Brief Historical Review of Dream Interpretation

In the study of dreams two basic problems must be addressed. These problems have different histories. They require separate methods of investigation and pursue different goals. The psychologically more important and practically more useful goal is determining the meaning of dream content. Does this content offer unknown information, the conscious knowledge of which can relevantly help dreamers to change behavior to make their lives more secure? Since its beginning, humanity has tried numerous means and invented many rituals to accomplish this desirable end. The purpose of the second basic problem is to discover the causes of dreaming and the determinants of specific dream contents. Which factors external to the process of dreaming and emanating from the dreamers' physical surroundings or from physiological processes of the body influence the content of dreams? When and how do these factors work? This second line of inquiry has undergone tremendous changes in the last decades, that the movements of sleepers' eyeballs indicate that they are dreaming. It is interesting that the connection between dreams and eye movement in sleep has been considered by hunters and country people to be a sign of dreaming in dogs for a long time. Humans sometimes discover human traits in animals but less frequently animal traits in humans, especially when the traits concern mental life. However, inquiries regarding the significance of dream content show relevant insight into and grasp of the meaning of dreams beginning in antiquity. At the same time, fanciful and unsound symbolic interpretations were also advanced, particularly of the concrete nouns or of the objects to which those nouns referred. The capricious method of interpreting dream symbols has been by far the more popular one.

The first written mention of a dream was carved on a stela in Babylon circa 3000 B.C. This monument commemorates a statesman for his outstanding achievements. The text reveals that the man had been God-fearing and that his dream confirmed it. Unfortunately the stela, now in the British Museum, does not reproduce the dream or its analysis. At the time, Babylon was a theocracy, and its priests were naturally interested in a prominent man's religious beliefs. The practice of consulting dreams before making a decision in important matters, private or public, was maintained late into the 16th century A.D. Numerous individuals continue doing so in their private lives even today.

Dreaming is not an abnormal activity, but it is so sensitive to what occurs in the body that it frequently reveals severe personality changes that have taken place or that are imminent as a result of physical disease, particularly of the brain. This had been recognized already in the 5th century B.C. by Hippocrates. The great advances in neuropsychiatry and biochemistry, made possible by highly sensitive and reliable detection devices, have enabled scientists to study the body processes that accompany dreaming. Eye movements are much better indicators of dreaming states and nondreaming sleep states than whole-body movements are, the physiology of dreaming has become an object of intensive research. This book attempts to contribute to the understanding of grossly psychopathological dreams that are not apprehensible without knowledge of underlying organogenic disorders.

The universal interest in dreams is prompted by the basic need for security. This need engenders the desire for knowledge of the future. Thus, by far the most frequent use of dreams has been prognostication of future events. People want to know whether a wish will be fulfilled or a disaster prevented. As early as old Babylonian times, priests were professional soothsayers who based their predictions on analyses of clients' dreams. The whole life of Babylonians was arranged in harmony with dream interpretations. This practice was maintained by many up to the 17th century in Europe. The famous Egyptian dreambook was written in the 2nd millennium B.C. and has been republished and translated into many languages, finding readers even today. Antiphon, a Greek in the 4th century B.C., wrote the first large, dictionarylike dreambook for practical, professional interpretations. He stated clearly that dreams are not created by supernatural powers but by natural conditions and that natural connections exist between peoples' futures and the content of their dreams. The first entirely preserved dreambook is of Artemidorus, a Greek physician who lived in Rome in the 2nd century A.D. The book includes material from the Egyptian version.

The ancient Greeks made great advances in the investigation of dreams. Plato ( 429-347 B.C.) noted that even good men dream of uncontrolled and violent actions, including sexual aggression. These actions are not performed by good men in waking states but are openly acted out by criminals without guilt. He deduced that normal people have antisocial inclinations motivated by aggressive and sexual desires. Freud identified these inclinations as basic instincts. Plato remarked further that dreams contain visual memories of earliest childhood, memories that are long forgotten in waking life. Democritus ( 5th century B.C.) stated that dreams are not products of immaterial soul (as Plato taught) but originate as a result of penetration of visual impressions of the material environment; these impressions influence our imagination, which explains why dream imagery is similar to perceptions of reality. Aristotle ( 384-322 B.C.), too, recognized the psychological nature of dreams and denied their supernatural origin. He stated emphatically that dreams can predict future events. His idea was that dreams result from sense organ movements that, in turn, produce images. Aristotle admitted that sometimes dreams can be of limited prognostic value and that prognosis must have a natural basis (a disturbing physical illness, for example); Hippocrates discovered earlier that onset of physical diseases affecting the brain can be revealed by the patient's dreams.

