In your dreams

Do you think of sleep as system-shut down? Well dream on, because a trip to snooze-town isn’t entirely lights-out. Diana Timmins reveals the nocturnal neural activities that create the stuff that dreams really are made of.

Want to hear about the dream I had last night? Or have you tuned out already? Listening to someone relay their dreams may seem quite mundane, but it might be worth a listen as dreams contain more insight into the dreamer than you may have thought. But be warned, set your dream dictionary aside, as there is certainly no one-size-fits-all in the land of nod!

Want to hear about the dream I had last night? Or have you tuned out already? Listening to someone relay their dreams may seem quite mundane, but it might be worth a listen as dreams contain more insight into the dreamer than you may have thought. But be warned, set your dream dictionary aside, as there is certainly no one-size-fits-all in the land of nod!

“To understand a dream, you have to understand the dreamer, which requires an appreciation and awareness of psychology, anthropology, mythology, cultural influences, identities, needs and beliefs,” says dream psychologist, Ian Wallace.

Such things determine the emphasis individuals place on psychological, physiological and spiritual elements of dreams, which is why no universally agreed definition of dreams exists.

While many eastern cultures consider the supernatural and spiritual essence of dreams, modern westerners often draw a clear line between the ‘real’ world they live and breathe and the ‘imaginary’ world they dream. But whether we realise it on a conscious level or not, our experience of the external world during wakefulness impacts on our internal dream world and vice-versa. Some recorded dreams throughout history have even provided eerily accurate predictions of the future, including the famous work of Nostradamus.

The notion of sleep was once swept under the doona as a state of physical and psychological inactivity, but the discovery of REM sleep in the 1950s proved that whoever dreamt this up was wrong. Research was carried out by connecting sleeping subjects to an electroencephalogram (EEG), electromyography (EMG) and electrooculography (EOG) to measure brain and muscle activity and eye movements throughout five stages of the sleep cycle:

  • Stage One (NREM): Lasting 10-12 minutes, stage one sees muscle tension, body temperature and heart rate decrease. The alpha brainwaves that dominated EEG activity prior to falling asleep now bow down to lower frequency EEG activity in which theta waves are prominent.
  • Stages Two, Three and Four (NREM): Stage two lasts 10–15 minutes and involves fleeting bursts of higher frequency brain waves called sleep spindles. Respiration, heart rate, muscle tension and body temperature continue to drop. EEG recordings indicate prominent high-amplitude and low-frequency delta brainwaves as the body moves towards a deeper state of sleep in stages three and four, called slow-wave sleep (SWS). This is where sleepwalking is most likely to occur.
  • Stage Five (REM): Funnily enough, rapid eye movement sleep (REM) is a lighter stage of sleep, but the pivotal point in our snooze cycle when things get really interesting as we experience through sight, sound, touch, taste and smell the vivid qualities of dreams. The brain experiences high-frequency beta waves, breathing and heart rate becomes irregular and muscle tone so relaxed the body almost becomes paralysed.

The sleep cycle is repeated roughly four times per night. REM stage becomes longer as the night wears on, peaking at around 40-60 minutes.

Attempting to find meaning in dreams may seem like making sense of nonsense. Many great dream analysts have presented varying theories on this process, but one of the most prevalent is Swiss Psychiatrist, Carl Gustav Jung. Jung began his journey as an avid student of Sigmund Freud, until an unresolved falling out eventually took place – primarily over the recurring sexual innuendos of Freud’s controversial theories.

“Freud’s work involved the libido theory and concept of unfulfilled wishes, whereas Jung’s point was about life energy, not just sexual energy,” says Psychologist and Jungian Analyst, Dr John Merchant, who also runs courses on dreams at Sydney University’s Centre for Continuing Education.

“Dreams provide communication about our unconscious we are unaware of, which may not necessarily be about an unfulfilled wish, but maybe an unfulfilled potentiality.”
This communication can be affected by external surroundings mid-sleep, yet contains specific messages applicable to the individual dreamer, as Merchant explains.

“We may have a dream connected to things happening outside our body like dripping water, but the question is why does it generate that particular dream and not something else? The external generates a dream that is symbolic to you.”

Jung believed each dream was made up of four significant stages similar to those of a Greek drama, beginning with the ‘exposition’ that provides the setting and theme. “The second stage, ‘peripeteia’ or ‘walking about’, develops the story in terms of trends, dynamics and possibilities,” explains Merchant. “The third stage of ‘crisis’ is when tension reaches its highest point, until a resolution is obtained in the final ‘lysis’ stage.”

Jung made understanding the profound personal messages of the dreamscape easier by identifying universal symbols he referred to as archetypes, including:

  •  Self: the central and deepest archetype acting as a representation of all one’s individual potentiality. Jung expressed the ‘Self’ as ‘that wholeness, which the introspective philosophy of all times and climes has characterized with an inexhaustible variety of symbols, names and concepts’.
  • Shadow: the repressed parts of yourself that you hide from the world because they are ugly or sinister. Usually this figure is represented by a frightening figure, like a murderer, stalker or bully.
  • Anima / Animus: this is the balance of femininity and masculinity, reminding us to acknowledge and express our masculine and feminine qualities. These symbols commonly appear as a member of the opposite sex who seems especially intriguing yet unknown to the dreamer.
  • Divine Child: usually represented by a young child, this symbolises your purest qualities of innocence and vulnerability, as well as aspirations and true potential. On the flip side, this symbol may also represent negative messages, such as ‘childishness’ or ‘infantile’.
  • Wide Old Man / Woman: represented as a helper, such as a teacher, doctor or priest, they serve to offer you words of wisdom and steer you in the right direction.
  • The Trickster: the typical class-clown, this character can make you feel uncomfortable or embarrassed, however serves the purpose of playing jokes to prevent you from taking yourself too seriously.


If the final stage of resolution is not reached, our dreams can easily spiral out of control into heart-racing nightmares that involve high emotional intensity and a strong sense of helplessness.

“Nightmares start off as normal dreams but if we don't pay attention to them, our unconscious awareness keeps turning up the volume until we start getting the message,” says Ian Wallace.

“The message from a nightmare is that there is an issue in our waking life we feel very strongly about and actually have the power to do something about.”

Wallace believes the best way to resolve a nightmare is to confront the issue that is causing it in waking life, which is often achieved by seeking professional guidance. Night terrors on the other hand are a different ball game, and unlike nightmares occur during NREM sleep.

“Night terrors are usually caused by physical exhaustion and triggered when the mind wakes up but the body is still very deeply relaxed and unable to move,” explains Wallace.

“When we dream, our body secretes a substance into the spinal nerves to prevent us moving our limbs and physically acting out our dreams. As we move out of REM and back into NREM, it can take a little while to feel we can move our body again. This can give a feeling of being possessed by an evil presence.”

Removing things from yours and your children’s rooms that produce mental over-stimulation such as televisions, computers and game consoles can help ward off night-time nasties, and to maximise quality sleep and peaceful dreams, ensure the body is physically relaxed before going to bed.

Sleep tight and sweet dreams!

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