The characteristics of dreams have long fascinated scientists and philosophers. However it was only relatively recently that dreams came under rigorous scientific analysis. One of the most famous dream researchers is the American psychiatrist, J Allan Hobson, who identified five basic characteristics of dreams in 1988:
Through his extensive dream research spanning three decades, Hobson emphasizes the role of neurochemicals in the brain and random electrical impulses originating in the brainstem. He does not say that dreams are purely the random firing of neurons - but rather the brain's cobbled attempt at making sense of them.
He later acknowledged the increased activity of the limbic system (a primeval part of the brain which produces emotions) during REM sleep. This served to give the meaning of dreams an emotional basis, rather than a random neurochemical one.
So, does this provide us with any psychological basis for dream interpretation? Was Sigmund Freud right to suggest that dreams symbolize our repressed fears and desires? Do our dreams contain our darkest secrets just waiting to be unlocked?
Actually, Hobson believes Freud had it wrong. He may even have impeded our scientific understanding of the nature of dreams by propagating such ominous theories. Hobson is all for a psychological meaning to dreams, but just that it needn't be locked away under layers of secretive unconscious meaning.
Instead, Hobson takes a Jungian approach: dreams reveal far more than they hide - and can actually be highly transparent. However, it's difficult to link this conclusion to Hobson's biological explanation for dreaming.
But the theory does make sense. Next time you dream of being chased, isn't it likely that you are - metaphorically - running away from something in real life that's causing you anxiety? And if you dream of being pregnant - for a woman at least - is this a natural expression of your desire to have babies?
With simple interpretive analysis, dreams may not be so mysterious after all...
To learn more about J Allan Hobson's theories of dreaming, check out Dreaming: An Introduction to the Science of Sleep. This book describes how the evolution of dream theory has advanced dramatically over the past 50 years. See how dreams have specific perceptual, cognitive, and emotional qualities that set them apart from waking consciousness (loss of awareness of self, loss of orientation, loss of directed thought, reduction in logical reasoning, and poor memory) that correspond to specific modes of brain activity. >>Full review on Amazon
What do blind people dream about? Can they "see" in their dreams? Take a look at scientific studies into the dreams of the blind, colorblind, and black-and-white dreamers. In 1999, dream researchers at the University of Hartford analyzed 372 dreams of 15 blind people. They found that both the congenitally blind and those who went blind before five years old did not have any visual dreams at all. That's because our dreams are made up of real world experiences and our innermost thoughts, anxieties and desires. So for someone who has never perceived images or light (or can't remember any) their dreams simply can't manifest visually.
Not long ago, scientists at Frankfurt University discovered how to produce lucid dreams with electronic stimulation. It was a world first. And - astonishingly - it worked in non-lucid dreamers 77% of the time. Now you can buy the same technology for yourself. The foc.us V2 - which delivers the proven optimum 40 Hz transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS) - was originally developed to increase working memory in video gamers and improve sleep.
As technology continues to move us towards more immersive dreamlike experiences, one can only wonder what digital wonders lay just beyond the horizon of tomorrow. We may also question just how the future of virtual reality will impact the study and practice of lucid dreaming. Are we, perhaps, the last generation to whom lucid dreaming will maintain an appeal?
Jeremiah Morelli is a whimsical fantasy artist and visual storyteller. He places conceptual fairytale creatures in vivid dreamscapes to capture the imagination. He's also a school teacher, and amazingly finds the time and motivation to create this huge gallery of artwork. Such light and dark fairytale paintings make beautiful places to visit in your lucid dreams.
Inspired and named for the notion of Flatland, artist and photographer Aydin Buyuktas has created a series of works where "a space of surprises creates a space that creates surprises." Based on photos of Istanbul, Buyuktas explains: "We live in places that most of the times don't draw our attention, places that transform our memories, places that the artist gives another dimension; where the perceptions that generally crosses our minds will be demolished and new ones will arise. These works aim to leave the viewer alone with a surprising visuality, ironic as well as a multidimensional romantic point of view."
Experts agree that everyone is capable of having lucid dreams. Dreaming itself is a normal function of the mind. We all dream every night, even if we don't remember. And we all achieve conscious awareness while awake every single day. So what does it mean to combine these states? Why, the amazing ability to have conscious - or lucid - dreams. Sounds simple, doesn't it? So why do I keep hearing from people who say they can't achieve their first lucid dream?