Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Dreams and emotion

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Dreams and emotion:
What is the emotional content of our dreams?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Dreaming has been around for many centuries[factual?] and there has been many a person who has tried to explain what dreams are, why we have them and what they mean. Most can [grammar?] experts agree that a dream is a representation of a person’s emotions and that the emotional content of a dream is usually indicative of a person’s emotional state during their waking state. Dreams can be fun and exciting showing us what we desire most in life but they can also be scary and overwhelming showing us what we truly fear and what repress and refuse to acknowledge during our consciousness. If we are able to uncover the meaning of our dreams, we are able to have a balance between our conscious and unconscious allowing us to enhance our emotional lives.

Dreams[edit | edit source]

A dream is a mental activity or series of thoughts which are presented in the form of an imagined series of events, images or emotions which occur during certain phases of sleep (Putnam, 1914).

The content of a dream is often linked with a person’s thoughts and emotions during the waking state therefore many researcher [grammar?] has suggested that dreams have a psychological meaning in the sense of understanding and corresponding with waking thought and emotional states (Coo, Milgrom & Trinder, 2014).

The first known recorded dream dates as far back as 2500 BCE[factual?]. In ancient history, dreams were said to represent messages from the Gods and divine omens with prophetic and clairvoyant powers[factual?]. Even in ancient Greece there was a significant importance placed on the interpretation of dreams[factual?]. These dreams were often taken to an oracle for deciphering[factual?]. In ancient times dreams and their meanings were often diagnosis, prognosis, and proper treatment and importantly had social, medicinal, prophetic, and religious importance with implications for self-knowledge[factual?]. It wasn’t until around 350 BCE that Aristotle wrote about dreams being natural and not a supernatural phenomenon (Blum, 2000).

Types[edit | edit source]

Although there are many different types of dream states, here a {[grammar}} just a few.

Type Definition
Lucid A lucid dream is a dream in which a person has control over the content of their dream and can make conscious decisions that can direct the dream narrative. In this state a person behaves like they are awake but they are aware that they are dreaming (Schmidt, Stumbrys & Erlacher, 2014).
Daydream A daydream is usually one of happiness, hopefulness and pleasantness which is experienced whilst being awake. This type of dream occurs when the surrounding reality is blurred and a person becomes detached for a short period of time (Hill, Gelso, Gerstenblith, Chui, Pudasaini, Burgard, Baumann & Huang, 2013)
Nightmare A nightmare is an unpleasant and highly arousing dream which usually occurs during REM sleep with approximately 85% of people having a least one nightmare per year. Death is the most often reported content of a nightmare which provokes intense and distressing fear, and if emotionally disturbing enough, a person will awaken as a result of the extreme unpleasant emotions felt. (Fireman, Levin & Pope, 2014)
Night Terror (Sleep terror disorder A night terror is disorder in which a person has a dream which fills them with terror and/or fear in which a person will wake up possibly screaming, sweating, increased heart rate and may even begin to swing their arms or begin punching as they are trying to protect themselves from the dreamt threat (Guzman & Wang, 2008).

REM Sleep[edit | edit source]

REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is one of two natural cycles of activity in the brain that occur during sleep. This is when dreams usually occur. This was discovered when researchers found that when a patient woke up during their REM stage, they recalled their dream with much more detail and intensity than those who awoke during non REM sleep (Obringer, 2005).

Because of the heightened brain activity during REM sleep, the intensity of dreams increases, but so does the increase in the release of the glycine, which causes paralysis of the major muscle groups. This is thought to be due to preventing the dreaming from physically acting out the dream (Obringer, 2005).

The duration of REM sleep is much higher during childhood and slowly decreases with age. The percentage drops from around 50% to 20%. (Gupta & Hill, 2014)

Psychoanalysis of dreams[edit | edit source]

Freud[edit | edit source]

Sigmund Freud 1865 - 1939

The book The Interpretation of Dreams (1913) was written by Sigmund Freud in which he proposes that dreams are unconscious wish fulfillment, which is the satisfaction of a desire through an involuntary thought process or dream. Freud believed that dreams are attempts by the unconscious to resolve repressed conflict[factual?]. Freud also believed that the contents of a dream are combinations of recent experiences and childhood memories[factual?].

