Have you ever awoken in the middle of the night from a dream and had no idea what it meant? Why did dreaming of an orange elephant wearing tennis shoes, and walking on water, made you feel so anxious that it roused you from your sleep? Deciphering dreams is complex to say the least, and navigating through the subconscious can be like trying to find your way through a labyrinth blindfolded. As if our waking lives weren’t confusing enough, dreaming only adds to the complexity that is the human psyche. It’s not always a bad dream. Dreaming can be a fantastic and liberating experience, and sometimes help with a problem that you are in the waking world. Trying to shed some light on the otherwise-convoluted subject of dreams may be an ongoing process, but an interesting one at the very least.
On a normal night of sleep we enter and constantly cycle through four stages of altered consciousness: two stages of light sleep, and one each of deep and slow wave sleep, constantly cycling through each other. Dreaming occurs at all stages, but the most fantastical, bizarre and emotional dreaming occurs during rapid eye movement (REM), which is between the second and third stage of sleep. REM dreams are the most memorable because in addition to the auditory and visual hallucinations, REM dreams can include other senses such as taste, odor, and in some rare cases, pain.
REM is unique because the brain experiences full conscious wakefulness while the body remains paralyzed. This is due to the neuronal input to the pons, a part of the brain stem, which blocks any type of muscular movement. At this point the dreamer is exposed to the unchartered waters of the subconscious. Whatever repressed emotion the dreamer may be experiencing will ultimately be uncovered by the subconscious and presented in an uncharacteristic way, leaving the confused to ponder the implications of things as strange as orange elephants in tennis shoes. Take a step back; the most important thing about dream analysis is to consider how you feel in the dream. Dream symbols can be characterized by your emotional response to them. You will be able to gain insight into what your repressed emotions may be saying, and possibly realize why you may be repressing those emotions in the first place.
If you’re tired of being bossed around by your subconscious, you might want to consider practicing “lucid dreaming.” Here, the dreamer is aware that they are dreaming and can control what happens throughout the dream. Lucid dreaming is hard to achieve, but can be learned through intense focus and practice. REM is the best stage to take advantage of your lucid dreaming practices. So go and jump on that tennis shoe-wearing orange elephant’s back and walk on water. Have fun with your dream — they’re there to help you through your daily life, and are unique as you are.
Source: Psychological Science
– Second Canadian Edition: Michael S. Gazzaniga, Todd F. Heatherton, Steven J. Hein, Daniel C. McIntyre