Oneirology, you might be surprised, is not just the name of an album by a Hip Hop trio called CunninLynguists.
So What is Oneirology?
The oneirology to which I’ll be referring is the scientific study of dreams.
If psychology is the science of the psyche, or mind, then oneirology is the science of dreams.
Indeed, oneiron in Ancient Greek means “dream.”
When most people try to understand their dreams, they most typically look for dream interpretation. This, however, can only answer idiosyncratic, personal questions.
To find answers to more general, objective questions, we need to resort to rigorous, scientific study of the topic at hand, namely dreaming.
Obviously, dreaming does have a subjective component, which forces researchers to oftentimes employ introspective methods of investigation.
In this article I will discuss the main topics of investigation within the science of oneirology as well as its most authoritative theories and recent findings.
I will conclude with a list of questions yet to be answered by oneirologists, reflecting how young this field of study still is.
But first, let’s take a look at some history.
How did it all begin?
The Marquis D’Hervey de Saint-Denys, a French sinologist, is credited as being the first oneirologist. He is also regarded by many as “the Father” of modern lucid dreaming.
In 1867 he published his observations about how to control dreams in a practical article that deals with lucid dreams in particular and dreams in general.
Louis Ferdinand Alfred Maury was a French scholar and physician credited for coining the term “hypnagogic hallucination.” His research focused on the interpretation of dreams and the effect of external stimuli on them.
Another one of Kleitman’s students, William C. Dement, an American sleep researcher who founded Stanford University’s Sleep Research Center, explored the connection between rapid eye movement (REM) and dreaming.
In 1953, he was one of the first oneirologists to employ an electroencephalogram (EEG) to make all-night, continuous recordings of brain and eye activity during sleep. This has led him to discover the five stages of sleep.
What topics are covered by oneirology?
Oneirological research focuses on studying how dreams fit in with our current knowledge of how the brain functions.
Oneirologists also try to understand how the brain works during dreaming.
Some researchers take a neurological approach, studying the physical processes that occur in the brain.
Others focus on the psychology and phenomenology of dreams and are more concerned with the subjective experience of dreams.
Both approaches belong to the realm of science and the distinction between oneirology and dream interpretation was already mentioned above.
Here are some questions the science of oneirology is concerned with:
- What are the mechanisms of dreaming?
- What factors influence our dreams?
- What are dreaming disorders?
- How can dreams be quantified?
- Which brain waves are seen during dreaming?
- What are the effects of drugs and neurotransmitters on dreaming?
- What is the purpose and origins of dreams?
Let’s briefly summarize the most important oneirological research that has been done on these questions.
The Mechanisms of Dreaming
Is the origin of dreaming with the Gods? Is dreaming caused by indigestion?
Well, at least that’s what some people believed before the advent of modern oneirology.
Nowadays, there are four main schools which try to explain the mechanisms which bring about our dreams:
- Cognitive neuroscience
According to the neurophysiological school, activity in emotional areas of the brain, namely the limbic system and amygdala, is associated with REM sleep.
Non-REM dreams are very different from REM dreams, which has led researchers to theorize that the two types of dreaming are governed by two distinct mechanisms: One for REM dreams and the other for non-REM dreams.
Oneirology focuses on REM sleep, which is the sleep stage in which most dreams are experienced.
On average, we spend about two hours each night in REM sleep. Most dreams last between 5 and 20 minutes.
Why we Dream? The Function of Dreaming
When discussing the function of dreams, oneirologists are divided into those who look for the function of the brain processes that underlie dreaming, while others are interested in the function of the content of our dreams and of our experiences within them.
According to the neurophysiological theory, the brain goes through a process called synaptic efficacy refreshment during REM sleep. The purpose of this process, goes on the theory, is to consolidate recent memories and reinforce old ones. The dream is believed to be just a by-product, or a side effect, of the process.
An example of the opposite belief, that dreaming has a function of its own, one that cannot be reduced to brain processes is represented by the psychoanalytical model, which ascribes highly complex functions to dreaming, namely that dreams allow one to express, albeit in a hidden way, one’s deepest desires which society does not allow one to experience in waking life.
The theory which is currently widely held by sleep specialists postulates that during sleep many processes related to learning and memory processing normally occur. Dreams are the perception of the images, thoughts and feelings that are evoked in the brain during this process.
