Dreams: Scientists Begin to Wake Up

Article excerpt

DO YOU DREAM of swimming? You must have been a bedwetter. Dreaming of falling? If you're a woman, that means you're surrendering to erotic temptation. If you dream of a person dying, that means you secretly wish - or have wished - for that person to die. A woman who dreams of having a tooth pulled is going to have a baby.

If this symbolism seems farfetched to those who dream every night - and that is all of us, whether we remember it or not - that's because, according to modern-day dream doctors, those theories are utterly false.

But to the psychologists and philosophers of the late 1800s and early 1900s, those explanations, by both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, were logical.

Since human life began, we have dreamed and tried to figure out what our dreams mean. Books on dreams often include the obligatory "book of dream symbols" that will tell you a snake is always a penis, water is a spirit or a cat symbolizes death. That simply offers easy - but false - answers to a very complex subject, according to psychologist Robert van de Castle.

"If you dream of unzipping your pants and a snake crawls out, chances are you're thinking of a penis. Otherwise, you're probably not," says Van de Castle. "You could also be dreaming of a snake as a symbol for a person who has the qualities of a snake; you could be dreaming of a python who is strangling you; or a snake meaning a person with a forked tongue who is gossiping about you. Every object in a dream has a unique meaning to the person having the dream."

Van de Castle, director emeritus of the Sleep and Dream Laboratory at the University of Virginia Medical School, has devoted more than 30 years to the study of dreams and what they mean. He and his few colleagues in dream research say that much of what we've been led to believe about dreams is false.

For example, what we eat doesn't affect our dreams. "People might say, `If you eat pickles, you'll have nightmares,' " says Rosalind Cartwright, director of the Sleep Disorder Service, or dream clinic, at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago. "You might have a stomach ache, but it won't be the cause of a nightmare."

Like Van de Castle, Cartwright has studied dreaming since the '60s, using a sleep lab where volunteers are hooked up to machines that chart their brain waves during the rapid eye movement stages, when dreams take place. After a dream, the subject is awakened and asked to discuss the dream, before returning to sleep and the next of an average of five nightly dreams.

Although dream clinicians are few, there are a flourishing number of psychotherapists who work dream therapists, not so much doing research on dreams but as helping people to understand their dreams.

"Therapy is opening people's minds up to ways of learning more about themselves. In that pursuit, they want to learn about their dreams," explains Gayle Delaney, the founding president for the Association for the Study of Dreams and director of the Delaney and Flowers Center for the Study of Dreams in San Francisco.

"As well, TV has helped promote dreaming and dream books to the public. I sold 30,000 copies of (my book) `Breakthrough Dreaming' after one appearance on `Oprah.' People see the book or see the show and it gives them the excuse they've always wanted to study their dreams. It's a tidal wave waiting to break."

Indeed, the public does seem more interested in dreaming than ever. Delaney's fifth book on dreaming, "Sexual Dreams: Why We Have Them and What They Mean," (Fawcett Columbine) was released in March and in June, Van de Castle published a comprehensive guide to the history of dream study, "Our Dreaming Mind" (Ballantine).

"The books have become more popular in the last few years because dreams are less parochialized now," Delaney notes. "We've taken dreaming out of the tiny schools of Jung and Freud and have shown people how dreams relate to their own lives. …