Dreaming is a facet of human experience which most of us never stop to ponder upon, busy as we are with waking life, and yet the average human dreams for a total of six years during his lifetime. In ancient times, dreams were given tremendous importance as a means of premonition and of communication with the Divine. Modern schools of thought differ on the purpose of dreaming, but most of them do not give the same credence. Some people think that dreaming is a mere by-product of random neuron firing, to which our waking mind then tries to give meaning by fashioning these random images into a story. Other hypotheses have been formed as to the role dreaming fulfils in us:
- dreaming is simply a way of rinsing the body clean of any accumulated mental garbage during the day
- dreaming is a way of dealing with any unfulfilled desires that may have arisen during the day
- dreaming acts to transfer memory from short-term to long-term memory
- dreams are excitations of long-term memory which also occurs during waking, but which during waking we have some control over
- dreaming helps us prepare for the tremendous array of stimuli we encounter during waking life, especially when we are young
The astute reader will see that none of these hypotheses are conflicting, and that dreaming may indeed have two or more of these functions.
These modern-day discourses have rather cast past the long-held possibility that dreaming may function as a source of premonition and intuition. However modern-day accounts still persist. Beethoven heard some of the musical arrangements that were to immortalise him in a dream, and groundbreaking insights into carbon bonds and the structure of benzene came to Fredrich August Kekule in dreams. Abraham Lincoln dreamed of his assassination a few days before it happened, and Elias Howe got his inspiration in a dream for the sewing machine. Srivasan Ramanujan, one of the 20th centuries greatest mathematicians, would have dreams where proofs to the theorems would have been written for him by Namagiri, a Hindu deity, and he even delayed publishing certain theorems on her advice. The physiologist Otto Loewi dreamt of an experimental test for chemical synaptic transmission, and frantically spent the next day trying to remember it! Fortunately, he had the dream again the next evening; he was later to win the Nobel Prize for this work.
Just as dreams might have two or more of the functions above, so also there is no reason why the hypothesis that dreams can reveal deep truths about our waking life can not lie side by side with the physiological and psychological hypotheses above. One important factor to take into account is that not all dreams might originate in the same way. In addition to dreams generated by the subconscious in a haphazard fashion, there are also dreams in which the dreamer wakes up with a tremendous feeling of joy in his heart, or an inner sense that the dream was somehow real ; sometimes oneirologists (those who study dreams) would benefit from looking at these kinds of dreams differently. As Sri Chinmoy, a meditation teacher who advocates this approach, puts it:
"When we have dreams coming from the lower worlds, the subconscious worlds, or you can say inconscient worlds, we have to feel that these dreams have no value. for our future fulfillment …. If it comes from the psychic plane (ie from the heart), we will feel affection, sweetness, compassion and concern for the things or persons we are seeing. it will be all Light, Delight and Peace. "
Of course such a hypothesis is rather difficult to prove to the world at large; these psychic dreams occur on a much rarer basis than subconscious dreams which happens every night, and it is not clear whether the two kinds of dreams can be resolved physiologically. There has been some limited research into dreams as a method of problem solving, but results have been rather mixed, perhaps as a result of failing to distinguish psychic dreams from random subconscious dreams. However, difficulties in provoking the hypothesis does not mean it can be abandoned out of hand: after all, the dream theories of Sigmund Freud are manifestly unprovable, and yet they remain despite the most important contribution to oneirology. In any case, many people who believe that dreams can contain deep truths are content not to seek scientific blessing, but purely to offer this hypothesis to be protested against the internal laboratory of human experience.