Psi and Family

Clinical Articles
Article Listing



Mental Health Resource Series
"Dreams, Nightmares, Night Terrors: The Landscape of Sleep"

by Edward Bruce Bynum, Ph.D., A.B.P.P.
Director of Behavioral Medicine

     Everyone dreams. Some of us remember our dreams and some do not. There are many reasons for remembering dreams and for the content of dreams. One's cultural background, value system, and interest are particularly important in the remembering of dreams. However, remembering dreams can be a learned and valued phenomenon, and also forgetting dreams is not necessarily a reflection of a problem.
     Neurophysiologically speaking, dreams are part of a ninety-minute cycle that occurs in sleep. Dreams actually occur in the "lighter stages" of sleep not in deep sleep, as many people often believe. Sleep and dream research have revealed that dreaming experiences are associated with rapid eye movement, or what is called REM. During these ninety minute phases of the sleep cycle dreams occur. The rest of the time during sleep one has what is referred to as non-REM sleep. Even in non-REM sleep there are patches and fleeting occasions of mental imagery. The situation however with REM is that when one is awakened during a REM cycle, one has the direct recall of having a dream. When people are awakened from a non-REM episode, they occasionally have thoughts, but these are not organized and there is no strong emotion or story-like aspect to it. It is also a curious phenomenon that the duration or length of REM experience extends throughout the night with the longest period of dreamtime occurring near the end of the sleep cycle.
     When REM is suppressed for one reason or another, on the succeeding nights there is an attempt on the part of the body-mind to rebound from this. This is called rebound REM. One is more likely to sleep and dream for longer periods of time. These are brain or cortically mediated events. REM sleep and REM recall can be suppressed by many factors, including alcohol and various medications.
     In the inner landscape of sleep there are three generally accepted "levels" of the unconscious from a psychodynamic point of view. There is the deep unconscious that rarely reaches the surface. This is believed to be the origin of dreams. There is the pre-conscious, that level through which dream experience passes and is transformed and elaborated before it reaches waking consciousness. There is also the range of what is called the subconscious which is another way to view the processes of mental phenomena. The subconscious and the unconscious are related to each other but they are not exactly the same. Phenomena such as repression and suppression, projection, displacement and symbolization occur as unconscious phenomena. Various disorders of sleeping and dreaming can be understood to be processes that occur as a result of psychological repression and various medical phenomena. A "subconscious" view of mental processes does not necessarily embrace these other "psychodynamic" events.
     Dreams serve many functions for the higher primates. In particular, however, they serve many emotional and psychological functions for human beings. Dreams are literally biological phenomena rooted in mammals. All mammals dream. We can only speculate however as to the content of their dreams. However, they do have rapid eye movement. If you've watched your dog sleeping, you've been able to notice that at times his legs will move and he may even bark occasionally. He is having some sort of dream experience.
     In human beings, dreams are fragments and reflections of memories, wishes, fears, events, personal and particularly family patterns. On average 30 to 40 percent of the persons in our dreams are family members. This dynamic region of our psychic life is referred to as the Family Unconscious. The actual dreamwork itself involves taking these multiple phenomena from recent times, referred to as "day residue" and memories from long ago. The dreamwork then condenses many of these images in memories and themes, and distorts them, symbolizes them, and often displaces one situation and one image for another. Dreams are often attempts to solve problems. There is also an enormous amount of creativity that occurs in dreams. Many of the greatest works of art, science and religion have their roots in the process of the dream. Also, finally, it should be noted that unusual psychological events that defy our present understanding of space, time, causality and information transfer do occur in dreams and have been documented for many years in laboratories. These include the anomalous phenomena of extra sensory perception, precognitive experience, and related phenomena that as yet is not understood by mainstream psychology and psychiatry but never-the-less are real and persistent human phenomena.
