Why do we dream? Let’s sleep on it

A 1630 engraving of Daniel’s vision by Matthäus Merian (Wikimedia)

Perth Catholics discovered remarkable things about their nightly dreams at a Christopher Dawson Society for Philosophy and Culture talk on dreaming from a neurological, psychological and Christian spiritual perspective. Source: The eRecord.

The study of dreams is called ‘oneirology’ and is as old as humanity, with references to its practise throughout the Bible, central to stories such as Daniel and his interpretation of the dreams of the Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar.

Early psychological theories developed by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung tried to uncover hidden meanings in dreams and modern neurology is still trying to understand why people dream, and what brain mechanisms are involved.

Academic Dr Philippa Martyr’s talk brought these themes together and compared them to the Christian tradition of dreaming, found in the Scriptures, the Church Fathers, and in the lives of the saints.

Dr Martyr recently completed a psychology degree and said that she became interested in the topic when studying theories of perception and cognition.

“Human consciousness is something we don’t really understand, and dreaming is a part of that phenomenon,” Dr Martyr said.

“It’s also part of sleep studies, which are huge now because we know more about the relationship between a good night’s sleep and good mental health.”

Dreams are defined as involuntary experiences of consciousness that happen when you are unconscious – that is, when you are asleep – and while most people dream during sleep, many do not remember their dreams when they wake.

This is because most people have nightly sleep cycles which allow them to wake up naturally and not remember a dream. But if a person wakes suddenly – if they are woken up, or if they have a nightmare – then they can remember their dreams much more easily.

Dr Martyr says that the major theory of why human beings dream is called the ‘memory consolidation hypothesis’

“This says that dreaming is about the brain consolidating the previous day’s sensory inputs. But there’s a lot of holes in this theory, and certainly it doesn’t explain why we have such widely ranging dreams, even in the one person.”

Dr Martyr says spiritual or religious dreams are like private revelations – you are free to believe in them or not, they can’t bind you to something, and they’re comforting but not necessary for salvation.


Dream life: I sleep, but my heart awakes (The eRecord

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