Alaska Sleep Education Center

What Do Dreams Do?

Posted by Lincoln Stoller, PhD, CHt on Jul 20, 2020 3:30:00 AM

Woman dreaming she is on a cloud.

If you want to understand your dreams, learn who's speaking to you and why. Half of understanding your dreams rests on how well you know yourself, the other half on what you hide.

There is a lot of psychological literature on dreams. I’ve read enough to notice how narrow-minded it is. The fact that many authors still defer to Freud and Jung—explorers from before the time of the scientific study of dreams, global cultural awareness, and the emergence of psychedelics—should tell how little progress has been made.

Dreams are a holistic phenomena. Approaching them from psychology is—like any one approach to a many-faceted phenomena—another story of three blind men and an elephant. You’ve to get to a holographic view, a view in which the whole is not just more than but different from its parts. I’ll give you a brief view of my understanding of dreams, from my background as a dream therapist with a background in scientific theory, experiment, spirituality, psychology, and the arts.


You’re dreaming all the time. When you sleep your brain is cleaning up and reorganizing. We call these reorganizations “dreams” when we recognize them moving around our conceptual furniture, but this certainly happens at lower levels, as well. That is to say, we “dream” at nonverbal and non-visual levels that we cannot picture, too far removed from experience to recall.

You’re dreaming while you’re awake. This is how your mind works, and just because you can’t hear the tapping on the keys of the typewriters of your mind doesn’t mean you’re mind isn’t writing various stories behind the curtain of your awareness. They say that given enough time a chimpanzee could produce the works of Shakespeare. Well, you’re working on it. We’re all working on it!

If you could fit more than one thought in your head at once, you would become aware of secondary, simultaneous thoughts. But we don’t think simultaneous thoughts, we put them in order: “on first thought… but on second thought…” These thoughts were already there before we expressed them. Our minds are busy Santa’s Workshops.


Your awareness of the world is spotty. You’re aware only of disjointed bits here and there. It takes a lot of work to make sense of the world. The world is a hellacious jig-saw puzzle, and you’re trying to make some kind of sense of it. It never lets up until you shut it out.

There are many disturbing thoughts and images, and few of them are welcome. In addition, we know that the more we think about things, the more ingrained they become. So how is one to consider, confront, and conquer negative ideas if to give them voice is to give them power? The answer is to consider them when you’re in a state that won’t remember them. This is the dream state. You play with dynamite in the dream state. No matter how many dreams you remember, you’ve still forgotten 99% of them.


Personal and social themes are based on meaningful events. These are events that other events of lesser importance feed into. This hierarchy of meaningfulness has to be constructed. The most powerful events implant themselves into our personal and social consciousness. These places are different but share many themes. We put these themes to different use.

For example, the role of “the savior” has one meaning culturally and another personally. And while those meanings can be diametrically opposite, they still build on the same foundation. You don’t often think about these fundamental themes either consciously or great detail, but they play an ever-present role in your symbolic world.

When supporting characters appear in our dreams, they share many of the same positive characteristics. We build this company of characters through repetition and re-enactment. Like little children playing with dolls, we rearrange and act out real conflicts and opportunities using our dream actors. These actors wear the same costumes we put on the people in our waking lives.


From the Western psychological perspective we say, “the mind does so-and-so and through this means the mind finds balance.” From this point of view, the reality and understanding we achieve is in our minds. This is a materialist point of view.

If you relax this point of view—that which gives primacy to the ego and its experience—then you can turn things around. You can say that these “characters” that we construct are actually our primary identity, and that the person we identify as “us” is built from them. That is, we can say that “the savior” is real, and you and I are constructs built from this.

I mention the savior just to make you think I’m religious. I’m not. I want to disturb you; that’s what makes people think. But in this I am serious: your idea of what you are is made of little more than soggy paper machéte. For most of us, our identities have quite a few weak spots. That’s OK; we inherited most of them epigenetically. We’re all fairly out of shape, mentally. Dreams offer us exercise.

It takes very little to disassemble your identity, and the sooner you master doing that, the better off you’ll be. The root of therapy is personal reassembly, and you’ve got to take it apart before you put it back together.

Dreams are a holistic experience. They are your mind’s attempt to bring many things together for the purpose of organizing your conscious awareness. It is in this sense that dreams “consolidate” memory. They consolidate personality: organizing how memories are connected and which will be more accessible to you.

One of the first results of sleep deprivation is psychosis, which is a losing touch with reality. A psychotic person is someone who has assembled reality in a non-consensual way. That is to say, they’ve put events and forces together in a way that you, I, and the natural world disagrees with.

We are all borderline psychotics. We  hold ourselves together with self-identity and social conformity. That, I believe, is one reason why we elect such mediocre leaders. Mediocrity is reassuring and the more things get out of hand, the more we circle the wagons of small thinking. The solution to the problems wrought by humans is not to build better technology, it’s to build better humans. Learn to master your dreams.

Treatment Options            

Man keeping a sleep diary.

Finding a stable balance can be a delicate state to achieve and takes trust and understanding of one’s own intuition.  To help differentiate between prodromal and non-prodromal dreams, Dream Studies Portal suggests keeping a dream journal, noticing symbols and paying attention to recurring nightmares. 

However, self-diagnosis can be a risky task to handle, as interpretations can be misleading and serious conditions ignored, psychological or physical.  While your dreams may be a result of an illness, it is still only a prediction.  If you suspect your dreams may be psychologically related, then be sure to schedule a session with a family psychiatrist.  But only a trained professional can tell you if you’re showing any early signs of an illness, and no one can give better insight into your health than you doctor. 

If you suspect you may be suffering from an on-coming illness (or even just want to make sure you’re not), then be sure to visit your primary physician or specialist – especially if you’re suffering from any signs of a sleep disorder.  Luckily, Alaska Sleep Clinic's specialists are well trained in identifying and treating any degree of sleep apnea, including Obstructive Sleep Apnea.  You can take our quiz if you’re not sure whether you suffer from any signs.  If you are showing signs and you live in the Alaska area, be sure to call for a quick 10-minute consultation with our experts and schedule a sleep study today. 


Topics: Sleep, REM sleep, dreams

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