Why do we dream?
  The expectation fulfilment theory of dreaming
sleep and dreams

Frequently Asked Questions

> If we all dream every night, why do I not remember
   my dreams?

> Why do we have repetitive dreams?

> How can nightmares be de-stressing us?

> Can dreams predict the future?

> Can dreams provide solutions to problems?

> When I was coming out of my depression, I recalled fewer
   dreams yet you say we dream more when we are depressed,
   how can this be?

> Are all dreams in metaphor?

> Why do we dream in metaphor?

> What about lucid dreaming?

> Do women have more nightmares than men?

> What about dreams with apparently mystical content?

If we all dream every night, why do I not remember my dreams?

Even people who recall dreams usually only recall one or two, which is a tiny fraction of our overall dreaming in a night.  Nature did not intend us to recall our dreams.  The function of dreaming is to forget stuff not to recall it, although it can be interesting to recall some of our dreams and read off the meaning in the metaphors.  If you wake up naturally, i.e. without an alarm clock, you are more likely to recall a dream.  Even if you only recall a fragment, record it and often the rest of the dream will come backing into your memory.  The more you get interested in recalling your dreams the more you will start to recall them. Remind your brain just before you fall asleep that you would like to remember a dream.
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Why do we have repetitive dreams?

We have repetitive dreams because an emotionally arousing situation that occurs is similar to one that arose in the past. The brain uses the same, or very similar, metaphor to deactivate our unexpressed emotions about that similar situation. A further reason is that sometimes if we have had a traumatic experience in the past, being bullied for example, something happening in the present keeps reminding us of it, arousing emotions in us which then get expressed with a repetitive nightmare.

How can nightmares be de-stressing us?

Although nightmares can be very frightening when we are having them, they are actually de-activating unexpressed fears.  The nightmare, by acting out the fear, switches off the emotionally arousing expectation in our autonomic nervous system.  The level of anxiety being expressed that turns into a nightmare can be so strong that it alerts the conscious mind, even wake us up, then we are able to recall it.

Can dreams predict the future?

It is to be expected that dreams would at times appear to predict the future since dreams are about our unfulfilled expectations.  If we are worried about the illness of an ageing relative, for example, we may well dream that another aged relative has died.  On some occasions the relative that we dream about may actually die. Since they were chosen to play the dream character because they too are old and infirm, we might think wrongly that our dream was predicting the future.

However there are so many well authenticated anecdotes about dreams predicting the future, it would be foolish to say that dreams cannot ever predict the future.  This is especially so since there is nothing in the theories of modern physics that excludes the future from affecting the present.

Can dreams provide solutions to problems? 

Dreams act out metaphorically our unfulfilled expectations.  Yet there is a wealth of evidence recorded of people being inspired and receiving solutions to problems in a dream. The answer to this puzzle is that sometimes we may have reached a solution to a problem in our cognitive unconscious mind before falling asleep.  When this happens the solution is likely to be incorporated into the metaphor used to deactivate a waking unexpressed expectation.  We give many examples of this in our book Dreaming Reality.

When I was coming out of my depression, I recalled fewer dreams yet you say we dream more when we are depressed, how can this be?

Although we dream more when we are depressed, we are less likely to recall dreams because they take place earlier in the night than usual.  When we come out of depression our sleep balance gets corrected and dreaming is once more taking place predominantly just before we wake up in the morning, a time when we are most likely to recall our dreams.

Are all dreams in metaphor?

Real dreams are purely metaphorical.  We have meandering thoughts in non REM sleep that we sometimes become aware of, but these are not true dreams although they may be triggered by a dream.

Sometimes, however, we do dream about real people but they have been metaphorically changed. For example, they are ‘invisible’ in that you know they are in the dream but you cannot see them. Sometimes a person can be in a dream but changed physically, transformed in some way. For example, they could be as they were when much younger or are part animal or, as in one example, a bar of chocolate with their head recognisable.  Finally, people who are in reality dead can appear alive in a dream.

Why do we dream in metaphor?

The crux of the expectation fulfilment theory is that dreaming is the mechanism that enables us to discharge at night unexpressed emotional arousals experienced during the day — our urges and desires, great and small, that were not acted upon. Through his own research and the reported experience of countless others, Griffin has shown that we dream in metaphor. He has previously offered suggestions for why we should do so (for instance, the right neocortex, which is the part of the brain involved in dreaming, quite naturally uses metaphor, and instincts are programmed in the form of metaphor — such as the baby's urge to suckle from a nipple-like object). However, he now suggests that there is a much more economical explanation: we dream in metaphor to prevent our memory stores from becoming either corrupt or incomplete.

To illustrate how this works, let's take the scenario of an office party, where, perhaps disinhibited by alcohol, Amy, the operations manager, discovers a hitherto hidden sexual attraction towards the managing director, which appears to be reciprocated. As she is a responsible married woman with children, she doesn't act upon it. But that night, according to the expectation fulfilment theory of dreaming, she will need to complete the expectation aroused, both to discharge the still 'live' emotional expectation that is taking up brain space and also to preserve the integrity of her emotional instincts. (If we didn't act on instinctive impulses to flee danger, seek food, reproduce, etc, the instincts would gradually weaken and disappear.)

But there is a problem. We know that long-term memories are consolidated during both REM and slow-wave sleep — which is why, if we learn something and take a nap, we are better able to remember it afterwards. If Amy dreams that, as a result of her attraction at the party, her boss whisks her away on a romantic cruise, she will be creating a memory that is partially false. It might be argued that we are perfectly well able to distinguish dreams from reality — we do so whenever we happen to remember our dreams. But, during dreaming, lines of connection to the rational part of the brain are closed and it is only afterwards, if the dream is remembered, that it can be rationalised.