The wish fulfillment theory makes a definition of latent and manifest content[Rewrite to improve clarity]. Latent content is content of a dream which highlights the meanings of a person’s unconscious thoughts, feelings and desires. Freud believed that if a person could identify the meaning of the content of the dream then they could successfully understand then can resolve their internal struggles. Manifest content is the content which can be identified as the information in a dream that a person remembers when awakening. The manifest content consists of images, thoughts and scenarios within a dream that a person is aware of when they wake up. Both latent and manifest content upholds Freud’s theory that dreams signify any internal conflict that is not being dealt with by the conscious (Freud 1913).

In order to interpret dreams, Freud (1913) classified five processes in which an image or meaning would fall under:

  1. Displacement (when the desire or wish for one thing is symbolised by something else)
  2. Projection (when a person dreaming places their own desires onto another person)
  3. Symbolisation (when a person unconscious urges and desires are portrayed metaphorically)
  4. Condensation (when a feeling or urge is so deeply repressed that is representation in a dream is underplayed making its meaning unapparent or not obvious.
  5. Rationalisation (The final stage in which the dreaming mind tries to organise an incomprehensible dream into one that is understandable and logical)

One of Freud’s main focuses on dream interpretation is sexual content. Freud believed that sex is the root cause of all dream scenarios. Anything that is long, slender or elongated such as a knife or gun represents the phallus, whereas any crater, nook or opening such as a cave or tunnel represents the female genitalia (Kramer, 2000).

Lippmann (2013) wrote the Freud was actually more invested in the interpretation of the dreams that what actually occurs in the dreams, meaning that Freud used his interpretation of dreams to make his point.

Jung[edit | edit source]

Carl Jung 1875 - 1961

According to Carl Jung, dreams are a way of communicating with the unconscious. Alternatively to Freud, Jung believed that dreams were more spiritual than instinctual, [grammar?] also dreams are not attempts to conceal or disorganise a person’s true feelings from the conscious mind but rather dreams are a window into your unconscious, allowing a person to achieve a wholeness and balance (Putnam, 1914).

Jung believed that dreams reveal things about a person, their relationships and situations they experience whilst awake. Jung also proposed that dreams guide a person through personal development and growth (Obringer, 2005). Unlike Freud, Jung believed that a dream doesn’t engage in hiding, but shows everything outright and that that the interpretation should be placed on the dreamer as everyone has the necessary skills to interpret their own dreams and that interpretation is a personal judgment and that there is no correct way to interpret a dream (Lippmann, 2013).

Also unlike Freud, Jung’s approach to dreams is prospective, meaning that a dream is a possible future psychological evolution towards a more balanced relationship between the conscious and the unconscious, whereas Freud’s approach is retrospective and it refers to past events in a person’s childhood (Blum, 2000).

Cognitive theory of dreaming[edit | edit source]

According to Hall (1953) the cognitive theory of dreaming states that dreams are a conceptualisation of our experiences through information-processing, memory and problem-solving. Hall did not believe in Freud’s theory of wish fulfilment and instead believed that during our dreams, people express creativity and are a way of developing our own ideas of the world.

Hall (1953) also developed five main ideas which he believed are present in dreams. These are:

  1. Self-conception (dreams about ourselves and our roles in life)
  2. Conceptions of others (how we view and interact with others)
  3. Conceptions of the world (whether we view the world with optimism or pessimism)
  4. Conceptions of impulses, prohibitions and penalties (what our morals are and consequences of good and bad behaviours)
  5. Conceptions of conflicts (the conflicts within our psyche)

Activation-synthesis model[edit | edit source]

The activation-synthesis model is a theory which states that dreams are actually caused by physiological processes of the brain. According to this theory certain circuits are active during REM sleep and once activated, parts of the limbic system (involved with emotions and memories), mainly the amygdala and hippocampus become active. The brain then interprets the activity and tries to create meaning from the activation, which results in dreams (Allan, & Robert,1977).

Hobson (1989) was one of the people who proposed this theory and within this theory he developed five characteristics of dreams:

  1. Illogical content: dreams with disorganised scenarios which would be impossible in reality.
  2. Intense emotions: Hobson found that the top three emotions experienced in dreams are fear, anxiety and surprise[Provide more detail].
  3. Acceptance of strange content: No matter how strange the scenario within a dream, intense emotions are created to support what is being experienced to allow for acceptance[Provide more detail].
  4. Strange sensory experiences: Sensory experiences such as falling or flying.
  5. Difficulty remembering dream content: Because during the REM sleep serotonin is low and acetylcholine levels are high, this makes storing dreams in the short-term memory difficult. Hobson’s research indicates that 95% of regular dreams are forgotten upon waking.

