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Essay/Term paper: An attempt at understanding dreams

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An Attempt At Understanding Dreams

A few months ago I watched a movie called "The Candyman". It was a
horror movie about this psychotic woman who massacres people around her but has
no idea what she's doing. An imaginary creature called "The Candyman" is
appearing to her and talking to her, and she actually thinks that he's the one
who is doing the murdering. Anyway, it was a scary movie and I had a bit of fun
freaking out my mother that night by telling her that "The Candyman" will appear
to her in her dreams (although I didn't think about the consequences if he
really appeared to her and she killed all of us while we were sleeping!).
Fortunately for my mother (and the rest of us), she didn't dream about him that
night. A few weeks later, I did, though! However, I didn't get very scared in my
dream because thanks to a certain technique that I developed a few years ago, I
can somehow avoid any dangers in my dreams by knowing that I'm dreaming and that
nothing bad can happen to me. This helped me in a lot of annoying dreams before
because when I'm in trouble I sometimes just "fly away" in certain situations in
the dream or I just ignore it and tell the bad guy that he can't hurt me because
I know it's just a dream. I have no idea until today how I'm able to do that,
but it really makes me wonder. I also don't know why I had that dream a few
weeks after the movie and not the same night I watched it, especially that I had
completely forgotten about it until the night of the dream, at least consciously.