If, on the other hand, as is usual for us all, Amy forgets her dream, she will have gaps in her memory of what actually happened, since the dream involves both real (the attraction at the party) and fantasy (the romantic cruise) experiences. We use our memory of experiences to help us predict how to react in similar circumstances in the future: a memory system with significant memories missing would be next to useless for this purpose.

Using an analogous experience as a means of completing the arousal provides a perfect solution. It enables the arousal to be discharged and the metaphorical dream material can be safely forgotten, but the original record of what happened (the attraction at the party) is filed away in memory. So Amy may dream that she has been whisked away on her romantic cruise with some celebrity whom she also finds attractive. The dream can be forgotten (or enjoyed, if remembered) but the original arousal that inspired the dream is safely stored in memory, reminding Amy not to be alone in potentially compromising circumstances with her boss.

So what has been discharged is the arousal associated with the instinctive urge but, importantly, the instinctive urge itself — in the context it was experienced — is remembered. This also accounts for why the emotional arousal caused by trauma is seemingly not discharged in dreams. The continual, intrusive arousal caused by post-traumatic stress is discharged in dreams. But, because the memory holds an accurate record of the incident that occurred and the terror that was experienced during it, every time elements of that original trauma are pattern matched to (perhaps through hearing a screech of brakes like that heard just before the crash or seeing a leather jacket like that worn by the rapist), the emotions associated with it are experienced again — and again need discharging in dreams.

What about lucid dreaming?

Throughout history there have been reports of people becoming conscious of being in a dream. During such dreams, they can reason, remember to some extent the conditions of waking life, and act upon reflection or in accordance with plans decided upon before sleep. Outside of laboratory conditions, becoming aware of dreaming seems most likely to occur when dreaming about something that, at an elemental level, is known not to be at all likely, such as flying.

Flying dreams are usually very enjoyable and people can begin consciously to engage in exploring the feeling of flight, steering, gliding and so on, once the dream is underway, all the while knowing that it is a dream. (Incidently, when we have asked people for further details about their flying dreams, they may say that the flying sensation was like moving through water, but with greater ease. They describe their limbs as pulling or propelling them through the air, as though swimming. It's as if an ancient premammalian template for swimming, left over from a time when our far distant ancestors lived in the oceans, is still able to be co-opted by the brain for a metaphor.)

Lucid dreaming was studied under laboratory conditions by Keith Hearne and also Stephen La Berge. They devised ingenious ways by which subjects could give researchers predetermined signals when they were dreaming. The signals took the form of deliberately scrunching their eyes up tight, since other muscles are paralysed during REM sleep. He observed that, at the onset of lucid dreams, there is an increased tendency to awaken, probably because lucid dreamers are thinking at that point, which withdraws attention from the dream.[1]

Having a firm intention, prior to going to sleep, to become aware of dreaming can increase the chances of a lucid dream, as can practising certain forms of self-suggestion over time.

Theories of dreaming that do not allow for occasional lucidity are, necessarily, incorrect or incomplete, because lucid dreaming is an acknowledged phenomenon. Our view of the REM state and the function of dreaming does not exclude lucidity in dreams. Some dream researchers had hoped to make lucid dreaming more accessible, with the aim of providing not only a means of creating exciting fantasies but also therapeutic benefits. However, lucid dreaming is a fairly volatile and rare phenomenon, even for those who have experienced it, and so such hopes have not been realised.

Lucid dreaming occurs in the REM state like any other phenomenon involving memory, metaphor and imagination.  The same effects can be achieved through hypnosis, a focussed state of attention that artificially accesses the REM state. Knowledge of how to do this has been around for perhaps 40,000 thousand years.[2]

Do women have more nightmares than men?

Yes. The expectation fulfilment theory theory predicts that females would have more nightmares than males since they suffer twice as much from depression as males. Recently published research by Dr Jennie Parker of the University of the West of England has confirmed this[3].

What about dreams with apparently mystical content?

Since the Upper Palaeolithic Age, spirituality and mysticism became the concern of those who chose to deepen their capacity for context thinking: the process through which we become consciously aware of ever-deeper networks of relationships around us. We can now see how the mystical intelligence system evolved naturally from the original mammalian development of the ability to appraise context in the REM state. Although reading context was necessary for survival prior to about 40,000 years ago, it was always largely an unconscious process for animals and early humans. But, from then on, humans began exhibiting a new form of conscious intelligence: as well as continuing to read context unconsciously they had learnt how to enter the internal ‘reality generator’ in the REM state (where dreaming takes place) and access the ability to daydream and solve problems in imagination. They also found that they were acquiring knowledge through mystical intuition (mystical trances also involve the REM state).

Just as we can seem to escape space and time in dreaming, so does a human mind in the ultimate state of mystical consciousness. And in those realms beyond space and time, if they have sufficiently developed their core being with appropriate patterns of knowledge, they will become aware of the network of relationships that hold the Universe together. Moreover, as mystical traditions maintain, when people pattern-match to the Universe like this, their consciousness becomes eternal – they become a permanent entity (i.e. immortal). As such, the science of pattern matching and mystical states is of supreme importance, however unlikely that may seem to some. This fundamental topic is dealt with in Godhead: The Brain’s Big Bang.



1] La Berge, S. (1985) Lucid Dreaming. Ballantine Books

2] Lewis-Williams, J. D. (2002) The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art. Thames and Hudson

3] See The University of the West of England

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© Copyright Joe Griffin and Human Givens Publishing Ltd. 2007