Field of Dreams: Methods of Analysis

By Martha Michael

Everybody loves a good mystery, don’t they?

Certainly those who work in the field of dream analysis seem to enjoy the pursuit of meaning in that cryptic world we encounter when we sleep. These detectives can’t promise “if you tell them, breakthroughs will come,” but their search continues to provide more avenues for research and better methods for analysis.

In the field of psychology there are countless directions a practitioner can take.

Both the physical mechanics of your sleep state and what you dream about play a part in dream analysis, says Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., in an article for Psychology Today.

The content of your dreams can be divided into various elements for study, including:

  • Themes
  • Emotions
  • Images
  • Events

Early Years

In ancient times, many cultures found dream interpretation important. The stories and images conveyed by individuals were sometimes seen as holy attempts by the divine to send messages to man. Some of the basis for modern psychological dream experts came from Plato and Aristotle, who created a framework for their translation and interpretation, says Breus.

In the 20th century, the unconscious was further delved into using scientific experimentation. One of the main methods from generation to generation of professional psychoanalysts, says Breus, is the “dream report.” It basically means what it says – data gathered from a subject’s memory about a dream. Scientists have used dream reports to make associations between dreams and sleep, to link dreaming experiences with specific neurological activity.

There are dream narratives we can all relate to, that occur universally, regardless of background or culture. Though interpretations are numerous, a few scenarios are common:

  • Falling
  • Being chased
  • Flying
  • Being unprepared for an exam

 Mid-Century Methods

Scientists began incorporating electroencephalography, or EEGs, to study brain activity and they discovered stages of sleep. Use of an EEG showed that during Rapid Eye Movement, or the REM phase, the brain is extremely active. According to Breus, EEGs are still a common research method for studying dreams.

The use of fMRI, or functional magnetic resonance imaging, enables researchers to observe just how active the neurons in your brain are when you sleep. The data they get conveys which parts of the brain receive oxygen and the most blood flow during dreams.

“Scientists are actively investigating ideas that dreams are an extension of waking consciousness, that dreams are a kind of rehearsal space for the mind to play out potentially threatening or difficult waking-life situations, and that dreams are the brain’s way of stitching together a narrative from the electrical impulses it generates during sleep,” Breus says.

Researchers have even begun to predict the content of a subject’s dream based on brain activity. As Breus calls it, dreams are “an endlessly tantalizing mystery” where any sleuthing scientist can find an endless supply of whodunits. But you want these experts out in the field, attempting to make sense of your dream state scenarios, which may be as simple as playing catch with your father.