Anyway, I decided to use the chance of having to write a paper for
Psychology 201 (especially that I hardly write papers because I'm an Engineering
major), and I almost instantly knew that I was going to explore the world of
dreams and the process of dreaming. Before I go any further though, I think I
know from the start that no matter how much material I gather or people I
interview, I will not be able to explain the process of dreaming because I
believe that it is so complex and mysterious that no man can claim to really
understand it. The maximum that I wish to achieve is just to admire this
incredible phenomenon and to at least try to clarify some of the little details
surrounding it.
Some questions come to my mind immediately when I think about dreams:
What causes dreams? Does everybody dream? Do dreams have significant meanings in
reality? Why do some dreams seem so weird and out of touch with reality? What
causes nightmares? Can someone be aware that he is dreaming? Why are we unable
to remember most of our dreams? I decided to try to answer at least some of
these nagging questions. The problems with dreams, however, is that they are so
diverse in nature; I can spend the rest of my life interviewing people and
listening to their dreams and I still might not have something concrete. But
nevertheless, it's worth a shot.
When I told my friend Mahmoud about the paper I'm writing, he
immediately elected his fiancee Safinaz as an interview candidate, because she
often has these bizarre dreams and nightmares. So I headed for my first victim.
Safinaz told me that she recently had this dream that she was a young girl and
that she saw another girl eating a watermelon, so she asked her to give her a
piece but the other girl refused. Safy kept crying until her grandmother went
down and bought her this huge watermelon that weighed 50 kg, and Safy cut it in
two pieces and started eating it. Now this seems like a fairly normal dream
except for one thing: Safy's grandmother died when she was 4 years old, and the
event about the watermelon actually happened in real life with almost the same
details before her grandmother died, but Safy had no recollection of it. She
only became aware of it after she told her mother about the dream and her mother
told her that this incident actually happened about 18 years ago. I think that
this dream clearly shows that some information is buried deep in the brain and
we have no access to it, until it suddenly just presents itself in one of our
Another person I interviewed was Ranya Abdel Hamid. Her dreams are no
less bizarre than those of Safinaz. She dreamt recently that she was being
chased by this mad cow in a dark, long alley where there was no exit. The cow
had almost reached her, but fortunately she woke up in the right time. Mariam
Farrag is another one I interviewed. She keeps dreaming that her boyfriend
travels away without telling her and she never sees him again. Actually Safinaz
had a similar dream where she dreamt that her fiancee traveled somewhere where
there was a beach without telling her, and as it turns out, Mahmoud - who was
taking a summer course at UCLA at the time - did go to Santa Barbara for the
week-end (without taking his fiancee's precious approval from Cairo!). Off the
subject, Mahmoud and I once decided to go to Alexandria for a day, again without
him telling her, and the tire exploded on the way and we almost died! I hope it
was just a bad coincidence and not her magic powers. By the way, Mahmoud is very
loyal to her although he goes some places without telling her sometimes, but she
is just too jealous. But this is really off the subject now! Anyway, dreams such
as Ranya's, Mariam's , and Safy's seem to reflect the inner fears of these
people; whether it's fear of catching the mad cow's disease, fear of loosing a
loved one, or any other form of fear for that matter.
Freud suggested that dreaming is an excellent chance for our inner fears
and desires to come to surface and present themselves clearly - or perhaps less
clearly sometimes - before us. Everybody, at some point or another, must have
had some experience with dreams that supports this argument. I know I have when
I dream of being turned down by the girl I like, failing a course, loosing
someone, getting my dream girl, becoming successful in life, etc. All these are
feelings inside of me that reflect my fears and desires and somehow try to
predict my future by setting up a certain scenario that takes place in my dreams.
My mother keeps dreaming up to this day that she is sitting in the classroom
taking an exam she is not prepared for, and that she fails it. Obviously my
mother finished school some time ago (and she never failed exams) but the fact
that she has this dream might reflect her fears, not of failing exams, but
perhaps fear of failure in general.
Some dreams are very controversial when it comes to trying to interpret
them. For example Nadine, whose father has died five years ago, had a dream once
where her father appeared to her and wanted to take her with him somewhere, but
her grandmother, who is also dead, tells her father that Nadine is still young
and that she can't go to where her father wants to take her yet. Dreams like
this have always been controversial, and some people suggest that when someone
dreams of a dead person it is the dead person who is actually trying to contact
them. However, no proof exists on either side of the argument.
Another common dream category is when people dream that they are falling.
Teymour Ghaleb mentioned this as one of his dreams when I interviewed him. He
dreams that he is falling down from a high cliff, but he wakes up before he
reaches the ground. This particular type of dreams is quite controversial and I
saw Dr. Moustafa Mahmoud, the famous Egyptian writer and philosopher, talking
about it once on his TV program. He said that when someone dreams that he is
