I was reading online about the publication of psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s The Red Book and it sent me back to my own dream books.

I have been keeping a record of many of my dreams since I was 14.  At first, I just included them in a general journal/diary that I kept, but during my undergraduate days, I began keeping another dream journal.  There are now several volumes of those.

Carl Jung said that at age 11, on his way to school,  “I stepped out of a mist and I knew I am. I am what I am. And then I thought, ‘But what have I been before?’ And then I found that I had been in a mist, not knowing to differentiate myself from things; I was just one thing among many things.”

This led him to begin recording his dreams in words and images.


Eventually, Jung had a bookbinder make an enormous volume covered in red leather to hold these explorations. It included some psychedelic drawings of mythical characters of his dreams and waking fantasies. He didn’t plan to publish this “red book” – in fact, he feared that if people saw them, they would think him mad.

A Jungian scholar, Dr. Sonu Shamdasani, spent three years convincing Jung’s family to bring the book out of hiding, then took another 13 years to translate it.

I didn’t have a moment like Jung as a child, but I did come across books about interpreting dream and read them. They ranged from pop psychology to me buying a paperback of

I think it is both frustrating and satisfying that despite years of study even researchers have no universally agreed upon biological definition of dreaming.

It wasn’t until the early 1950s that Eugene Aserinsky discovered REM sleep. He noticed that sleepers’ eyes fluttered beneath their closed eyelids, and later using a polygraph machine to record their brain waves during these periods.

I know people had been noticing that fluttering in people sleeping since the dawn of man.

Aserinsky awakened one subject who was crying out during REM and confirmed his suspicion that dreaming was occurring and much accumulated observation shows that dreams are strongly associated with rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

People always say that they don’t remember their dreams, but they mistakenly take this to mean that they didn’t have any dreams.

During a typical lifespan, a human spends a total of about six years dreaming – about two hours each night). Most dreams last only 5 to 20 minutes. If someone was to wake you during or after a dream, you would be very likely to recall it right then.

I first learned about this in an experimental psychology class I took in college where I volunteered to sleep overnight in a lab for an experiment. They woke me up after a REM session, asked me questions and recorded me answering. I did remeber the dream I had just had. They asked me hours later when I awakened naturally if I recalled any dreams from the night. I did not. Did I remember being asked questions during the night? I did not. They showed me a replay of the interview. Did it trigger a memory of the dream> Amazingly, it did not. In fact, it was like watching someone else being interviewed. Who was this person who looked like me and sort of sounded like me talking about something that I had no memory of now?

That experiment set me off on the serious recording of my dreams in dream journals which has continued since.

Scientists don’t really know where in the brain dreams originate, or if there is a single origin for dreams or if multiple portions of the brain are involved, or what the purpose of dreaming is for the body or mind. Again, to me, that is frustrating and yet satisfying. I want to know, but I like that this remains mysterious.

During REM sleep, the release of certain neurotransmitters is completely suppressed. As a result, motor neurons are not stimulated (REM atonia) and this prevents dreams from resulting in dangerous movements of the body. When you are climbing that mountain in the dream, you don’t try climbing the walls of your bedroom.

Lucid dreaming is the conscious perception of one’s state while dreaming. You are dreaming and in the dream, you know you are dreaming. In this state a person usually has control over characters and the environment of the dream as well as the dreamer’s own actions within the dream. The occurrence of lucid dreaming has been scientifically verified and I have read enough to know that it can be “learned” to a degree but that it’s not something most of us can do at will.

There are plenty of theories about why we dream. The first words of Jung’s red book are “The way of what is to come.” Many people in the past had believed that dream foretold the future. There are still probably people who believe this – especially if they have experienced a dream that “came true.” But almost all research in recording people’s dreams and analyzing them shows that they are most likely to be connected to something in our very recent past.

That dream about trying climb the mountain and slipping off and falling might have something to do with the project you have due next Monday, but it was more likely generated by the stress and events of yesterday and today about the project than it is a prediction of what the outcome will be. Of course, if the project does end with you “slipping” and the project failing, you might see the dream as an omen.

There are a few theories that interest me. One is that dreams are excitations of long-term memory. Eugen Tarnow is someone who suggests that the strangeness of dreams is due to the format of long-term memory. Penfield & Rasmussen found that if they did electrical excitations of the cortex, they could elicit experiences similar to dreams. Tarnow’s theory reworks Freud’s theory of dreams. Freud’s unconscious is replaced with the long-term memory system.

Studies just in the past ten years showed evidence that illogical locations, characters, and dream flow may help the brain strengthen the linking and consolidation of semantic memories. One stage of memory consolidation is the linking of distant but related memories. In my post here about sleep, I compared sleep to cleaning up a computer hard drive – what I assumed was a totally unscientific analogy – but Payne and Nadal hypothesize that these distant and recent related memories are actually consolidated into a smooth narrative.

