Since the beginning of time, dreams have fascinated and perplexed us. Why do they happen? Where do they come from? What do they mean? Are dreams merely the result of chemical changes in the brain, as some studies indicate, or vehicles for divine communication?
Dreams figure prominently in the literature, practices, and mythology of all cultures. Muslims believe that a spiritual source gave the Koran to Mohammed in a dream. Buddhist priests use information gleaned from dreams to help them locate each new incarnation of the Dalai Lama. In ancient Greece, people with illnesses spent the night in temples built to Aesclepius, the god of healing. There they received guidance in their dreams from the god, and the cures were written on the temple walls. The early texts of the Egyptians and Hindus, the Old Testament of the Bible, the writings of such diverse authors as Shakespeare, Socrates, Omar Khayyam, and Descartes all provide evidence that for millennia people around the world have looked to dreams for guidance, prophecy, wisdom, and inspiration.
American Indian, Australian Aranda, and Celtic shamanic teachings suggest that the dream realm is a parallel universe, a place we journey to when we sleep. Though nonphysical, it is every bit as real as the world we inhabit when we’re awake. Author Carlos Castenada described these alternate realities in The Art of Dreaming and other books.
Although we don’t always remember our dreams, we dream every night. In fact, most adults spend about 1.5 hours dreaming and have three to five dreams per night, each lasting from a few minutes to half an hour or more. Most, but not all, dreams occur during periods known as REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, when the brain stem sends out signals that stimulate the brain’s sensory channels to produce images.
Neuro-physiological explanations of the process, however, don’t tell us anything about the purpose of dreams. Perhaps, as David Fontana proposes in his book Dreamlife, “We sleep partly in order to dream. Sleep…may be the servant of the dream.”