Site icon S Y N A P S I S

The Elusive Nature of Dreams: Shifting Research Trends

Amala Poli // Dreams continue to be sources of mystery and fascination, eluding universal explanations, blurring reality and fiction and mixing the two in curious ways. We are closer now than we have ever been before to having comprehensive explanations of all sleep-related phenomena, ontological and phenomenological accounts that are backed by neuroscientific sleep research. Yet, the problems posed by the narrative quality of dreams resist some universal explanation, which is the promise of current trends in neuroscientific research. This article will explore some recent work on sleep and dreams.

Eminent scientist and professor of psychology and neuroscience, Matthew Walker, recently published ground-breaking work on the question of sleep’s necessity, titled Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams (2017). This book summarizes much of the recent neuroscientific work on sleep and dreaming, punctuating research findings with creative and critical insights. If we arrive at a point where scientists “have the clear ability to decode and visualize dreams” (Walker 198) as Walker’s summary of recent projects states, then the implications for authorship of dreaming and the narrative possibilities of dream interpretation are immense.

Freud’s theory of dream interpretation influenced studies on dreaming since the 1900s. The biggest criticism leveled against his work takes issues with his methodology, which is unverifiable. However, methodology has been the biggest challenge for scientists in studying dreams, as the dream report is always subjective and is reliant on the dreamer. Psychiatrist Soudabeh Givrad reviews the theoretical and scientific work on dreams, and how psychoanalysis and behaviorism were the two dominant influences in this field of research starting from the twentieth century. The reason why large sample-size studies never took place in the twentieth century can be attributed to these two movements, as “Psychoanalytic perspectives put a higher emphasis on the meaning and significance of dreams and what they represented in each individual’s life, whereas behaviorism questioned the existence of such mental experiences as dreams” (Givrad 200). This split in an agreement about methodology informs the current state of new interest in dreams and sleep that is informed by correlations from psychiatric studies.

After Freud’s theory that dreams provide insights into our subconscious desires and play the role of wish-fulfilment, the significant discoveries were in relation to REM sleep in 1953 by Kleitman and Aserinsky (Givrad 200). Different relations were posited between REM sleep and dreaming, followed by new postulations about dreams and their functions in “modulating mood and emotions” (Givrad 201). Memory related hypotheses mainly centered around dreams and their role in consolidating memory, problem-solving, and memory reactivation. Several developmentally oriented theories of dreaming also exist, such as the role of dreaming in cognitive stimulation and creativity. An interesting theory called AND or the affective network dysfunction theory suggests that dreams play a role in the extinction of fear memories (Givrad 202). This theory attempts to understand nightmares and other negative sleep phenomena. The 1990s were marked by the turn to neuroimaging techniques to study and map brain activity, which then were paired with subjective dream-reports to draw conclusions about the brain centers involved in certain forms of dream activity and activation.

One of the experiments that addresses questions about the form and content of dreams was conducted by Dr. Yukiyasu Kamitani and his team in 2013. The experiment consisted of three individuals who had consented to having their dreams monitored through an MRI scanner, which gathered numerous reports or snapshots of brain activity in REM sleep from each of the participants (Walker 196-197). Twenty core content categories were identified in the dream reports, such that the rough content of the dream could be identified from these distilled image patterns, in a way that, “Using the template data from the MRI images, they could tell if you were dreaming of a man or a woman, a dog or a bed, flowers or a knife” (Walker 197). These scientists were essentially decoding dreams before the participants could tell them what they were dreaming about themselves, based on the hundreds of reports that they had obtained through MRI scans. Having moved from the question of form, as to whether the dream could be determined as emotional, sensorial, or kinetic, to the question of content categories, these scientists had “essentially cracked the code of an individual’s dream for the very first time and, in doing so, led us to an ethically uncomfortable place” (Walker 197). Walker’s comments and his description of the study are smattered with these expressions of wonder and occasional discomfort, in imagining the implications of this research study for the future of dream interpretation.

