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Dream Science


 Science studies dreams and dreaming from many angles.  Some research focuses on the bio-physiology of dreaming and sleep and what influences these processes, while other research looks into the content of dreams and what influences them.  Some scientists are interested in why we dream, other in how we dream, and still others on the functions that dreams serve. Some science equates REM sleep with dreaming and studies REM sleep in animals, infants and other groups not normally able to give dream reports.1 Some scientists study how damaged brains change and effect the way we dream. Others study our behavior in our dreams. 

Science does not really know why we dream, but there are many theories which each have their own supporters. The theories range from dreams being a meaningless left-over like the appendix to dreaming serving a critical role in the cyclical structure and maintenance of physical and psychological well being. 

Here are some of the more popular science theories on dreaming:

1. To restore our body and mind.
2. To help with learning and memory.
3. To keep the brain at the right level of awareness/rest during sleep.
4. To allow the mind to handle disturbances in the night without waking up.
5. To keep our sense of self and wholeness through sleep.
6. To allow ourselves some time to explore new and unusual areas of ourselves.
7. To resolve conflicts that occur during the day.
8. To contextualize emotions from waking.
9. To practice dealing with threats.

Researchers  also note that dreams do different things at different times in our life. During fetal development, dreams seem to be hard-wiring the brain, while later in life, they seem to be more involved with soft-wiring.

History of Dream Science

In early civilizations and still in many indigenous tribes, dreams were and are explored for the information they can reveal about the individual and the group. Classical Greeks developed very sophisticated techniques for using dreams to diagnose and cure illnesses. They developed a system of dream hospitals across the Mediterranean called Asklepion sanctuaries. 

In the 19th Century, there were many "Gentleman Researchers", aristocrats with an interest in the science of dreams. They explored how various influences, like sounds and smells, work through association to influence the content of dreams. 

In the 20th Century, dream science got a very large leap forward when in 1953 at the University of Chicago, Nathaniel Kleitman and his student Eugene Aserinsky discovered REM or Rapid Eye Movement sleep and opened up a half century of new research.  For more details on REM sleep, see the REM SLEEP PAGE.

Research on the biopsychology of dreaming has become quite complex. It is as complex as brain science in general. The early sleep laboratories that recorded general electric potentials in the brain are still used, and are now being complimented by sophisticated MRI and PET brain scans.  For more on this research online see:


Recommended Books on Dream Science

I don't think the "friendly" book on the science of dreaming has been written, though for classic studies I recommend   Van De Castle in his Our Dreaming Mind, Robert J Hoss Dream Language on dreams and Color has some very nice summaries, and a little more difficult, G W Domhoff's Scientifc Study of Dreaming.

If you are willing to take on a little more time and study, I have three suggestions.

1. Harry Hunt's (1989). The Multiplicity of Dreams. Yale University Press. This is on my TOP FIVE DREAM BOOKS list. Hunt's book is a little difficult at times as it is often a *reaction* to a lot of the dream science and theorizing that has taken place and he is inconsistent in who his audience is. Sometimes he carefully explains his thoughts and the experiments, while at other times he makes assumptions on the part of the reader that include having read a great deal of the literature on dreams and cognitive science theory. Still, it is at this time the best (intermediate) overall survey of dream science theory.

2. Moffitt, Kramer and Hoffmann (1993). The Functions of Dreaming. NY:SUNY press. For a little more detailed analysis of the literature, this is a really good book. Some areas are ignored or left out, but the ones covered are done so quite well.

3. Ellman, Steven J. & Antrobus, John S. (Eds). (1991). The Mind in Sleep: Psychology and Psychophysiology. 2nd edition. New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc. This is a little more advanced of a text, but covers a large range of topic in dreaming science and does so quite well. If there is a fault, it the dryness and objectivity offered. I often get the feeling when reading this that we don't really know anything about the science of dreams and all experiments up to the present have been very inadequate.

4. Mark Solms:  How dreams are NOT controlled by the REM Brain Stem activity


Bibliography and Citations

Aserinsky, E., & Kleitman, N. (1953). Regularly occurring periods of eye motility, and concomitant phenomena, during sleep. Science, 118(3026), 273-274.

Aserinsky, E., & Kleitman, N. (1955). Two types of ocular motility occurring in sleep. Journal of Applied Physiology, 8(1), 1-10.

Cohen, David B. (1979). Sleep and Dreaming: Origins, Nature and Functions. New York: Pergamon Press.

Crick, Francis & Mitchinson, Graeme (1983). The function of dream sleep. Nature, 304(14), July, 111-114.

Crick, Francis & Mitchinson, Graeme. (1986). REM sleep and neural nets. Journal of Mind and Behaviour, 7(2&3), 229-50.

Dement, William C. (1976). Some Must Watch While Some Must Sleep. San Francisco: San Francisco Book Co.

Ellman, Steven J. & Antrobus, John S. (Eds). (1991). The Mind in Sleep: Psychology and Psychophysiology. 2nd edition. New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

Fishbein, W. (Ed). (1981). Sleep, Dreams and Memory.(Chapters 7,8,9,11,12,13). New York: Spectrum.

Gackenbach, Jayne (Ed.), (1987). Sleep and Dreams: A Sourcebook. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc (original Pub 1986).

Globus, Gordon G. (1993). Connectionism and sleep. In A. Moffitt, M. Kramer, R. Hoffman (Eds.), The Functions of Dreaming. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

--------. (1991). Dream content: Random or meaningful? Dreaming, 1(1), 27-40.

--------. (1989). Connectionism and the dreaming mind. The Journal of Mind and Behavior, 10(2). 179-196.

