What are dreams?

According to Joel Achenbach in his book Why Things Are:

Our brains create dreams through random electrical activity. Random being the key word. About every 90 minutes the brain stem sends some electrical impulses throughout the brain. There is no particular order or fashion to this. The analytic portion of the brain desperately tries to make sense of these signals. This is something like looking at a Rorschach test, those random splashes of ink on paper. The only way to comprehend it is by viewing the dream (or inkblot) metaphorically or symbolically. There is no literal message.

This does not mean dreams are meaningless or should be ignored. How our brains choose to "analyze" the random and discontinuous images might tell us something about ourselves, just like what we see in an inkblot can be revealing. And perhaps there is a purpose to all the craziness: Our minds might be working on deep-seated problems by creating these circuitous and less threatening metaphorical dreams.

A dream is an internally generated perceptual experience (often with both visual and auditory components) during the sleeping state that the dreamer accepts as real.
Lauri Loewenberg

Let me answer this with an excerpt from my book Dream On It...

Dreams are thoughts.  You see, when you are dreaming, you are thinking, but on a much deeper and focused level than when you’re awake. Think about it, when you go to sleep the lights are off, your eyes are closed and the world around you is shut out.  There are no distractions. The mind doesn’t stop working at this point.  Whatever your stream of thought is as you drift off continues and begins to go inward, and as your conscious, waking, literal mind slips into a state of rest, your deep inner subconscious mind takes over.  Once you enter the REM phase of sleep, which is when dreaming takes place, a structure located on the brain stem called the pons, sends signals to the cerebral cortex (the region of the brain responsible for most of our thought processes) that dreaming has begun, which means some very serious and deep thinking is now happening. So that waking stream of thought that was using words and that your conscious mind had control of is now controlled by your inner subconscious mind and is no longer using just words but is also using images, experiences and emotions.  Your thoughts have turned into dreams.

If dreams are thoughts, then why are they so bizarre?  The best way that I can explain it is that when you are dreaming you are thinking with metaphors.

“He’s as healthy as a horse,”  “It’s raining cats and dogs out there.”   “She is such a big baby.”  Metaphors compare two things in order to create a picture that helps us make our point.  The next time you have a conversation, try to take a mental note of how many metaphors are used between you and the other person.  You’d probably be surprised how quickly the tally will go up. We naturally communicate this way.  Dreams work in the same way.  But rather than speaking the metaphor, they bring it to life.

For example, if you dream of drowning, it’s no fun, but when you wake up and catch your breath, you need to ask yourself what part of your life could be compared to drowning? Where in your life are you having a hard time staying afloat?  What’s bringing you down?  Like a metaphor, your dreams illustrate what’s going on in your life and how you truly feel about it… and even what you need to do about it!

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.