According to this theory, the function of dreaming is to guide our future behaviors based on our past experiences.
Dreams and REM Sleep
Rapid eye movement sleep is just what it sounds like: a state in which your sleep is characterized by the fluttering of the sleeper’s eyes beneath their closed eyelids.
REM sleep is also associated with brain activity that is very similar to that which our brain exhibits during wakefulness.
Sleep Paralysis/REM Atonia
During REM sleep, a phenomena called sleep paralysis or REM atonia occurs, in which the release of certain neurotransmitters is suppressed, effectively paralyzing the dreamer’s physical body.
It’s easy to see why the body would need to be paralyzed during dreams. Otherwise, you may enact the things you do in the dream, including potentially dangerous movements.
In 1959 Michel Jouvet severed the part of a cat’s brain that causes REM atonia. And ‘lo and behold, the poor cat was acting out its dreams!
A similar condition, by the way, can happen to humans who suffer from a disorder called rapid eye movement (REM) sleep behavior disorder, or RBD.
Oneirologists discovered some other characteristics of REM sleep:
- People were able to estimate how was their REM period was by comparing it to their subjective dream experience.
- REM involves high-frequency brain activity every 60-90 minutes of sleep.
- The longer you sleep, the longer your REM episodes become.
- The first dream of the night may only last about 10 minutes, while the last dreams can span a full quarter of an hour and even more. It’s also much easier to recall the later dreams than the earlier ones.
- It becomes much harder to record a dream, the more time passes since the REM period when the dream was experienced.
- Later dreams also contain more bizarre elements, while earlier dreams are more realistic.
What exactly is a dream though? Definition
Scientific investigation begins with definition. In the case of dreams, how does oneirology define them?
Since dreams are subjective, different definitions emerged. Scientists involved in quantitative research try to quantify the phenomena, while others take a look at the phenomenology of the dreams.
Still, because we don’t know what exactly happens in the brain during dreaming, it’s difficult to come up with a definition that everyone will agree with.
Which dreams will we include in our definition? Only nightly dreams? What about daydreaming?
And what about hallucinations? Are they dreams as well?
Even during the night – is a dream only what we experience during REM sleep or should our definition encompass also NREM dreams?
It is for this reason that some oneirologists prefer to speak about “sleep mentation” rather than dreams, defining it as mental experiences which occur during sleep.
What are the factors that influence dreaming?
There are many factors that may influence dreams.
Drugs and Medications
Using certain drugs can change the way you dream. For example, cannabis causes a reduction in time spent in REM, and most cannabis users report not being able to recall their dreams.
Long-term, chronic use of marijuana may even cause less time spent in deep sleep, which may create a feeling of not being refreshed by sleep.
Stimulants, such as cocaine, methamphetamine, and ecstasy, also decrease the duration of REM sleep and its restorative properties.
Waking Life and Emotions (Especially Repressed Ones)
Your experiences during waking life can “sneak” into your dreams in different ways. Highly emotional experiences and repressed affect have greater chances of influencing your dreams.
Anyone who experienced hearing their alarm clock whilst in a dream will be able to testify that external stimuli can sometimes enter your dreams and influence them.
External stimuli may be auditory, such as sounds, or olfactory, that is, scents. Since your eyes are closed and you don’t usually eat while sleeping, sights and tastes are less prone to influence dreams.
Nightmares may be the most common dreaming disorder. In many cases it results from a psychological disorder known as PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).
Some researchers believe that in schizophrenics, waking dreams are taken to be real, actual experiences.
Lucid Dreaming and Oneironautics
An oneironaut is a person who can travel within a dream consciously, or in other words, experience lucid dreams.
A sub-type of lucid dreams are dreams in which one can consciously interact with another person’s dream. This process is called “dream sharing,” “dream telepathy,” “telepathic lucid dreaming,” telepathic dreaming,” or “dreamwalking.”
Questions yet to be answered
If you managed to read this entire article, I’m pretty sure you’re left with more questions than you had when you began reading it.
This is not surprising since oneirology is such a new discipline. There’s so much more to investigate and explore about sleep in general and dreams in particular.
We don’t even know where in the brain dreams originate or what the purpose of dreaming is for the body or mind.
