The Psychobiology and Psychoanalysis of Dreams

Have you ever experienced waking up in the night, sweating and gasping for breath because some strange dream is mystifying you? Most people have experienced dreams of being chased by some alien in the night or missing a train to some unknown destination or falling freely from the height. What causes such dreams in our mind and what is psychoanalytical significance of such dreams in our mental well being?

The human brain’s primary function and activity is maintaining consciousness and interpreting all information and sensory stimulation it receives from external environment. The brain is actively functioning at all times, while we are awake, and even while we are asleep.

According to the research published in the journal Dreaming by researchers at the University of Minnesota Medical School, the initial phase of sleep is dream-free and during this phase, measurements of the brain taken by an electroencephalograph (EEG) will record large, slow brain waves. External stimuli from environment such as noise or internal stimuli from within the body such as anxiety, plus periodic spontaneous fluctuation in the depth of sleep, bring the brain into a state where dreaming takes place. During this phase, measurements of the brain show specific EEG signs and rapid movements of the closed eyes.

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, analyzed dreams in his famous published work The Interpretation Of Dreams to understand aspects of personality as they relate to pathology and how the subconscious mind communicates with the conscious brain. Freud believed that every action is motivated by the unconscious mind, nothing happens by chance. He categorized the mind into three parts — the id, ego, and superego. The id is the part which deals with basic instincts, primal impulses, unchecked urges and wish fulfillment. The ego is the part of mind which is concerned with conscious, rational thoughts and self awareness. The superego is the part which acts as censor for the id and acts as moral police for the ego. In the waking state, the impulses and unchecked urges of the id are suppressed by the superego. It is during sleep that the guards of the superego are down and this is the time when the id speaks out as dreams. Sometimes the primal desires of the id can reveal as such disturbing symbolic images, that it can lead the person to wake up in shock.

Alfred Adler, the Austrian medical doctor, psychologist and founder of the school of individual psychology, believed that there is a strong correlation between the number of dreams a person experiences in his sleep and number of problems that person encounters in his actual daily life. A person who is experiencing recurring unpleasant dreams, symbols and images in his sleep is certainly grappling with lot of tough real life problems.

So, if disturbing dreams with unpleasant images recur in your mind in the night, despite leading a seemingly normal life in the day, you must ask yourself, what is your subconscious mind trying to tell you?

According to Madhu Tandon, the author of the book Dreams and Beyond: Finding Your Way in the Dark, medical research has shown that dreams of being chased and dreams of falling from height are the two most common dreams which majority of people experience. Let us analyze here some common dreams which many people experience and their psycho-therapeutic significance:

**People, who experience recurring dreams of being chased in the dark, have anxiety over something which they want to hide and forget. It may be something which they may have done against the law or something they may have done against morality which keeps hounding them. These dreams suggest the attempt of mind to run away from certain circumstances or fears.

**Dreams of falling from a tall building or falling from a bridge or freely falling through the sky, suggests feeling of insecurity and inferiority in the mind. People experiencing such dreams have deep inner feeling of having fallen in esteem in the eyes of self or in eyes of others around them.

**If someone sees images of sea storms or hurricanes in his dreams, it suggests that his mind is experiencing overwhelming and turbulent emotions due to his circumstances. It is an indication of restless state of mind due to inability of mind to find immediate solution to the real life circumstances.

**Experiencing dreams of being found naked in public have nothing to do with sexual feelings. This kind of dream signifies a buried feeling in mind of being exposed, embarrassed or ashamed in public. People who are very image conscious or who display a carefully cultivated artificial public persona may experience such dreams.

**Many people see images of death of some of their loved ones in their dreams and this causes immense stress. They think it is a kind of premonition foretelling the happening the similar event in actual life. But meaning of the dreams is often metaphorical and does not need to be taken literally because such dreams may actually signify anxiety over a breaking relationship, or fear of loosing someone about whom one is very possessive.

**Recurring dreams of missing a train is usually symbolic of loosing out an opportunity, about which our subconscious mind is aware but which our conscious awake brain keeps ignoring sometimes.

Many of our anxieties and fears are brought to our notice when we pay attention to such recurring dreams. This becomes the first step towards inner healing and mental peace. If understood correctly, dreams can sometimes, warn us about the impending danger and prevent us from indulging in senseless self-destructive activities.


Nair, D. (2009). Tell me your dreams. Hindustan Times Sunday Magazine, pp. 10-11.

Tandan, M. (2008). Dreams and Beyond: Finding Your Way in the Dark. London: Hay House UK Ltd.

Reiser, M.F. (1994). Memory in mind and brain: What dream imagery reveals. Connecticut: Yale University Press.

Mahowald, M., Woods, S., & Schenck, C. (1998). Sleeping Dreams, Waking Hallucinations, and the Central Nervous System Dreaming, 8 (2), 89-102 DOI: 10.1023/B:DREM.0000005899.59224.17

Simi Agarwal, DDS

Simi Agarwal, DDS, is a dental surgeon and published medical writer from the University of Pune, Medical & Dental College and Hospital. She is certified by the General Dental Council, London and is a member of the Indian Medical (Dental) Association. She has been a regular contributor to several medical websites and blogs.
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