Animism and Dreams

This blog post is for the March edition of the Animist Blog Carnival being hosted at Pray To The Moon. To find out more, including how you can contribute, please click here.

I almost never remember my dreams. I know I do dream, I sleep very well at night and snore very loudly, I remember that I have had dreams. I remember them being very strange and rarely making any sense at all. But I almost never ever remember the content of those dreams once I wake up.

dream1Dreams were very important in animist cultures. Some believed that animal spirits or ancestors could appear in dreams and give people guidance. Native American tribes have dream catchers. Shamans were thought to be able to interpret dreams and in Australian aboriginal culture, dreams are seen as being the memory of things that happened back in the creation period – a time they call “The Dreamtime.” Many cultures felt that the dream worlds were real, physical worlds that they could enter or saw dreams as containing messages from the gods. Dreams were often seen as “soul-flights” in which one’s soul left the body and traveled to other places.

British Anthropologist Sir Edward Tylor theorised that man arrived at animist beliefs in order to help him explain the causes of sleep and dreams. He argued that ancient peoples couldn’t distinguish between dreams and waking consciousness and so when they dreamed of dead relatives or friends, they assumed they were still alive in some form – this giving rise to the idea of souls. Nietzche wrote that dreams were the “origin of all metaphysics” and that without them, man would never have got the idea of a division between body and soul.

There are many theories about dreams – why we have them, what they mean e.t.c but there is no consensus. Freud thought that they were about repressed longing and sex – dreams allowed the unconscious mind to act out unacceptable thoughts and desires. Jung thought dreams allowed us to reflect on our waking selves and solve our problems or think through issues. Hobson and McCarley developed the Activation Synthesis hypothesis through research which showed that dreams were the result of random electrical impulses pulling imagery from traces of experience stored in the memory, but that our waking brain creates the actual stories when trying to make sense of it. The Threat Stimulation theory suggests dreams are a biological defence mechanism giving us evolutionary advantage because it allows our brains to repeatedly simulate potentially threatening events, while another very popular theory is that it allows us to process our emotions and that without this ability we’d have more worry and anxiety. The most current theory for bad dreams is that they are a way that we conquer our deepest fears, just as good dreams are wish fulfillment for our fantasies.

The science does show that when we are dreaming, the primary control centre for our emotions is very active but the part of the brain that controls logic and rationality is dormant. There is evidence that real world pain can incorporate into dreams and that dreams can also affect your mood. A process called Offline Memory Processing means that dreams can help you learn as the brain can teach itself while you are asleep. There have been recorded cases of correct precognitive dreams and there is a theory that deja vu may be due to something we have dreamt. There is no doubt that day dreaming is very useful for creativity.

Some scientists think that dreams do have meanings, others think they don’t. Some believe you can interpret dreams e.g. dreaming of falling is said to symbolise insecurities and anxiety in your life while being chased symbolises that you’re running away from a problem. Dreaming that you’re flying may mean you’re feeling on top of things while recurring dreams may mean there’s something in your life you’ve not acknowledged.

It is also possible to control dreams through lucid dreaming or focusing on a problem before you sleep so that you dream about it. In order to help you remember your dreams, it is suggested that you keep a dream journal next to the bed, tell yourself before you go to sleep that you will remember your dreams, and set an alarm for every hour and a half throughout the night which is when you will just be leaving REM sleep and therefore most likely to remember your dreams.

Like ancient animists, I believe that dreams are important and that we should try our best to remember and record them because they can reveal to us valuable insights about our lives. I believe that we should regularly day dream to help us be more creative and deal with problems. And I believe that dreams can be part of a process of psychological healing for us when necessary.

dream2What is your view on dreams? Do you think they are useful? Should we bother to try and interpret them?


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