dreams

    What are the dream theories?

    The dream theories are Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, Information Processing, Activation Synthesis, Cognitive Theory, and Neurocognitive Theory. 

    What is Freud's theory of dreams?

    Freud believed our dreams were a safe place for our conflicting, and often unacceptable, desires to find expression. He believed our dreams were made up of manifest and latent content. 

    What is the cognitive theory of dreaming?

    Cognitive theory believes that dreams are representations of our worldly beliefs and are based on our concepts of self, others, the world, morality, and conflicts.

    What is the Neurocognitive theory of dreams?

    Neurocognitive theory believes that dreaming takes place along a specific neural network and is informed by dreaming in children, dream content in adults, and imaging along neural substrates. 

    What do dreams tell us about consciousness?

    Some dream theories posit that dreaming offers us a deeper glimpse into our consciousness. Other theories propose that our consciousness informs our dreams. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    This dream theory revealed a neural network for dreaming:

    We dream more as adults than we do as children. True or false? 

    Hall's cognitive theory of dreams thought of dreams as _________.

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