A Brief History of Dreams

By Emily Barasch 

With regards to dreams, there are decidedly two schools of thought: those who believe there is nothing more painfully boring than the analysis of dreams (especially someone else’s), and those fascinated with uncovering the meaning of our nighttime visions. Indeed, when it comes to ourselves, we can see dreams as utterly meaningless or completely revelatory and everything in between. 

One can’t discuss how contemporary society has made sense of them without mentioning Freud, who famously wrote: “Dreams are the royal road to the unconscious.” To the great psychoanalyst, dreams function as wish fulfillment and reveal our underlying motivations.  

But of course, way before Freud, ancient civilizations were fascinated by the phenomenon of dreaming. The Egyptians wrote the first book of dream interpretation around 1350 B.C. and incorporated many of these theories into their rituals, and the Greeks believed that some dreams had prophetic powers—messages straight from the gods. 

These ancient conceptions influenced post-Freud theorists like Carl Jung, who postulated that dreams expressed a personal and collective unconscious. (Think about the universality of test-taking stress dreams or the all-too-common naked in public place occurrences—not to mention, the mindboggling film, Inception.)

Today, our conceptions about dreams are more practical. A 2010 Harvard Medical School study found that sleeping and dreaming after learning a complicated concept or skill helps concretize the brain’s understanding of it. And recent research has uncovered that subjects who were not able to dream experienced increased anxiety and depression; difficulty concentrating; weight gain; and a host of health problems from cardiovascular problems to infections like colds and flu. Dreams are also said to be helpful in problem-solving, solidifying memories, and processing emotions. 

So, how to make sure we access our dreams? Most importantly, get that all-important seven to nine hours of REM sleep by prioritizing self-care to reduce stress; exercise; limit alcohol, caffeine, and sugar before bed; cultivate a meditation practice—and yes, use comfortable and fabulous sheets.