The Function of the Dream State
in Human Behavior and Physiology

By Mark Bancroft, MA



Close to 1/3rd of a person's life is spent sleeping; of this nearly five years are spent dreaming. There is little question that dreams have had an effect on waking life since the dawn of humankind. Throughout history the interest in sleep and dreams has ebbed and flowed. Emerging to the forefront of necessity, receding back to unconscious existence, dreams have inspired and terrified all: young and old, living and dead. Although dreams were considered important workings of the mind in Roman civilization serious investigation did not reappear until the late 1800's. W.B. Webb refers to this large intermediate time span as the, "dark age of sleep," during which, "sleep and dreams were almost exclusively the property of poets and dream diviners" [Wallace & Fisher, p.157, 1991]. Sleep and dream research experienced exponential growth in the mid-1900's through the use of the EEG to monitor brain activity.



Sleep and dreams have a direct affect upon physiology. EEG readings show four general brain wave patterns; two of the four relate directly to sleep, while a third is indirectly related.

1. Beta: Normal waking state of consciousness. Alertness. Awareness and attentiveness of one's environment.

2. Alpha: State of relaxation. Breathing becomes deeper and more rhythmic. Muscles throughout the body become more relaxed. Ability for single-pointedness concentration increases. Sensation of floating may be experienced, as well as the possibility of Out-of-Body-Experience (OBE). Also referred to as the hypnagogic state conducive for self-hypnosis and psychic ability.

3. Theta: Brain wave pattern associated with the sleep state. Theta brain wave patterns are common among children under the age of 10. Medium to deep stage of sleep. Strong stimulus needed to be awakened.

4. Delta: Large amplitude brain waves associated with deep sleep. The deepest level of sleep. Strongest stimulus required for awakening.


We know that the onset of sleep is instantaneous; people do not "drift off to sleep" [Wallace & Fisher, 1991]. We know that throughout the night sleep consists of a cyclical pattern between one of four primary states: sleep Stages 1-4. Recent research does not consider these levels to represent depths of sleep. Rather, a distinction is made between Stage 1 sleep and Stage 2-4 sleep which is termed non-Stage 1 sleep [Tart, 1990].

Stage 1: Characteristic EEG pattern shows some alpha waves, but mainly fast, irregular waves. Easily awakened. Awakened subjects commonly report they had been dreaming. Stage 1 is almost always accompanied with REM activity. Also known as The Dream State.

Stage 2: A sound state of sleep, yet easily awakened. Sometimes called the intermediate sleep stage. Sharp sinusoidal and biphasic waves appear on the EEG. If awakened subjects will claim they were asleep, even if < 4 minutes had passed [Wallace & Fisher, 1991].

Stage 3: The sleeping person enters Stage 3 sleep when delta waves account for at least 20% of the neural activity. Stage 3 sleep is considered deep sleep.

Stage 4: Stage of deepest sleep. Occurs when more than 50% of brain waves follow the delta pattern. Sleep terrors, bedwetting and sleep talking occur predominately at this stage.

Sleep typically follows an alternating cycle going between Stage 1 (dreaming) and non-Stage 1 sleep. The sleep-dream cycle begins with a person entering Stage 1 sleep for up to a couple of minutes. Interestingly, this initial cycle of Stage 1 sleep is devoid of REM. Subjects often report vivid imagery indicating hypnagogic activity. This is followed by Stages 2, 3, and 4, successively. A sleep cycle is complete when the subject returns to Stage 1 (dreaming); this takes about 90 minutes. The longest duration of Stage 4 sleep occurs in the beginning of the night; whereas, Stage 1 (dreaming) becomes more predominate towards the end of the night. Actual time spent among the different stages is affected by individual circumstances; such as: age, degree of social contact, and personal state of health [Wallace & Fisher, 1991].

Sleep has powerful physiological effects. Sleep paralysis occurs during Stage 1 which inhibits virtually all muscular activity and speech. This is critical to prevent the physical acting out of dream content which could result in serious injury to the body. Breathing, heart rate, eye movement, and neurological activity are effected in Stage 1 and non-Stage 1 sleep. Physiological sleep (dream) theories maintain that sleep is crucial for it: repairs cellular damage; clears the brain of unnecessary information; and/or acts as an evolutionary function which facilitates the survival of the species.