The field of oneirology is so young that some sleep researchers do not even call it by name. For example, in the sixth edition of Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine book by Meir H. Kryger and William C. Dement (2016), the word “oneirology” does not even occur once. Instead, there’s a chapter called “Psychobiology and Dreaming” which summarizes oneirological research.
Here are some of the questions I’m left with:
- Is dreamwalking real? What good can be accomplished with it?
- When is it NOT ethical to break into someone’s dreams without his consent?
- Is it ethical to create a lucid dream scenario that would be illegal or abusive if it were to happen in real life?
- Is it possible to smoke cannabis without losing the ability to recall dreams?
- What is the easiest way to become lucid in a dream?
- Why did we develop the capacity of dreaming from an evolutionary perspective?
- What is the spiritual meaning of dreams?
- Can dreams lead us to spiritual enlightenment? How?
- Can we heal ourselves and others through dreaming, specifically lucid dreaming and dream telepathy?
- Can we learn things about the world and ourselves we had no way of learning otherwise?
There are many other questions as well, which I will try to tackle in future blog posts.
5 Best Oneirology Books
If you’re looking for other oneirology facts and figures, then you may want to pick up one of the following books:
Ancient Science and Dreams: Oneirology in Greco-Roman Antiquity by M. Andrew Holowchak (2001) looks at the ancient history of oneirology. (Available on Amazon.com)
The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud (1899) introduces the psychoanalytical school of dream research, which I briefly mentioned above. (Available on Amazon.com)
Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming by Stephen LaBerge (1991) introduces LaBerge’s research into lucid dreaming conducted at Stanford. LaBerge is one of two oneirologists credited with the scientific discovery of lucid dreaming. (Available on Amazon.com)
Dream Yoga: Illuminating Your Life Through Lucid Dreaming and the Tibetan Yogas of Sleep by Andrew Holecek (2016) is one of my favorite books on the subject, describing the Buddhist perspective on lucid dreaming, known as Dream Yoga. (Available on Amazon.com)
Finally, for those looking for an academic textbook, I recommend going with the book I mentioned earlier, Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine by by Meir H. Kryger, Thomas Roth and William C. Dement, which is about sleep in general, but there’s a very interesting chapter on dream research. (Available on Amazon.com)
If you’re interested in become an oneirologist, you can achieve your goal through several different paths since oneirology is an interdisciplinary subject, involving different fields of study.
Oneirologists can be psychologists, cognitive neuroscientists and neurophysiologists among other professions.
If you’re just starting your academic path, then you should consider majoring in psychology, physiology, biology or medicine.
Oneirologists can work in a clinical setting, helping people with dream-related problems (there aren’t any formal clinical oneirology training programs yet), however most of them engage in academic research and teaching.
You should expect to spend around 4 years for undergraduate studies, and then at least 2-6 additional years in a graduate program before you will be able to find a job as an oneirologist.
Make sure to choose a university or college that has a good sleep medicine program as well as a sleep lab and proper equipment, such as Stanford University.
Alternatively, if you’re not into academic research and years of schooling, then you can consider becoming a sleep science technologist or a sleep lab manager.
According to Study.com, the median salary of psychologists in the US in 2018 was $79,010. The median salary of a researcher was $84,810. Neurologists were making a lot more – $254,508 to be precise. Finally, sleep science technologists and sleep lab managers were making around $58K per year in 2020, while a Sleep Lab Manager earned in 2019 a median salary of $67,181.
I’d like to end this article with a short discussion of the question I presented in the title of this blog post:
What is the purpose of dreaming? The bottom line
I do not belong to the school of thought which sees dreaming as a side effect of brain processes. I don’t even see consciousness as a by-product of our brains.
Perhaps the contrary is true – the brain might be a by-product of our consciousness, a vehicle of travel and exploration in this spiritual existence.
That’s not to say that studying brain correlates of dreaming is not important; it is. But let’s not forget that dreaming can lead us to fulfill our potential as human as well as spiritual beings.
This is a two-fold process, in which the first part involves healing and the second transformation.
Healing can occur in different ways. For instance, you may experience recurring dreams. Examining them may yield a wealth of information about one’s psychological state. If you know what you’re issues are, it would be much easier to cure them.
Secondly, you can attain to a spiritual transformation, firstly, by becoming lucid in your dreams. Eventually, dreaming ceases and one can dwell in the light of pure awareness during sleep.
For me that is the purpose of dreaming.
It is to move beyond them.