falling down, it is in reality his spirit trying to escape from his body or in
other words, that person is dying. The body usually clings on to the spirit and
does not allow it to escape when it is not time for him to die, and that is why
the person never hits the ground. If he did, he would actually die in his sleep.
Dr. Mahmoud goes on to tell the story of this young man who dreamt that he was
falling down and he hit the ground. That person was rescued from a severe stroke
that he got during his dream. This is just a theory, however, and I don't think
there is enough concrete evidence to support it.
One thing I realized in my interviews is that there are hardly any guys
that shared their dreams with me. I don't know if it's because the ones I asked
really have no interesting dreams to share or if they are more reluctant than
the girls to talk about their dreams. Perhaps this is an observation that
provides a topic for another research paper! The interview that I learned the
most from was with a psychiatrist by the name of Dr. Farouk Hassan, whom I had
the great fortune of meeting in Abu Talat, a beautiful beach at the northern
coast. Dr. Hassan, to my great luck, is our neighbor there and my father knows
him a little bit. This was a great opportunity for me to interview him and I
went to his villa one evening with certain questions and goals in mind. He was
very friendly, and I think the information he provided me with proved to be
essential for this paper.
Dr. Hassan told me that there are two extremes as to the actual cause of
dreams. One extreme is the Freudian idea that dreams are caused by the
subconscious thoughts and desires, while the other extreme holds that dreams are
caused by random "noise" in the neurons without any special meaning. The answer
is probably somewhere in the middle, with the idea that small parts of memory
and imagination combine to form dreams, at conscious and subconscious levels.
Dr. Hassan also explained that everybody experiences dreams; in fact, not only
humans, but also all kinds of mammals. People that say they never dream probably
just don't remember their dreams. Dreams occur in a period of sleep called REM
(rapid eye movement), where the brain becomes very active and our eyes move back
and forth very quickly. REM sleep occurs up to 30 times in one night, and their
periods become longer as the night progresses. The last period can last up to 40
minutes. That's why people usually just remember their last couple of dreams. In
order to remember the dreams, one should concentrate hard right after waking up.
Sometimes keeping a pencil and paper handy helps because you can write down the
dream upon waking up. Some times people suddenly remember their dreams later in
the day, without even thinking about it.
I managed to get some more information about REM sleep from Rita
Atkinson's Introduction To Psychology. It says in the book that there is a
period of REM sleep where we experience dreams, but there are also four other
periods of non-REM (NREM) sleep. During those periods the brain is very relaxed,
and the dreams that we have are not really dreams, but rather thoughts and
stimuli from the outside world. This means that our senses are operating
normally and we can hear different noises around us, and our brain is thinking.
This is the time when several great inventors solved their problems and
discovered solutions and ways for great inventions and ideas, as we often hear.
During REM sleep, on the other hand, the brain is very active but isolated from
outside stimuli, and the body seems to be paralyzed. Giant neurons that come
from the brain stem drive the brain and fool it into thinking that the motor
neurons are active. That's why we think that we are actually seeing or moving,
although the body itself is not doing anything (Hobson, 1989).
I now return to the interview with Dr. Hassan. On the question of the
possibility of dreams having significant meanings in our lives he said that this
is really up to the individual and we cannot generalize. In other words, it is
nonsense when someone dreams of something and goes to someone else who tells him
what his dream really means. The reason for that is that each human being has an
individual character, and an outsider cannot jump into his brain and tell him
what his dreams mean for him. Everyone must decide for himself what his dreams
mean for him and what they indicate in his daily life. I asked Dr. Hassan if
dreams can predict the future, and he told me that this has been reported in
several cases, but this might be due to coincidence, or maybe the unconscious
tying together of known information. A few laboratory studies have been made to
study predictive dreams, but the results were varied because these kinds of
dreams were difficult to study in laboratory settings.
According to Dr. Hassan, some people keep getting the same dreams over
and over again. This is a sign that there are certain thoughts that occupy the
dreamer much, either consciously or unconsciously. Sometimes these dreams are
quite unpleasant, and they indicate that there is a certain problem that the
person should face soon. As for the case of the person dreaming that he is
falling down, Dr. Hassan has an explanation that is no less interesting than
that of Dr. Mahmoud. He attributes the feeling of falling down to a sudden
contraction that takes place in the big body muscles, which is known as a
myoclonic jerk. The exact cause is unknown, but it is probably some disturbance
in the brain's functions in the first stage of sleep. The heart rate goes down,
the breathing slows, and the brain might interpret this as the body dying, so it
sends an electrical pulse to the muscles. He does not believe that if the
dreamer actually hits the ground he will die.
The part of Dr. Hassan's interview that was of great interest for me was