Hippocrates was "the father of medicine." He was also named "the first psychoanalyst", who translated Freud Interpretation of Dreams. Hippocrates was the first to separate medicine from philosophy and theology. He was as rational and empirical about dreams as he was about diseases and their causes. His dream criterion of a nonpsychogenic illness affecting mental functioning was a dream in which the dreamer's past experiences were represented in an illogical and unreal manner. The more abnormal the dream events were, the more urgent he considered the need for therapy. Healthy people (in other words, nonpsychotics) realistically reexperience their past in dreams, and reports of their dreams do not violate standards of logic and reality. Hippocrates was born on the island of Kos, within sight of the Asia Minor coast. On this island was a famous temple of Aesculapius, the Greek god of medicine. The temple was a healing place, the equivalent of a medical school. Hippocrates belonged to the Aesculapians and probably was introduced by them into the arts of dream interpretation and of using dreams as therapeutic devices. In many parts of the world and in many different epochs, incubation has been used as a means of healing. It was practiced also in Kos; there were about 300 Aesculapian healing centers in Greece alone at the time. In these places patients would be assigned a room with a bed. In the evening a priest would tell the patients that they were to sleep and dream and that in the morning the priest would return to ask the patients about their dreams. In the morning, the priest not only listened to the dream reports but made the patients actually act out all the roles they had performed in their night dreams, as actors on a stage; the priest would assume the role of other characters from the same dreams.

The obvious purpose was to make the dreamers more conscious of their intrapsychic inconsistencies and to make them experience these incompatibilities and roles intensively. This method and its variants have been revived in recent times, and good results have been claimed. During all periods of time, the interpretation and the therapeutic use of dreams were rational and psychological (in a minority of people) and irrational and superstitious (in the majority). So it was in Greece. The disastrous Peloponnesian war affected freedom of speech and writing. The clearheaded Hippocrates was cautious when he wrote about dreams. He said that he was concerned only with little, less important dreams, dreams originating not with gods but with mortals. He left interpretation of "great" dreams to others. As a physician, Hippocrates was interested in how diseases of the body or mind influence dream content. His thesis that illnesses change dreams is significant. He saw a basic problem that is still largely unsolved. How can some dreams (and these are not rare) reveal a physical illness and particularly a debilitating psychological condition before any noticeable outward signs appear?

Artemidorus, the Greek 2nd century A.D. physician in Rome, wrote perhaps the most popular dreambook in history. He used all literary sources known in his time. His dreambook has been translated into many languages and has been republished continually for at least 16 centuries. It is astonishing how much faith was put in the prognostic value of dreams. Some of the most important decisions of individuals and even of states were made in accordance with the interpretation of dreams. Artemidorus could not discourage this practice but tried to warn against uncritical acceptance of interpretations. He advised dream analysts to study the personality traits of dreamers to avoid mistakes in the interpretation of their dreams. He emphasized a modern point: Dreams are products of the mind and are not exclusively results of external sensory impressions. However, he also made a politically cautious note that possibly dreams were messages from gods. A century earlier, Cicero considered it impossible that divine powers created human dreams. Cicero thought that if gods wished to reveal something to humans, they would rather communicate with people who were wide awake and who could hear well than with sleepers who snored. Empirical verification, he added, was required to determine whether dreams had any predictive value. Imperial Rome was dangerous to prominent and simple folks alike. Disasters and loss of life threatened frequently. Cicero, a republican, was murdered by political enemies. One of his dreams, which he interpreted himself, made him follow the wrong strongman.

On his way to Rome to fight Pompey for rule over the Empire, Caesar stopped at the Rubicon river. It was the psychological and administrative frontier of Italy. Crossing the river would mean an irreversible challenge to the older man, Pompey. During the night before the announced crossing, Caesar had a disturbing, incestuous dream. Later he decided to cancel the order to march but his chief of staff pleaded that the troops were rested and eager and that instead of being a bad omen, the dream was a good sign. The chief argued that just as Caesar possessed his mother in his dream, so he would possess Italy, which was the "mother" of them all. He persuaded Caesar, and the crossing took place as planned. In pre-Christian times, a dream of incest with mother was believed to be favorable, predicting among other things a happy return from war. Interpretation of objects or animals seen in dreams seems capricious. To the Assyrians, seizing a snake meant that the dreamer would be protected by an angel. The Egyptians thought that seeing a snake in a dream indicated that a dispute would be settled. According to the Greeks, a snake signified sickness and enmity; and a powerful snake, a severe illness. The Jews were reassured by dream snakes because it meant that the dreamers' livelihoods were assured: Bitten dreamers' livelihoods would be doubled; dreamers who killed snakes would lose their livelihoods. A French, 19th-century dreambook affirms that dreaming of a skin disease such as pimples or scabies means getting money and that the amount of riches increases with the severity of the illness.

Viewing feces in dreams as symbols of gold is an old tradition. So is the occasional custom of assigning to verbs occurring in dreams meanings that are opposite of the meanings ascribed to the verbs in standard dictionaries. This is still done today, especially by psychoanalysts. Throughout the ages people have disagreed least about sex symbols. There have always been many of them in all cultures and languages, but agreement regarding their specific meanings has been relatively highest. Two facts appear to explain this: Sexual behavior is conditioned by human anatomy and biology, which are the same everywhere; sexual functions are inevitably essential to our origin.

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