Dreams and Sleep

Home >> Sleep Topics >> Dreams and Sleep

The traumatic events of 9/11/01 touched many people's lives, including their dreams, according to Ernest Hartmann, MD, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the Tufts University School of Medicine. He recently examined a series of dreams—ten before Sept. 11 and ten after—in 16 individuals in the United States who regularly record their dreams. Dr. Hartmann found that the traumatic events did have a detectable effect—specifically an increase in dream image intensity including feelings of fear and being overwhelmed.

Hartmann's research is consistent with previous data, which found that dream image intensity is related to emotional arousal. This is just one more clue to solve the mystery of why we dream—a topic that has puzzled humans since the beginning of recorded history.

In ancient societies, dreams guided political, social and everyday decisions. Early books, including the Bible, are filled with references to divine visions during sleep. On the other hand, Greek philosophers attributed dream content to natural sources, which were precursors of modern theories of dream formation and significance.

In the 19th century, Sigmund Freud promoted one popular theory that dreams gave us access to our unconscious repressed conflicts. He called them "the royal road to a knowledge on the part of the unconscious plays in mental life." However, another early psychoanalyst, Alfred Adler, believed that dreams reflect current lifestyle and offer solutions to contemporary problems.

Interest in modern dream research was revived at the same time as the discovery of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and its association with an increased frequency in dreaming by Eugene Aserinsky and Nathaniel Kleitman in 1953. "When we look at the importance of dream research we get back to the question 'Does sleep itself have a function?' We know today, if you sleep you have an improved waking experience. We also know that sleep allows dreaming to occur," according to Jim Pagel, MD, director of the Sleep Disorders Center of Southern Colorado and a participating NSF Community Sleep Awareness Partner®. "If dreaming has an actual function, it really supports why we spend a third of our lives sleeping."

While scientists still do