     Some of the more common problems however that occur in regular nightly dreams are nightmares and night terrors and sudden awakenings. Nightmares occur in which frightening imagery and stimuli may actually awaken a person. One has a memory of the frightening situation. One's heart may be racing, there is a perfusion of sweat, and a sense of fear and apprehension. In night terrors however, there is a sudden awakening at night with an intense of fear, anxiety, panic and dread with no memory of the actual content. Sometimes a series of night terrors occur at the beginning of serious psychiatric disorders. It is quite common for children to have night terrors in addition to nightmares as they are learning to live in the world of waking and sleeping cycles. Sudden awakenings also can occur in the middle of the night. These are usually associated with nightmares.
     Recurrent dreams are an indication that the dreaming person is attempting to work out various difficulties and episodes of the past, dynamic present or the anticipated present. In some instances recurrent dreams are an expression of a past trauma. Other times recurrent dreams are an expression of the mind attempting to work out solutions for far ranging personal and scientific problems. When one is preoccupied with an issue, be it scientific, medical or interpersonal, the dream life tends to reflect that repetitively.
On occasion dreams are paradoxical as they may seemingly accompany a certain kind of sleeplessness and depression. This is when the person is not sleeping "deeply" but only in the very light sleep. As a consequence there may be experiences of dreams or dream-like phenomena where the person is still tired in the morning. This is referred to as non-restorative sleep. These dreams are usually associated with a great deal of anxiety and depression. These emotional experiences, along with their physical expressions, can plague a person throughout the waking state. One can feel that although one slept a great deal last night one is still tired.
     Dreams have an enormous potential for personal, emotional and spiritual growth. Dreams can help one increase intimacy and at the same time differentiation in their relationships. A close and careful study of one's dream life will reflect one's own personal mythology and the inner world of symbols, images and dynamic interpersonal and intrapsychic issues.
     Dreams have been used in therapy since ancient Egyptian times. In fact, dream analysis as we think of it today began with the ancient Egypto-Nubian cultures and then spread over the millennia throughout the countries and cultures of the Mediterranean basin. Dream therapy and dream interpretation have had a checkered history throughout western civilization. At one time it was actually thought to be a negative thing to be engaged in. However, in the last century many pioneering investigators began to re-look at dream interpretation again. The most notable, of course, in the western tradition are Freud and Carl Jung.
     Finally, dreams are extraordinarily powerful in the exploration of levels or dimensions of consciousness. Dreams may help one skillfully explore their own intrapsychic unconscious. However, there is a deep and unfathomable collective unconscious in which particular symbols of a universal nature called archetypes emerge in the dream life. Also the dynamic family unconscious contribution to dreams reflects one's intimate and deep, abiding relationships with one's family of origin that are then evolved out and played out in our emotional life with others. Last, but not least, dreams can reflect the transpersonal or spiritual dimension of one's life and consciousness. All of these interpenetrate and dynamically reflect each other.
     There are times however, when difficulties with dreams warrant a consultation with other than friends and associates. When recurrent stressful dreams occur where one is tired or a sense of dread and fearfulness occur, that is a time to consult a counselor about one's experience. Also repeated sudden awakenings with panic and/or night terrors are another occasion to seek a consultation concerning one's life situation. Recurrent nightmares and a sense of foreboding are an indication of possible difficulties that are associated with trauma phenomena. When dreams are normal they reflect the regular stresses and strains of family and interpersonal relationships simply because they are very intimate and it is a biological necessity to dream. It is only when the dreams are unsettling, persistent, and physically and emotionally disturbing that we should seek a professional consultation.


Bynum, E. B. 1993. Families and the Interpretation of Dreams. Ithaca, NY: Haworth Press.

Hartmann, E. L. 1984. The Nightmare: The Psychology and Biology of Terrifying Dreams. New York: Basic Books.

Hauri, P., Ph.D. The Sleep Disorders. A Scope Publication, Upjohn.

Hobson, J. A. 1988. The Dreaming Brain. New York: Basic Books.

Sullivan, H. S. 1953. The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., New York.

The information provided in this column is for educational/information purposes only. The intention is not to provide medical advice or replace the services of a trained healthcare professional. Please take specific issues or medical concern to your healthcare provider.

Visit us at our website at

© 2000 Obelisk Foundation, Inc.