Another ridiculous issue dream researchers must face begins with the question “what is a dream?” A seemingly simple question. It would be wonderful if we could all agree on that one, but the fact is, we can’t.
Dreaming is a culturally relative term. That is to say, not everyone in the world divides their experiences of reality into “waking” and “sleeping” in the same way. For Europeans and Euro-Americans, “dreaming” occurs while we are sleeping, with our eyes closed and the curtains drawn. Aristotle laid that track down two thousand years ago.
In the 1950s, psychologists got excited about the discovery of REM sleep, linking the Rapid Eye Movements and associated brain activity to the experience of dreaming. Alas, even this correlation has been recently disproved, as lab subjects have been found to report dream-like narratives in other states of sleep as well.
Simply put, there’s more than one way to dream.
For example, the Lakota people of the midwest plains lump night-time visions in the same catagory as their waking visions. For the Lakota, waking visions are not a sign of mental illness. In fact, many hope for some fruitful experience of inha”bla at important times in their lives.
So what is a dream anyways? Rather than getting caught up in the web of definitions – which tend to chop a phenomenon up into pieces – let’s zoom back and consider the universal expression of dreams.
We can consider dreaming to be an experience of imagination that occurs in a number of states of consciousness: not only the sleep states of REM, non-REM, and the threshold states of hypnagogia, but also as waking dreams, near-death experience and shamanic reverie.
In all of these experiences, information of the external world is dampened as we “withdraw” into a private realm which seems – as it occurs – to be just as real to our senses as the physical world.
Of course, after we remember our dreams we still have to translate them to others. This opens up a whole “nother can of worms regarding the dream as it morphs from a private encounter to a public display.