A. Sigmund Freud: Freud become interested in dreams when he noticed that during free association sessions with his clients many of them would describe their dreams. The Interpretation of Dreams is oftentimes considered to be his most important work. Freud called The Interpretation of Dreams the via regia, or royal road, to understanding the unconscious mind. He wrote, "Insight such as this falls to one's lot but once in a lifetime"[McGreal, p.417, 1992]. Freud saw dreams as having a twofold purpose. They served to keep a person from waking up from environmental sounds, and they served an important means for dealing with wish fulfillment [Wallace & Fisher, 1991]. He saw dreams as the means by which the psyche released socially unacceptable desires and fantasies. Dreams represent distorted unconscious images which proper analysis sought to interpret and resolve.

B. Carl Jung: Jung believed that dreams related to a person's current life concerns. Dreams served to help in the process of individuation which often constitutes the reintegration of dark, unconscious material (the shadow). Daily life and one's well-being could be enhanced by "listening" to the messages coming from the unconscious, which are a reflection of the Self seeking greater wholeness. In response to Freud, Jung wrote,
The interpretation of dreams as infantile wish-fulfillments or as finalistic "arrangements" subserving an infantile striving for power is much too narrow and fails to do justice to the essential nature of dreams. A dream, like every element in the psychic structure, is a product of the total psyche [p63, 1974].

C. Alfred Adler: Similar to Jung's view that dreams are related to waking life, Adler suggests that dreams occur when one is troubled by something in her/his life. Waking concerns (the day's residues) were worked through in the dream state until a workable resolve was attained. In this Adler felt dreams to be important and valuable, rather than an illogical, random phenomenon experienced during sleep [Tart, 1990].

D. Direct Experience: The direct experience of dreams coupled with their personal content can have strong effects upon a person's behavior. Dreams have served as spiritual guidance for individuals, communities, and cultures throughout history. Some dreams offer direction and inspiration in one's waking life. A number of "impossible" scientific breakthroughs have directly resulted from dream recall. Upon awakening feelings of well-being or indescribable uneasiness may be present due to dreams. A number of precognitive dreams have been recorded. Although many are questionable some amazing accounts do exist. Dreams of death have a strong affect which may later turn out to be an experience of ESP.

E. Esoteric Views on Dreams: Similar to their explanation of consciousness, esoteric teachings offer an inclusive and oftentimes detailed description of dreams. Sleep is considered to provide for reconstitution of the physical apparatus (body) and the favorable conditions for accessing different states of consciousness. With sleep and dreams it is deemed possible to: repair/heal the body; expand consciousness; receive answers to questions; increase wisdom; receive directions or warnings; and deepen foresight into coming events [Saraydarian, 1990]. It is generally believed that the Ego (incarnated soul) leaves the body and may work on solving personal concerns, meet with others upon the subtle planes, and offer service to others in the guise of intuitive direction.



Dreams have consistently demonstrated the ability to have a strong influence on human behavior. Psychotherapeutic dream analysis has proven to be a potentially useful and powerful way to work through complex and challenging life issues. Paranormal occurrences have been known to manifest through dream activity. ESP and precognitive dreams suggest that the dream state may at times enhance psychic ability; especially in regards to one's own life. Due to their subjective nature, dream potential has been overlooked in Western society. Research has traditionally focused on the physiological effects of dreams upon the brain state. Like consciousness, it may be worthwhile to adopt an inclusive framework from which to deepen our understanding of sleep and dreams.

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Jung, C.G. (1974). Dreams: from the Collected Works of C.G. Jung translated by R.F.C. Hull. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

McGreal, Ian P. (Ed.). (1992). Great Thinkers of the Western World.New York: Harper Collins.

Saraydarian, Torkom. (1990). Other Worlds.West Hills, CA: T.S.G. Publishing Foundation, Inc.

Tart, C.T. (Ed.). (1990). Altered States of Consciousness. (3rded.). New York: Harper Collins.

Wallace, B. & Fisher, L.E. (1991). Consciousness and Behavior. (3rd ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.


Mark Bancroft, MA, CHT
Nevada City, CA