By Dina Golbin, Med. Stud. IV, RPSGT
Dreams were a fascinating and mystic topic since the beginning of civilization. Many primitive socities and religions viewed dreams as a direct communication from the divine. Others, such as the ancient Egyptians, employed special people to interpret dreams and rewarded them handsomely. Certainly Joseph was highly regarded by not only the Pharaoh who was considered divine and whose dreams he interpreted, but also by the court and the society that survived on the grain that was put aside for them to eat in times of famine.
Today dreams are still “terra incognita”, or unknown land, for most of us and are destined to keep their secrets for a long time because most of us do not remember our dreams or go to a second party for their interpretation. On the other hand, due to advances in sleep medicine, scientists and doctors now know enough to take dreams as serious symptoms that have meaning.
As suggested above, dreams have long been associated with religion. But religion and religious authorities did not tell us where dreams came from nor did religion ever discuss the relationship between dreams and consciousness. Finally, religion does not answer if dreams are a non-logical way of knowing or what the practical value of dreaming is.
Dream researcher Jeremy Taylor is trying to unite the religious and scientific views on dreams in his presentation: “Dreams and Dreaming. Neuroscientific and Religious Perspectives”. He suggests that dreams are an expression of destiny – a mode of operation by which the human and divine communicate. Dreams gave us insight into the “authentic self” and are messages for divine. Dream interpretations are specific in Christianity, Buddhism, African-American cultures, different sects like Shamanism, etc.
According to Dr. Lee Butler, a theologian at the Chicago Theological Seminary, dreams are God’s way of giving us insight, hope and courage to bring about a better life for the community. Thousands of years of observations collected by different religions provided enormous and helpful data for scientists to try and piece together what meaning dreams may have.
The scientific study of dreams started long before Freud and was used as a symptom of disorders by Avicenna (Abu-Ali-Ibn-Sina), Hippocrates, and Harvey. This early work predates the development of sleep medicine with its high tech equipment and scrupulous methodology that has discovered many facts that dispel some myths and confirm other old time observations. The following are accepted as scientific facts:
- Subjective experience of dreams has an objective physiological mechanism that “makes” the dream. What this means practically is that what you see is subjective (not real), but physiological changes are objective (real). For example: When you run from danger in your dream, the danger is not real but your sweat, heart palpitation, increased adrenalin and blood pressure are all real. What is the cause of it is a question for your doctor.
- Emotional Dreams reflect the activity of our “emotional brain”, the so-called limbic system in REM sleep. This has been confirmed in many studies including recent PET scans performed by researchers at the Sleep Neuroimaging Research Program at the Pittsburgh Medical Center under the direction of Eric Nofzinger, MD. By injecting subjects with mildly radioactive glucose, he traced the colorful pictures of dreams to the limbic system and to the frontal area of the brain that produces logical meaning of dreams. That is why a bizarre combination of dream events is absolutely logical to the dreamer until he or she wakes up. What is a practical use of this fact? Through certain dream pictures we could suspect serious deviations of functions in specific areas of the brain incase, for example, of brain tumor or psychiatric disorder, long before obvious symptoms appear.
- The activities of internal organs are dramatically changing in REM stage of sleep.
In most cases the activity of brain and internal organs is significantly increased in the REM stage (that is why this stage is called “rapid” or “paradoxical”). It is accepted now that sleep is the most efficient stress test for the heart and cardiovascular system. Increased and deviated activity of the cardiovascular system is reflected in typical dreams.
“What we dream is often irrelevant, except some specific repetitive dreams or dreams with a specific content” – said DR. Alexander Golbin, MD,PhD, Medical Director of Chicago Sleep and Behavior Medicine Institute and editor of a textbook “Sleep Psychiatry”, -“ but body responses during sleep is always relevant and important”. There are dreams that provide clues to doctors to suspect hidden or developing breathing problems in sleep (sleep apnea), heart attack or stroke. There are groups of dreams reflecting abdominal problems, and still others being typical for psychological problems.
In this regard, the main conclusion is that dreams are serious helpers for medical doctors in the early diagnosis of life threatening disorders.
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