Nearly 23 centuries after Hippocrates (c. 460-c. 370 BC), a Russian Nobel laureate physiologist, Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (1849-1936), famous for his ‘conditioned reflex’ theory (1901), investigated the physiological basis of dreams. He identified the cerebral phases of sleep to understand dreams and hypnosis. A dream is a ‘diffuse inhibition’ of the cerebral cortex, which for example, wakes up a mother at the slightest movement of her child. Sleep-walking, or somnambulism, is caused by the partially awake motor areas of the cerebral cortex. In 1977, J A Hobson and RW McCarley argued in their thesis that the brain stem generated dreams; they mentioned an area in the stem, called ‘pons’ (a primitive part) that connected the cerebral cortex with the beginning of the spinal cord and generated impulses that were like a pa­ce-maker for the Rapid Eye Moti­on (REM) state of sleep that begi­ns after 29 months of a mother&’s pregnancy. Modern researchers found the presence of a neuro-chemical (transmitter), acetylc­hol­ine, to be causing dreams. It makes the brain cells function and initiates REM sleep; this does not render dreams meaningless.

Activities before falling asleep can return in dreams. S T Coleridge was reading traveller Marco Polo&’s account of Xanadu, Kubla Khan&’s palace. The descriptions returned in the dream and were noted in his poem. Freud calls these ‘day residues’. Certain drugs can induce nightmares. In many cases, the cause and the meaning of a dream are the same. Some researchers argue that dreams, like the appendix in the human body, serve no purpose, are essentially a primitive hangover, and should best be forgotten. On the contrary, Freud believed, traumatic nightmares heal the unconscious by relieving anxiety. Schizophrenics get worse, if they do not dream. ‘Punishment dreams’ absolves guilt in the unconscious; they help diagnose serious mental disorders, but nightmares can precipitate cardiac arrests in vulnerable persons. Almost all nightmares reflect conflict owing to incompatible desires and obligations, or irreconcilable thoughts and emotions.

Analysts differ in the interpretation of dream symbols, but many of them interpret the chimpanzee as a symbol of oedipal conflict, the snake of wisdom, the bull and horse of masculinity and sexual prowess, the mouse of introspection, the crow or raven of the death of the dreamer. Loss of teeth in dreams is ominous in all cultures, but failing in a test or examination could usher in good news.

Every religion has texts on sleep, dream and nightmares and advises ways of getting rid of the last. The Buddhist views are contained in the Junti Bodhisattva Dharani Sutra that states, “Although dreams are false and illusory, they can portend things to come, convey messages or teachings by gods, spirits of bodhisattva, i.e. one who aspires for enlightenment (bodhi). The Buddhist theoretical psychology, the Vijnanavada, says that dreams occur in ‘monkey-sleep,’ a drowsy state, in which things thought of during the day return. Dreams are democratic; the rich and poor dream alike, but for analysing them, one has to know the dreamer. The dreams of a prince or a scholar could be messages from ancestors and sages, but not of common dreamers. Buddha regarded dreams as illusory.

In the Vajra (Diamond) Sutra, he said, “All conditioned dharmas, are like a dream, like an illusion, like a bubble, like a shadow, like a dewdrop, like a lightening flash; you should contemplate them thus”. He taught the transcendent use of dreams. When he was living in the Jeta Vana in Sravasti, he went into a Samadhi (trance) and uttered a mantra (spell): Na Mwo, Sa Dwo Nan, San Myau San Pu Two, Jyu Jr Nan, Da Jr Two, Nan, Je Li Ju Li Jun Ti, Swo Pe He. If one recites it 10,000 times, one will see the Buddha and Bodhisattvas in his/her dream. If a serious offender recites it 20,000 times, he will see the heavens, celestial monasteries and halls; he could climb a mountain, a tree, or bathe in a large pool, soar aloft, play with heavenly maidens, speak the dharma, cross a water body, sail in a boat, ascend the lion&’s throne, see a Bodhi-tree. By judicious utterance of the mantra, man can reshape his karmic balance, reverse evil retribution and usher in a future of blessings, wisdom and happiness. The good dream-symbols that Buddha listed include visions of purging, bathing, good companions, transformation of defilement to purity, passage over boundaries, ascending in space and climbing mountains. The feelings that dreams generate are soothing; they also induce blissful relief, freedom from anxiety, fear and doubts. The mantra neutralizes evil, transforms it to good and heals the mind which does both good and bad karma.

Hindu scriptures postulate an astral (subtle) body that is conscious when one is asleep. No wonder we forget dre­a­ms so soon. Our inner life is far more complex and intricate, but at the same time logical and advanced. We mingle with other souls, whose physical bodies could be asleep. One can transcend the lower dream-state and soar higher by chanting mantras and doing japa just before falling sleep. One con­tacts the inner world, while the body is asleep. Sleep and dea­th are like brothers, as Oscar Wilde wrote, except that in the for­mer the silver cord is not brok­en Rs the psychic umbilical cord between the physical and astral body. In Ayurveda, a dream of fire means an excess of the fire elem­e­nt, of flying an excess of water in the body etc., just as the Chine­se do, as prescribed in the Yellow Em­­­pe­ror&’s Classic of Internal Me­dicine, Huang Ti Nei Ching Su Wen.

Indians believe in the prophetic nature of certain dreams. There are anecdotes in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The story goes that the singer-actor, Kishore Kumar, dreamt a week before his death on 13 October 1987 that his body, covered with a white sheet, was being carried by pall-bearers. In Jainism, certain dreams by pregnant women are auspicious and forecast the strength of an unborn child. The Svetambara sect lists 14 such dreams, the Digambara sect, 16; most of them are identical. These dreams presaged the births of Tirthankaras, Chakravartis, Baladevas, Vasudevas and of 59 holy men, called Shalakapurush, described in detail in the Kalpasutra. Certain creatures and goddeses in dreams are auspicious: Airavata, Indra&’s elephant, presages a child of good character, brishava or bull spirituality, lion presages power, strength and fearlessness and goddess Lakhsmi will make the embryonic child enormously wealthy and prosperous. 

According to the Bible, nightmares are “dreams that produce a strong negative emotional response, such as fear or horror”. Going to bed, distressed over the day&’s problems, or after a fight or argument, can also cause nightmares. God sometimes uses dreams to communicate with His prophets and others, like telling Abimelech not to touch Abraham&’s wife, Sarah. God or His angel appeared in dreams of Gideon, Solomon, Nebuchadnezzar, Mary, Joseph and Pilate&’s wife, but seldom in anybody&’s nightmares. Nightmares are the brain&’s way of contending with our fears and concerns. For Christians, as also for Hindus and Muslims, prayer is the most potent weapon against emotional or spiritual distress in dreams. Muslims believe that nightmares generally emerge from what one sees and is preoccupied with during the day, generally stressful experiences. Children and women have more dreams and nightmares than adults. Eating late at night, just before going to sleep, produces them, because it accelerates metabolism and affects the body and mind during sleep. 

Interpretation of dreams and psychoanalysis are popular in many countries, but are still not considered science. Diverse religious and folk beliefs as well as secular theories and therapies of dreams and nightmares do not gel. Speculative elements mar the theories of Freud, Jung, Adler and successive generations of researchers. No wonder the riddle “Why do we dream at all?” has remained a mystery!