An Evolutionary Theory of Dreaming

Before getting to a specific dream, I would like to ask from a dream research perspective; why do we dream?

We can find many theories at the International Institute for Dream Research website and on the Internet, however the growing consensus since the 19th century is an evolutionary psychological  one. Dreams like the one below, provide clues to the evolutionary role dreaming has played in the human as well as other species. My own personal experience points to dreaming as a creative process that is built into our nature's evolutionary design.

Elaine, 34 American

In my dream, I own several very large aquariums containing large exotic fish, turtles, reptiles. These aquariums are about the size of a small room.  I have forgotten to check on them and feed them for a while and find that some are dead/dying.  There is usually one large fish or snake that has been eating the others to survive and has become very aggressive. I feel guilty/sad/frightened. This is a recurring dream.

Mr Hagen's Reply: Collective Responsibility and the Medical Humanities

The medical field of research into understanding human nature, is interested in phylogenetic traits and processes such as personality, memory, learning, perception and language. A central psychological issue is the ability to adapt. For Sigmund Freud the dream and dream work were primarily a reflection of individual's biological adaptiveness. For Carl Jung the evolutionary traits that made us human were expressed in our dreams as archetypes, these archetypes however were mythologically organized on the evolutionary basis of collective natural history of human adaption.  

Frederich Snyder's article Toward an Evolutionary Theory of Dreaming provides evidence about the 200 million years of evolution of the rapid eye movement sleep (REM) state that nature has built into the sleep of the animal kingdom's process of life. Snyder outlines two important hypothesis of the REM state, first that in order to maintain effective brain function; "the homeostatic hypothesis implies a periodic restoration of the functional organization of nervous activity...."

We can conclude from the medical work of Claude Bernard and Walter Cannon on human homeostatic mechanisms from an adaptive perspective, that it would be innately wise for animals during sleep to restore, monitor and re-organize the interior milieu of the body, memories, learning, thoughts, plans and feelings. Dreams may allow animals to develop coping strategies as part of the dream work process, that then can be applied during the day. Mal-adaptive dreaming would amount to maladaptive coping strategies. We also know that the circadian rhythm (aka biological clock) regulates the sleep-wake cycle. Short circuiting of the circadian and homeostatic processes can cause serious medical psychosomatic problems and coping disorders.

The second hypothesis Synder discusses is the "ontogenetic hypothesis", which encompasses the thought provoking idea; "...that the primary function of the REM state is that of assisting the process of central nervous system development." Synder's ontogenetic hypothesis and question of whether REM exists in utero have both found medical affirmation by an ultrasound study; Ontogeny of behavioral patterns in relation to the concurrent development of central nervous system function, focusing on REM sleep, NREM sleep and waking states in the human fetus carried out in Japan.

The study of Finches has shown that they dream of singing. In the controversial field of stem cell research using Finches have shown promising results for helping to develop potential treatments for patients with cerebral palsy, spinal cord injuries, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Huntington's disease and Alzheimer's disease.

In his book The Human Revolution by Ashley Montague searches for key to the transition from pre-human animal to human animal. Montague does not talk about the role of dreaming in human evolution. I believe that the evolutionary transition was made, when a pre-human animal was transformed by a revolution in dreaming. David Foulkes, Children's Dreaming and the Development of Consciousness has researched dreaming as it relates to consciousness and provides us with an ontogenetic model of dreaming.

Now to your recurring dream.

In your dream one of the fish or snakes has been eating the others to survive. The will to live usually takes charge when survival is threatened. Erich Fromm Anatomy of Destructiveness reviews theories of aggression and predatorial instincts providing insight into the problem of malignant narcissistic aggression. The Harlow experiments had already long ago shown that monkey's thrown into the "pit of despair" became depressive and psychotic. In humans the process of malignant narcissism often begins with cruelty to animals.

In your dream, you feel guilty, sad and frightened about your neglect  of the animals. This makes you distinctly human. Those who are psychopaths lack empathy and have no such feelings, or massively repress them. Your dream perhaps illustrates and points out to us what's emotionally wrong (moral problems) with animal testing and everyday neglect and abuse not only of animals but our environment and our planet. The research into the moral and emotional development as it relates to development of dreaming is still a vastly unexplored field. The IIDR interpretation On Suicide, Killing and War testify to the problems humans on the planet have with empathy.

Since you say that you "own" the animals, is this another way of saying that you are taking ownership of the problem, in that you are taking responsibility. Isn't that the key point of your dream about individual and collective responsibility of the problems on our planet, the wars, the corruption, the crimes, the daily starvation, the abuse and neglect of others. We all would like to take a day off and forget (much as in your dream) our responsibilities. When we turn our eyes away from these problems every day, creating a state of moral diffusion of responsibility of our collective conscience this can only lead down one road to the planetary tragedy of the commons. You are not alone in feeling the need for empathy and activism, other dreams sent to the IIDR speak in a similar voice, read; Streetproofing, and Collective Dissociative Disorder.

The nature-nurture debate is an old one, however collecting dreams make it painfully evident and obvious how the neglect of nurturing can undermine and pervert human nature. It has been said that "it takes a village to raise a child". The Psychohistory of the Global Village (read IIDR interpretation) does not speak well for many children who were born today on our planet. As well, the IIDR interpretation speaks of Endangered Species -or- Silent Spring in fact species on the planet are dying off every day not because of natural evolutionary processes, instead they are caused by the anthropogenic and predatorial human acts, think of the BP oil spill in the Gulf. Many live on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, does anyone care? Sounding the alarm and making these problems transparent is imperative if we want the situation to change.

A dream received by the IIDR Closet Girl makes it clear that empathy is very dependant on the learning and the rational ability of perspective taking. Robert Selman's social cognitive theory of the five stages of perspective taking can be applied to understanding how individuals develop human empathy and understanding. The success or failure of perspective taking (altruism vs egotism, nurturing vs neglect and abuse, empathy vs psychopathy) are all signs of whether our narcissism (self-perception) develops to become healthy or malignant. The medical humanities  need to actively promote human perspective taking and the emotions of responsibility, altruism, nurturing, care and empathy, if we don't the fairy tale of our planet will have an unhappy ending. Especially health care providers can become overloaded by over-empathizing; read IIDR interpretation Occupational Hazards.  Like many recurring dreams received by the IIDR, including yours, it becomes one more Groundhog Day in the Global Village.

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