That “defragging” process also seems to occur in much earlier studies (Hughlings Jackson, 1911) that theorized that sleep serves to sweep away unnecessary memories and connections from the day. A revision to this theory in 1983 by Crick and Mitchison was called “reverse learning.” This theory holds that dreams are like the cleaning-up operations of computers. When our brain is “off-line,” we are removing parasitic nodes and other “junk” from the mind during sleep.

Unfortunately, there is also an opposite view that dreaming has an information handling, memory-consolidating function (Hennevin and Leconte, 1971).

Since my own belief is that we don’t really lose ANY memories and that they just get buried in places we can’t access, that last view is more to my liking. Things in today’s temporary file folder get put into place in the brain while we sleep. Some get filed in “miscellaneous” folders for now until there is something to connect them to. While our brain is doing all this, we stumble upon memories that we haven’t encountered for years. I do the same thing when I try to organize my own computer files or the file cabinets of paper that I have accumulated. The process always turns up interesting things I haven’t looked at in years. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), since my file cabinets and computer drive doesn’t have the incredible storage capacity of my brain, I do need to trash some of this stuff.

It makes sense to me that dreams may be the result of the spontaneous firings of neural patterns while the brain is undergoing memory consolidation during sleep.

I also think we test out a lot of our ideas while we sleep and dream. I have read about studies showing that birds rehearse their songs while they sleep/dream. I think we do the same thing.

Coutts hypothesizes that dreams modify and test mental schemas during sleep during a process he calls emotional selection. He feels that only the schema modifications that pass the dream tests are selected for retention. The others are abandoned or further modified and tested.

Alfred Adler suggested that dreams are often emotional preparations for solving problems. When you awaken, even if you don’t recall the dream, the residual dream feelings may either reinforce or inhibit the action you contemplated.

I was glad to read years ago that scientist believed that animals have complex dreams too. Anyone who has owned a dog has observed those REM states of their sleep when they are chasing rabbits. Studies I have read say that animals are able to retain and recall long sequences of events while they are asleep. (I have yet to find out how they figure that out.) Various species of mammals and birds experience REM during sleep and seem to follow the same series of sleeping states as humans.

I find my ow dream journals to be a great form of self-therapy. I record the dream and then I reflect on waht I think it has to do with recent events. A lot of times, I don’t see a connection. But it often happens that I page back in the journal and find an older dream and I am now able to connect it to something in my waking life.

To me, as a teacher and as a human, the need to make connections is crucial. I look for patterns. Reading teaches you that. Being an English major often dooms you to look for connections and symbols forever after. I often find patterns in my dreams.

My earliest recorded recurring dream: standing on a cliff and jumping off towards an ocean far below where I see rocks but I somehow seem to be able to avoid them if I adjust my arms (Superman flying style). I never hit the water in hose dreams. I recorded that in my journal in the early days many times.

When I wrote about that dream it had all kinds of connections to real events around it. Years later, I discovered that its beginning and when it stopped occurring was very clearly a particular time period in my life and was connected to related real events. I found that very comforting and satisfying.

You can test for yourself many of the ideas that researchers are still examining about dreams.

  • How does external stimuli (noises, temperature, setting) work its way into our dreams?
  • Do dreams allow the repressed parts of the mind to be satisfied through fantasy while keeping the conscious mind from thoughts that would suddenly cause one to awaken from shock?
  • Freud suggested that bad dreams let the brain learn to gain control over emotions resulting from distressing experiences. True?
  • Carl Jung suggested that dreams may compensate for one-sided attitudes held in waking consciousness.
  • Ferenczi proposed that the dream, when told to someone else or recorded by the dreamer, may communicate something that is not being said outright. (I support that theory.)
  • Do our dreams regulate our waking mood?
  • Hartmann  says dreams may function like psychotherapy, by “making connections in a safe place” and allowing the dreamer to integrate thoughts that may be dissociated during waking life. (I am in agreement with this one too.)
  • Psychologist Joe Griffin did  a 12 year review of data from all major sleep laboratories and formulated the “expectation fulfilment” theory of dreaming. He suggests that dreaming metaphorically completes patterns of emotional expectation in our autonomic nervous system and that it lowers stress levels in mammals. I hope that’s true. If so, I need to do more dreaming – which means I need to do more sleeping.

I have no great red book like Jung. I have actually drawn a few of my dreams, but it’s not something I do very often. But I highly recommend keeping a dream journal. Perhaps, starting that process is worthy of its own post one day.

That original book of Jung’s is now on display for the first time at the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan, and the translation of the massive volume is available at a ridiculous $200. I will probably have to find the The Red Book in a libary, although Amazon is already discounting it and I suspect it will hit the bargain bins sooner or later. (Not something you’d want to browse on a Kindle!) Check out a slideshow of illustrations from the book at NPR.