Police Psychology | Dreams: What Do They Mean?
In police psychology we often get asked the question, “what does my dream mean?” A dream is a wish your heart makes when you’re fast asleep…When Cinderella sang this song many years ago, she was just adding to an age-old psychological and philosophical debate. Are dreams a window to another world or dimension? Maybe a look into the future? A physiological process in response to something in the environment? A biological necessity? In short: when our heads hit the pillow and we get some shut eye, what on earth are we thinking?
…Perchance to Dream
Dreams can come in many variations. Some dreams are extremely vivid. Others are much hazier. Some dreams wake you up and you can describe them in great details. Others you don’t even remember having. Sometimes, in dreams, you have superpowers and can do incredibly unnatural things. Other times you’re inept, like you’re running in glue, barely able to move or escape. Some people notice recurring dreams or recurring themes in their dreams. I used to have this recurring dream that I was sitting in a college classroom taking a test, but I had never gone to the class. When I looked at the test, I didn’t know anything. I had it probably 50 times through college and grad school. The night after I defended my doctoral dissertation, the recurring dream started, but this time I threw down the paper and walked out of the class. That was the last time I had it. Don’t need to be Freud to figure that one out! Some people can explain certain aspects of their dreams as relating to things they have seen or experienced in the past couple of days. Or recently some of my cops have delved into their own police psychology when they describe dreams of dangerous shoot-no shoot situations where they can’t make up their minds because the perpetrator is a minority. Pretty safe one to interpret given the news of the United States. But all this still begs the question: what is a dream?
Early psychoanalysts explained that dreams are a way to safely live our unconscious fantasies and desires. It is a way for us to experience things that society may deem inappropriate or detrimental. Like dreaming of burning down your school building or office, or dating your celebrity crush. However, when you dream about a killer ballerina chasing after you with a bloody ax, or a girl you’re dating turning into a huge nasty boa constrictor and choking you out (no wonder I stayed single such a long time) …you’d probably need to ask yourself what’s wrong with your unconscious and why you would ever have such strange desires. True, your unconscious may not be playing out your desires literally, but that doesn’t negate the fact that there’s probably more to the story. So, let’s put the idea that dreams help us live out our unconscious fantasies on the back burner and explore some other possibilities.
The Function of Dreams
Some psychologists who explored the function behind dreams, say that dreams help us organize and evaluate our memories and emotions from the past few days, making it easier to solve our current problems. This is called the information-processing theory of dreams: when we dream, our synapses are strengthened, thus strengthening the connections we made and the information we learned during the day. There is some evidence for that. Dreams are also said to be cathartic—like our own personal therapy. Instead of talking, we dream. Others suggest that we dream in order to prepare ourselves in case we ever encounter threatening situations. Dreams, in other words, are test-runs or practice drills for us. When we dream, our amygdala is activated and firing in similar ways as when we are in threatening situations. Our fight-or-flight response tends to kick in too. In other words, when we’re trying to escape from a hammerhead shark (or that damn boa constrictor, those things move fast you know), that’s our brain’s way of saying, “If you can do it in your sleep, you can do it in real life.” So, when you find yourself in the middle of the street in Smurf underwear, your brain is going to be patting itself on the back knowing it prepared you for this very moment. Don’t quite buy that!
When we sleep, we go through different cycles. REM sleep, which stands for Rapid Eye Movement, is when our dreams occur. During REM sleep, our limbic system is activated. This includes the amygdala (which is involved in our fight-or-flight response) and the hippocampus (which is involved in memory consolidation and storage). The activation-synthesis model of dreaming suggests that when these internal processes are triggered, our brain synthesizes and interprets the information provided and attempts to makes sense of it by creating visuals for us: dreams.
There are many studies that suggest the necessity of dreaming. Studies in which participants were woken right as they were entering REM sleep showed that these individuals experienced higher rates of tension, anxiety, irritation, and irritability. They also ate a lot more food and gained weight more easily. Without dreams, memory consolidation would be a lot harder, and the information that typically travels into our long-term memory during this time would not do so. Although it is still unclear exactly why all these things occur, depriving people of the ability to dream can have severe consequences on their mental and physical health. They can even start having hallucinations. One of the first things I do when someone comes in physically disturbed or in PTSD is try to get them sleeping right. Need to get that full REM time.
So What’s in a Dream?
Some physiologists say we are just eating up old neurotransmitters when we dream. Are you getting the idea we don’t really agree on things. It goes back to my old saying when you have many interpretations of the same phenomenon maybe that is because there is not just one cause. When multiple causes are behind something we often call it an interaction effect. Maybe sometimes our dreams are eating up neurotransmitters, maybe we are living out our unconscious desires in some dreams, maybe we are just entertaining ourselves with other dreams. It is hard to say when you have an interaction effect. So how do you interpret them if there is no one cause? That I leave to the simple steps below.
- The first thing I tell my clients, forget the content and concentrate on the feeling. How did you feel when watching the dream? Whatever it was, it was probably reflective of a feeling now. If you felt good it is probably reflective of a lack of concern in life or perhaps the place you want to be in once what is going on in life is over. If you felt anxious, it is probably reflective of an anxiety about something in life. Helpless — the same. Put it your present emotional context and look at the emotion.
- Think then about relating it to your life. What is going on in your life that can arise the same emotion? Are you anxious about money and could be dreaming in such a way as that is coming through? Are the unhappy about your children’s work and have made a dream about that? Are you feeling helpless or trapped in their marriage? Find out what is the same feeling you have in their normal life and put it in perspective.
- Finally, look at what the dream is telling you to do. Dreams don’t often reflect any more than the initial feeling, but if you are running from something and turn back toward it to fight, maybe that could be a message to you to find a way to fight the cause of your anxiety in your life. Don’t get overly motivated and go do something rash, but think about the best way to take what the dream is telling you. If there is a message, consider it as something you have to figure out.
Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D.
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