Guest Post from Rachel Ruddy: Dreaming from the Depths image

Guest Post from Rachel Ruddy: Dreaming from the Depths

I was recently having a conversation with my children about their dreams. We were all able to relate to recurring dreams of being in deep water, sinking and struggling, so being a scientist, I began to explain to them what is known about the function of dreams. Interestingly, theories abound and there is little clarity about their actual function. We know that dreams are important because the average sleeper spends a quarter of their night in REM sleep (where most dreams happen), and if we are deprived of it the brain will catch up on it the next time we go to sleep.

Perhaps the most common explanation of them is that they are a mental sorting out of what has happened in the daytime. They function to regulate, analyze, explain and remember recent events in our lives. Animal experiments suggest that they can strengthen useful memories of procedures and facts and delete unwanted memories.

They are also thought to help with mood regulation and work to resolve any emotional problems and inconsistencies arising from the day. The amygdala, the brain area most linked to emotions, is very active during REM sleep, and may be involved in this process. Some people have suggested that as the prefrontal cortex (the rational, logical bit of the brain) is suppressed during REM sleep it allows the more primitive, emotional part (the amygdala) to go imaginative and wild to aid in this emotional resolution. Recurring dreams are possibly an indication that the process is getting stuck.

Contrary to all these theories is the view that dreams are just a by-product of REM sleep, that they serve no useful purpose and that the brain is just making random stories out of the information it is presented with as a result of the release of acetylcholine from the brainstem during REM sleep. This may be true, but part of me thinks there is probably still something interesting in the way a particular brain makes a particular story from the pieces it gets!

Psychoanalysts, beginning with Freud, have approached dreams as the “window into the unconscious” and see them as a route to uncovering repressed childhood anxieties and obsessions (often of a sexual nature). They saw them as something that needed interpreting and could be explored in the process of therapy to resolve the person’s emotional conflicts by bringing them into the conscious mind. Later therapists and psychologists had other ideas about the objects representing parts of the self that needed to be uncovered (Gestalt theory) and that the actual objects in dreams had specific meanings.

Water is apparently one of the most common dream elements. (I won’t lower the tone by talking about toilet dreams which are also pervasive…that endless search for a toilet only to waking to find that one is really needed!) With water, different things will be interpreted by the modern day dream interpreter, on the basis of its depth, its temperature, whether it is flowing, and the dreamer’s relation to the water in the dream. All of these, to my mind, are fairly obvious conclusions.

My musings about the dreams caused me to go the Bible. A Christian worldview would lead to an interpretation of these dreams as being recognition of the sin that we can find ourselves drowning in, and a search for a rescuer or saviour. In fact I found this is beautifully summarised in Psalm 69:1-3, 13-15:

Save me, O God,
  for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in the miry depths,
  where there is no foothold.
I have come into the deep waters;
  the floods engulf me.
I am worn out calling for help;
  my throat is parched ...
But I pray to you, LORD,
  in the time of your favour;
in your great love, O God,
  answer me with your sure salvation.
Rescue me from the mire,
  do not let me sink;
deliver me from those who hate me,
  from the deep waters.
Do not let the floodwaters engulf me
  or the depths swallow me up
  or the pit close its mouth over me.

The word “depths” (often used to represent deep water, as the Israelites—not being a sea-faring nation—saw the sea as pretty scary) occurs many times in the Old Testament. Psalm 130, however, perhaps more fully represents our position as sinners in need of a saviour. It also takes the reader from the depths to the heights: the awareness of sin, the waiting, and the hope of a saviour to rescue us:

Out of the depths I cry to you, LORD;
  Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
  to my cry for mercy.
If you, LORD, kept a record of sins,
  Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
  so that we can, with reverence, serve you.
I wait for the LORD, my whole being waits,
  and in his word I put my hope.
I wait for the Lord
  more than watchmen wait for the morning,
  more than watchmen wait for the morning.
Israel, put your hope in the LORD,
  for with the LORD is unfailing love
  and with him is full redemption.
He himself will redeem Israel
  from all their sins.

How comforting, yet strange, to think our dream experiences are echoed by the Psalmists from so many years ago. But is it just interesting? Or is it really the amygdala, one of our most primitive brain areas, activating a deep inner cry for rescue to our God, who loves us, made us to know him, desires that we reach out to him, and longs to save us?

Rachel recently completed the Catalyst Leadership and Theology training (which she would highly recommend!). She works as a Consultant in the NHS and is a regular preacher at Church in the Peak, Buxton. She is passionate about health care that addresses the whole person and is constantly grappling with what it means to be a Christian in the workplace.

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