Threat simulation theory[edit | edit source]

The threat simulation theory of dreaming is a theory which describes the purpose of dreaming as rehearsing the cognitive mechanisms needed for efficient threat perception and avoidance, which allows for an increased probability of reproductive success through evolution. It is thought that real life threatening events can lead to an increased activation of a threat simulation response and therefore leads to an increase in frequency and emotionally intense threatening dreams (Valli, Revonsuo, Pälkäs, Ismail, Ali & Punamäki, 2005).

Emotional Content[edit | edit source]

The analysis of dreams is significant as it allows a person to decipher the emotional content of a dream and its relation to a person’s waking state.

Interpretation[edit | edit source]

An analyst once interpreted the reoccurring number 7 in a patient’s dream as referring to the $700 owed by the patient from a previous unpaid bill (Lippmann 2013).

Dreams allow themselves to become a signal for whatever the interpreter has in mind and because dreams portray the true thoughts and emotions of the unconscious and display any repressed and unresolved conflict, they can be dangerous and they can contribute to emotional surges which can trigger or accompany psychological and physiological distress or damage (Lippmann, 2013).

Erdelyi (2014) wrote about the problem of analysing a dream with the question of how such meaning may be legitimately extracted when dreams are often distorted and confusing to the dreamer. Emotional content analysis over a period of time shows that there is a rough continuity between dream content and awake emotions and experiences, therefore meaning that dreams may just be implicit memories[factual?].

Erdelyi (2014) also stated that “Dreams are release phenomena involving disinhibition and under regulation of content and style, and for this reason are simultaneously revealing and confusing.” When a dream is both revealing and confusing, the analysis of the dreams meaning can be difficult and arduous. However, as stated by Jung, all people have the necessary tools to interpret their own dreams even the most difficult (Lippmann, 2013).

One type of emotional content which often occurs in dreams is aggressive interaction. Approximately 10% to 40% of the dreams or roughly every fourth interaction with dream characters is related to aggression or aggressive behaviours (Schredl & Mathes, 2014).

Researchers wanted to find if there was a correlation between dreaming about aggression and aggression in the waking state. Research indicated that there is a relationship between the two and that the relationship aggressiveness and the “killing someone” dream theme was significant. However the findings did indicate that the dreams actually exaggerate any hostility in the waking state, showing that dreams may portray current worries in the worst case scenario. However the research did not indicate the actual content of the dream as to whether the aggressive behaviour dreamt about was an accident, self-defence or something more sinister (Schredl et., 2014)

Because dreams are said to be associated with the thoughts and feelings of an awake person, it has been found that certain groups of people are more likely to dream about their situation rather than anything else (Coo et al., 2014).

Type Example
Pregnancy When a woman is pregnant, she goes through a psychological change in which she is able to gain specific attitudes, behaviours and emotions to help develop a maternal identity and better prepare for the maternal role. Research has shown the during pregnancy women’s dreams are often filled with anxiety, concern and excitement in which they dream about the development of the baby, emotional engagement and attachment between mother and child and the redefinition of what their life will become once the baby arrives (Coo et al., 2014).
Children Research has found that child as young as 3 years are able to recall their dreams. Researchers believe that the complexity and nature of a child’s dream is related to their cognitive development and that during preadolescence, children’s dreams are often symbols of how they see themselves. (Swan & Schottelkorb, 2013)
Male vs Female Research over time has proven that men and women are psychologically different, this is also proven in the content of their dreams. Women are often able to better recall their dreams than men are; however are also more likely have more nightmares than men. Men dream less about daily life than women as they predominately dream about women, sex and physical aggression (Schredl, Kim, Labudek, Schädler & Göritz, 2013).
Trauma survivors Those who have experienced severe trauma often report much more emotionally intense dreams than those who have not experienced trauma. The dreams of trauma survivors are often negative and the dreamer experiences powerful emotions such as helplessness, fear, anger and guilt. (Hartmann, 2008)

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Dreaming is a significant part of our life as it allows us to dig into our unconscious and find what are our deepest desires and wishes and uncover and repressed or unresolved conflict we may experience in our everyday life that we have either not known how to deal with or were unaware of the impact of the conflict. Dreaming allows us to delve into the profoundest parts of our psyche and if able to analyse and interpret the images presented to us in our dreams we can better understand our emotions, needs and desires.