Greenberg. R and Pearlman, Chester, Wynn, R Schwarts H Youkilis Grossman (1983). Memory, emotion and REM sleep. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 92: 378-81

Hartmann, Ernest (1998). Dreams and Nightmares: The New Theory on the Origin and Meaning of Dreams. New York, NY: Plenum.

Hunt, Harry T. (1989). The Multiplicity of Dreams: Memory, Imagination and Consciousness. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Karcan. I, Williams, R. Salis P. (1970). The effect of sexual intercourse on Sleep Patterns and Nocturnal Penile Erections. Psychophysiology 7 338.

Van De Castle, R. L. (1994). Our Dreaming Mind. New York: Ballantine Books.

Wilkerson, Richard Catlett (1996). The Science of Dreaming. San Francisco, CA : DreamGate Publications.

Williams, R.L.; Karacan, I,; and Hursch, C.J. (1974). Electroencephalography (EEG) of Human Sleep. New York: Wiley.


More Bibliography and references at the Electric Dreams Dream Bibs Online site,


Dream Anthropology

The Nineteenth Century brought about the rise of anthropology as a science and with it the first sanctioned examination of dreams in nearly two thousand years. Dreams were seen as providing the savage mind the raw material needed to construct religious ideas. But dreams were still only something important to 'primitives'. With the Freudian revolution restoring dreams as something concerning 'moderns', new forms of anthropological research emerged. However, this relegated dreams to the individual psyche and left them out of the analysis of social and cultural events except when transformed into myths. By the 1930's these assumptions were being challenged as researchers began analyzing the function of dreams in social interaction and the mutual influences of culture and dream. By the late 20th Century, dreaming had gained a foothold in anthropology as a field of study important unto itself and contributed not only to dream studies in Western & Non-Western Culture, but to a reexamination and experimental revision in the use of dreams in Western Culture.

In a way, dream anthropology represents in a microcosm a larger revolution taking place in our culture, a kind of neo-polytheism, or less theologically, an acceptance of different views that are of equal value but not necessarily interchangeable. As Tedlock & Hunt (1989) and others have noted about dream anthropology, there is a long history in the West of putting all primitive cultural practices into fewer and fewer categories, while they seem upon more study to call for ever more categories. As Dentan (1987) points out, there are not only great variations in dream beliefs across cultures, but diversity and even contradictory beliefs within one culture. A village may insist on the importance of dreaming, and yet reveal a common belief such as "Put no trust in a dream, day breaks, and where is it?" (p. 321)

Currently there is a revival of Dream Shamanism, techniques in visionary dreaming that are used for a wide variety of purposes and might be called neo-shamanism or urban-shamanism. Please see the dreamwork page for more on this topic.

Recommended readings: 

1. Barbara Tedlock (ed). (1981). Dreaming: Anthropological and Psychological Interpretations.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
This is definitely the #1 book in dreams and anthropology and includes the collection of papers taken from the seminal conference in Santa Fe. It is now (1992) out in Paper back, published by the School of American Research Press: Santa Fe, NM. and includes a wide collection of papers from the fields leading researchers in dreams and anthropology as well as one of the best overviews of the field.

2. G. E. Von Gruenebaum, and Roger Caillois (Ed.s), (1966). The Dream and Human Societies.
Berkeley: University of California Press.
From the 1962 French conference this collection includes such top researcher and theorists as Dorothy Eggan, Leo Oppenheim, William Dement, George Devereux, A. Irving Hallowell and Henry Corbin. It covers dreaming in other times, other cultures, other disciplines of study and should be read by all serious dreamwork students.

3. Carl W. O'Nell (1976). Dreams, Culture and the Individual. 
San Francisco: Chandler & Sharp Publishers, Inc.
A small but clear and concise overview of the role of culture on dreams and dreaming. O'Nell not only provides a survey of other people thoughts, but puts forth many of his own and suggests ways for researchers to use the dream in studying culture.

4. Géza Rňheim, (1979/1952) The Gates of the Dream. 
New York: International Universities Press, Inc.
Although this book is heavily focused on psychoanalytic arguments and jargon, it is still worth reading for the explorative depth and wide range of mythology and stories of not only the Native Australians but corresponding mythology at large. A testament to the book is the re-publication for over 50 years.

5. George Devereux (1951). Reality and Dream: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian. 
New York: International Universities Press.
This book should be read by any therapist doing work with a culture other than his or her own, but is also interesting to the layperson for story and examples of the many dreams and the cultural context of those dreams in the "Wolf" society. Though dated, I found it one of the best books in the therapy-dreams- anthropology genre.

6. Mary-Therese B. Dombeck (1991). Dreams and Professional Personhood: The Contexts of Dream Telling and Dream Interpretation Among American Psychotherapists. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
Turning the techniques of contemporary anthropology on the American psychotherapist, Dombeck explores the uses of dreams in psychotherapy and the reasons given for using them. Not only is the book an excellent text on the techniques of information gathering, but the analysis along lines of various Western concepts of self and personhood.

7. Spiritual Dreaming: A Cross-Cultural and Historical Journey. By Kelly Bulkeley, Ph.D.(1995, Paulist). 
Kelly Bulkeley's book is scholarly yet very approachable and usable. He takes dream reports from many indigenous people as well as from the religions of Asia, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and put them in thematic chapters on healing, rituals, prophecy, initialion, creativity, sexuality, death and many others. 


1. The equation of REM with dreaming is now under review by dream science. The shift from the Hobson REM-ON lower brain activation theories to the Solms Dream-on higher brain sites is slowly but surely taking place. REM brainstem activation of dreaming is still seen as a regular, powerful ignition key for dreaming, but is not necessary to it, according to Solms. Dreams can be "started" by many other things than REM and the system seems to be independent of the REM system in that way.

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