when he started explaining to me about being aware that you are dreaming,
especially that this is something that happens to me personally. This phenomenon
is known as lucid dreaming. Lucid dreamers can achieve a certain degree of
control over their dreams. For example, they can decide to face the dream figure
that is intending to harm them, instead of just running away. They know that
they can't be harmed because they are dreaming, so they just relax in the dream.
Lucidity is a technique that can be developed by hard concentration in the dream
and by always trying to test the reality of the dream, and by testing the
environment to see if you are awake or dreaming. Some people achieve very high
levels of lucidity where they can create their own dream world in the dream,
take any actions, and live any fantasies that they can imagine. However, some
people would argue that it is nicer to just experience the dream as it comes,
without being able to control it by being lucid.
Concerning nightmares, Dr. Hassan explained that they are usually caused
by some serious problems that affect the person, possibly unconsciously. It's a
phenomenon that is difficult to analyze because sometimes it is not clear in
nightmares where the real problem lies. Dreamers experience feelings of anger,
guilt, sadness, fear, or anxiety in nightmares, and they usually wake up very
distressed. Although children have the largest share of nightmares, many adults
experience them at least once a month. An interesting fact is that nightmares
can be caused by certain drugs or medications, or by illness and fever. Some
traumatic events and accidents also cause terrible nightmares that are repeated
over and over again. To get rid of nightmares is a very difficult issue, because
it depends on the dreamer and on the type of nightmare. Some nightmares can be
avoided by learning to become a lucid dreamer, and some nightmares just go away
with time. Sometimes the person has to deal with his problems that are causing
these nightmares.
This is where the interview with Dr. Hassan ended, and I must say that I
got much more than I hoped for. However, I'm getting the feeling that the more I
learn about the issue, the more I realize how incredibly huge and complex it is.
For my last source of information I decided to use the Internet. As I expected,
I typed the phrase "sleep and dreams", and in a matter of seconds I was
bombarded with hundreds of articles and links. I found several dream analysis
links where you share your dreams on the Internet, and sometimes you get them
analyzed. I also found some frequently asked questions about dreams and
nightmares, many of which are like the ones answered in my interview with Dr.
Hassan. I printed some articles offering dream interpretations, and I chose
three of them to attach with this paper. One is about the dream of being chased,
and the cause is attributed to outside pressures from a job or a relationship.
The second article interprets the dream of flying, and it explains it as the
dreamer's feelings of freedom, glory, and success, that make him fly over cities
and hover around above all people. The last article interprets the common dream
of being unprepared for an exam, which my mother often gets. They say that the
people that get this dream were usually never unprepared for exams in real life,
but they tend to evaluate themselves very harshly in their daily lives and who
face up to challenging situations. When I think about this it makes sense, at
least where my mother is concerned.
In conclusion, I think that in spite of all the scientific material
available on the process of dreaming, it is far from being unraveled. Such an
attempt was made as early as 350 B.C. by Aristotle. He stated that "the dream is
a sort of presentation which occurs in sleep" and that "not every presentation
which occurs in sleep necessarily a dream. For in the first place. some persons
when asleep actually, in a certain way, perceive sounds, light, savour, and
contact; feebly, however, remotely. Nor should the true thoughts, as distinct
from the mere presentations, which occur in sleep be called dreams. The dream
proper is a presentation based on the movement of sense impressions, when such
presentation occurs during sleep" (Aristotle "On Dreams' ).This ingenious paper
by Aristotle managed to define dreams and to distinguish the thoughtlike dreams
that we encounter during NREM sleep from the real dreams that we experience in
REM sleep.
Nevertheless, even more than 2,000 years after this paper, our
information about dreams is still very limited when compared to other areas that
human beings achieved great success in, such as science and technology. The main
problem is the great diversity of the issue and the difficulty of conducting
physical experiments and analysis on such a phenomenon. It is a phenomenon that
defies the laws of physics and society, and the limits of dreams are stretched
as far as the human imagination goes. The best we can do is to give limited
explanations that we think might work with us, but the true secrets of dreaming
will never be uncovered. We can just share our dreams and try to understand some
events that happen to dreamers all around the world, which makes us appreciate
dreams more and more.

Works Cited

Abdel Hamid, Ranya, 22 yrs., Mechanical Engineering major at AUC.

Aristotle, "On Dreams", 350 B.C.

Atkinson, Rita L., "Introduction To Psychology", 1993.

Dreams Interpretation Services & Resources, "http://www1.rider.edu/~
~suler/dreams.html", 1996.

Farrag, Mariam, 20 yrs., Political Science major at AUC.

Ghaleb, Teymour, 23 yrs., Marketing Analyst at Daewoo Co.

Hassan, Farouk, Dr., Practicing Psychiatrist.

Rafik, Nadine, 17 yrs., student at DSB.

Shawky, Safinaz, 21 yrs., Economics major at Cairo University.


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