Take home message
  • By interpreting and understanding our dreams we are able to improve our emotional lives.
  • Everyone is capable of interpreting their own dreams.
  • There are many different theories to interpreting a dream but interpretation is a personal judgment and that there is no correct way to interpret a dream

Quiz[edit | edit source]

1 The duration of REM sleep decreases with age.


2 Sigmund Freud believed that dreams do not engage in hiding, but show everything outright.


3 Lucid dreaming involves becoming detached from reality for a short period of time.


4 The activation-synthesis model is based on physiological processes of the brain.


5 Men are better able to recall their dreams than women.


See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Allan, J., & Robert, M. (1977). The brain as a dream state generator: an activation-synthesis hypothesis of the dream process. American Journal of Psychiatry, 134(12), 1335-1348

Barrett, D. L.(1979). The Hypnotic Dream: Its Content in Comparison to Nocturnal Dreams and Waking Fantasy. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 88, 584-591. doi: 10.1037/0021-843X.88.5.584

Blum, H. (2000). The writing and interpretation of dreams. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 17(4), 651-666. doi: 10.1037/0736-9735.17.4.651

Coo, S., Milgrom, J., & Trinder, J. (2014). Pregnancy and postnatal dreams reflect changes inherent to the transition to motherhood. Dreaming, 24(2), 125-137. doi: 10.1037/a0036204

Erdelyi, M. H. (2014). The interpretation of dreams, and of jokes. Review of General Psychology, 18(2), 115-126. doi: 10.1037/gpr0000002

Fireman, G. D., Levin, R., & Pope, A. W. (2014). Narrative qualities of bad dreams and nightmares. Dreaming, 24(2), 112-124. doi: 10.1037/a0035791

Freud, S. (1913). The interpretation of dreams. (A. Brill, Trans) (3 ed.). New York, NY: The Macmillan Company.

Gupta, S., & Hill, C. E. (2014). The outcome of dream sessions: The influence of dream recency, emotional intensity, and salience. Dreaming, 24(2), 89-103. doi: 10.1037/a0036391

Hall, C. S. (1953). A cognitive theory of dreams. The Journal of General Psychology, 49, 273-282.

Hartmann, E. (2008). The central image makes “big” dreams big: The central image as the emotional heart of the dream. Dreaming, 18(1), 44-57. doi: 10.1037/1053-0797.18.1.44

Hill, C. E., Gelso, C. J., Gerstenblith, J., Chui, H., Pudasaini, S., Burgard, J., Baumann, E., & Huang, T. (2013). The dreamscape of psychodynamic psychotherapy: Dreams, dreamers, dream work, consequences, and case studies. Dreaming, 23(1), 1-45. doi: 10.1037/a0032207

Hobson, J. A. (1989). The dreaming brain. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Kramer, M. (2000). Does dream interpretation have any limits? an evaluation of interpretations of the dream of 'irma's injection.'. Dreaming, 10(3), 161-178. doi: 10.1023/A:1009486324024

Lippmann, P. (2013). Dreams and psychoanalysis: A love–hate story. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 17(4), 627-650. doi: 10.1037/0736-9735.17.4.627

Obringer, L. A. (2005). How dreams work. Retrieved from

Putnam, J. (1914). Dream interpretation and the theory of psychoanalysis. The Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 9(1), 36-60. doi: 10.1037/h0070399

Schmidt, S., Stumbrys, T., & Erlacher, D. (2014). Dream characters and the dream ego: An exploratory online study in lucid dreams. Dreaming, 24(2), 138-151. doi: 10.1037/a0036942

Schredl, M., Ciric, P., Götz, S., & Wittmann, L. ( 2004). Typical dreams: Stability and gender differences. Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied, 138(6), 485– 494. doi: 10.3200/JRLP.138.6.485-494

Schredl, M., Kim, E., Labudek, S., Schädler, A., & Göritz, A. S. (2013). Gender, sex role orientation, and dreaming. Dreaming, 23(4), 277-286. doi: 10.1037/a0034915

Schredl, M., & Mathes, J. (2014). Are dreams of killing someone related to waking-life aggression?. Dreaming, 24(3), 176-181. doi: 10.1037/a0037213

Swan, K. L., & Schottelkorb, A. A. (2013). Interpreting children’s dreams through humanistic sandtray therapy. Journal of Play Therapy, 22(3), 119-128. doi: 10.1037/a0033389

Valli, K., Revonsuo, A., Pälkäs, O., Ismail, K. H., Ali, K. J., & Punamäki , R. L. (2005). The threat simulation theory of the evolutionary function of dreaming: Evidence from dreams of traumatized children. Conscious Cognition, 14(1), 188-218. doi: 10.1016/S1053-8100(03)00019-9

External links[edit | edit source]

  1. Dream Moods
  2. Dream Dictionary
  3. Dreams