Walker discusses the positive implications of this research for PTSD patients, if we arrive at a greater knowledge of the construction of dream mechanisms and the neural pathways involved in disrupting a good night’s sleep. The questions he raises in this context are in relation to what it means to hold a dreamer responsible for their dreams (Walker 197), if we arrive at such a place in the near future. The likelihood of this seems quite high, as distilling dream content in a manner that image sequences can even be roughly predicted has huge implications. Walker asks, “Is it fair to judge what it is they are dreaming, since they were not the conscious architect of their dream? But if they were not, then who is? It is a perplexing and uncomfortable issue to face” (197). This certainly is true for all fields of study that are remotely interested in the ethics of ownership and attributions of responsibility, as in most situations, we do not control our dreams. If the architect of the dream is the unconscious mind, and the scientific enterprise is close to determining what we dream about, then who must take the responsibility of the dream as meaningful or significant content. Some of the irony here emerges from a lack of consensus about the exact significance of dreams. If they are not clues to the life of the everyday or the psyche as posited by psychoanalysis, then what are they? Cognitive research and neuroscientific sleep studies are presently occupied with determining where dreams come from. Further, will the research reach a place where the narrative of a dream is accessible as well? Even if the content of dream is distilled to stock categories and made accessible through MRI scans, it can be argued that the actual narrative of a dream functions as the deferring, obscuring, and elusive text that psychoanalysis imagined it to be.

Walker’s concerns with neuroscience’s ability to “crack the code of an individual’s dream” (197), and how this has led us to an ethically uncomfortable place is a concern that merits attention. Walker mentions the possibility that in the near future, we might be at a juncture “where we can accurately “read out” and thus take ownership of a process that few people have volitional control over—the dream” (199). Beyond the literal accountability of dreaming and its contents or even the problems this would pose for mapping truth in accounts of convicted prisoners or the ethical quandaries of powerful organizations using these methods to extract information, the fact that the narrative of a dream is still an elusive property that belongs only to the dreamer is perhaps beneficial. It invites dream research to take note of the narrative as a form of knowledge in itself, which includes the self-narration and the account of the dreamer with their emphasis on what is important and what is irrelevant. The primacy of the teller was taken into account by Freud, but in ways that suggested it required manipulation and assessment by an external interpreter, i.e., the analyst.    

The primacy of the teller has been reclaimed in fields of study and practice such as disability studies, and perhaps the experiential narrative of the dream can be supplemented with a similar approach, by giving the subjective account primacy and generating categories or themes with the first-person account as the starting point. Though the focus of scientific research is geared towards understanding the neural underpinnings of dream activity, perhaps the usefulness of dream-reports needs to be approached from a different direction. Narrative approaches of consolidating dream-reports to map recurring patterns in cultural contexts, symbolic repetitions, and thematic analysis can be useful in understanding dreams within their multiple contexts. As with literary studies, a multiplicity of methods could be beneficial in furthering our understanding of dreams within specific locations and varied cultural and social contexts.

The modern preoccupations of longer working hours and an increased drive and desire for productivity at all costs has changed the quality and duration of our sleep. The wondrous ability to dream is tied to having sufficient sleep, which in turn has relational and real ties with the environment and the conditions of life external to the body. Dream studies can perhaps map how thematic shifts may draw attention to our current preoccupations and anxieties about the precarity of our relationship to our environment.


Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Ed. & trans. by James Strachey, 8th ed., John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1961.

Givrad, Soudabeh. “Dream Theory and Science: A Review.” Psychoanalytic Inquiry, vol. 36, no. 3, 2016, pp. 199–213., doi:10.1080/07351690.2016.1145967.

Kramer, Milton. “Does Dream Interpretation Have Any Limits? An Evaluation of Interpretations of the Dream of ‘Irma’s Injection.’” Dreaming, vol. 10, no. 3, 2000, pp. 161–178., doi:10.1023/a:1009486324024.

Selterman, Dylan. “What can we learn from our dreams?” TEDxUMD, Tedx Talks, June 2014,

Walker, Matthew P. Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams. Penguin Books, 2018.





Exit mobile version