Health Talk

Kandace Power Graves discusses dreams with Psychiatrist Dr. Arthur Epstein, professor emeritus at Tulane University and author of Dreaming and Other Involuntary Meditations.

Q: In general, have our perceptions of dreams, their analysis and whether or not they have deep, significant meaning changed over the past few years?

A: We have a lot less (analysis) than we used to. For the most part, from the medical point of view, I think there's been a little change in attitude. Dreams themselves haven't changed too much.

Q: Everyone seems to have had a recurring falling dream starting sometime in childhood. Does everyone have some version of this dream and what does it mean?

A: There probably is a physiological aspect to the falling dream. During dreaming, there's a sudden loss of muscle tone. We experience that and the sleeping mind tries to seek an explanation, and that's why the falling comes into sudden awareness. The falling can also have symbolic value in that it shows our fears: fear of falling in status, that kind of thing.

Q: Do we dream more about things that scare us or do we just remember those dreams better?

A: The fears are more common than joys. Dreams do express fears. Dreams often express in some way situations you're going through.

Q: Are dreams more an indicator of physical health, such as having one type of dream when you're not sleeping well, or mental health, such as having bad dreams when you're anxious?

A: There used to be an idea that dreams could serve a diagnostic purpose; if you had a certain dream, it could be an indicator of a specific disease, [but the notion has fallen out of favor]. There's not a lot of research on it now.

Q: Are there dreams, besides the falling one, that people experience similarly across the board?

A: There is a notion that most human beings have similar dreams. That's part of the inheritance or evolution of dreaming. You've heard of the "collective unconscious." When we dream, we sometimes dream things that can seem very archaic and unusual. It may be that they're representing images and concerns from the human race through time. That's speculative.

Q: You've submitted another manuscript dealing with dreams to a book publisher. What is the focus of that work?

A: The book deals with the strange imagery -- an animal or something that is not common to you but pops up in your dreams. Where does it come from? I think it comes from a past experience with animals. Not in your lifetime, but some time in human history.

Q: Is that why people sometimes get flashes of images that are weird or unfamiliar and don't necessarily go together? Are these blips from our ancestors' past?

A: It could be. During dreaming, the brain is in a different stage. It's more excitable. It's able to work very rapidly. The changes in the brain take away the inhibition. Dreaming is unconscious in the sense that there's no volition. You don't will a dream; it just happens automatically. The dream itself is a product of involuntary conscious processes.

Q: Does everyone have dreams?

A: There are people who say they don't dream, but they may just not remember it. One thing that happens in dreaming is a wiping out of the dream, almost an amnesia, and some people may have more of a mechanism for that. I think, though, that if you did a study of them all night, you'd find they do dream. They just don't remember it.

Q: So after all these years, we still don't know exactly how the brain works. Will we ever?

A: I think we will. We're learning a lot and in time we'll have very good explanations for how things work. I don't think there's any doubt that in 10, 15, 20, 25 years, we'll know a lot. There is more progress and new techniques. it's going to happen. It's like cloning: it's worrisome but it's going to happen.

Q: Are you continuing to study dreams?

A: We started a dream group at DePaul Hospital. Not too many people do that. It gives patients a chance to tell about their dreams and discuss them. It does help me gather research material, but I also enjoy it and I think the patients get something out of it.

Q: Are dreams a place where your mind exercises options or are they just a series of images from our past and indications of our present anxieties?

A: There is a kind of thought process that goes on during dreaming. Problems can be solved during dreaming. There may also be images from some distant past. Whether it is biogenetic or evolutionary, [dreaming] is one of the only keys to ... what our past was like. -->

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