The mysterious realm of the dream world has intrigued the human mind for millennia, but what is the secret behind these enigmatic and sometimes very powerful experiences of the psyche?

Science views dreams merely as the result of activity in certain areas of the brain during sleep, but the more esoterically-minded view them as a gateway between the physical and spiritual world.

As far back as 4000BC, there is evidence that Man was attempting to interpret dreams as records of these have been found documented on clay tablets. Dreams were regarded as vital aspects of life; in fact, in some primeval communities, the dream world and the conscious world appeared to blur into one existence, with the dream world having the greatest significance.

The Bible has over seven hundred references to dreams, and the Romans and the Greeks also attributed them with religious significance. They viewed them as messages from the gods and believed them to be prophetic in nature, so much so that the actions of military leaders were often governed by their dreams, and dream interpreters often accompanied them into battle. The Egyptians also considered dreams to be powerful sources of divine information, revering those with the power to decipher their meaning.In fact many cultures in history, including the Chinese and Native Americans, have regarded dreams as a very important aspect of the human existence, believing them to be the gateway to another dimension, the playground of the soul which could leave its physical form during sleep to communicate with the departed.

In the Middle Ages, however, dreams were regarded as evil temptations from the devil who preyed on Man during the vulnerability of his slumber. As science began to prevail, dreams began to be perceived as the product of indigestion or anxiety until the late 19th century when Sigmund Freud’s research identified them as an important tool to access the inner recesses of the unconscious mind.

More recent scientific studies have concentrated primarily on the physical reactions experienced during dream states; a French study, published in the journal Brain last year, suggested that dreams are initiated by the brainstem, the part of the brain that connects to the spinal cord and which plays an important role in sleep regulation.

The study focused on subjects suffering from auto-activation deficit as these individuals are often characterized by their lack of conscious imaginative thought, and scientists were keen to determine whether or not they were able to dream. The subjects were asked to keep a dream diary, and some of the auto-activation deficit subjects did report dream activity, which was then "analyzed for length, complexity and bizarreness." It was noted that those subjects suffering from the condition reported less bizarre dreams than the control group.

These findings seemed to illustrate that,s if those who were unable to daydream could generate simple dreams during sleep. this was likely to be just a reflex action.Of course, this could also be explained more esoterically in spiritual terms, as it could also be possible that the souls of those subjects were able to find some "normality" when released from their malfunctioning physical forms during sleep.

But why do some people remember their dreams, and others appear to sleep a dreamless sleep?

A more recent study, which was conducted by Perrine Ruby, Inserm researcher at the Lyon Neuroscience Research Center and published in the journal Cerebral Cortex earlier this year, detected elevated activity in the temporo-parietal junction, an information-processing hub in the brain, in those who were able to regularly remember their dreams. The team made two observations: that "high dream recallers" have twice as many times of wakefulness during sleep as "low dream recallers" and that their brains are more reactive to auditory stimuli during sleep and wakefulness. The researchers believed that the increased brain reactivity promoted more night-waking, which could facilitate memorization of dreams.

Dream content may also be a factor: a new study by researchers at the University of Montreal determined that nightmares have a much greater emotional impact than mere bad dreams.

"Physical aggression is the most frequently reported theme in nightmares. Moreover, nightmares become so intense they will wake you up. Bad dreams, on the other hand, are especially haunted by interpersonal conflicts," wrote study authors Geneviève Robert and Antonio Zadra, in the article which was published in the journal Sleep.

"Death, health concerns and threats are common themes in nightmares," explained Robert. "But it would be wrong to think that they characterize all nightmares. Sometimes, it is the feeling of a threat or a ominous atmosphere that causes the person to awaken. I’m thinking of one narrative, in which the person saw an owl on a branch and was absolutely terrified."

Interestingly, owls are often thought to be "screen memories" and are a common feature in the dreams of those who believe they have been abducted by extra-terrestrials. This would certainly explain why the appearance of an apparently innocuous creature could engender such terror! Few scientists would lend any credence to this theory, of course, but there is a mounting weight of anecdotal evidence that implies a connection.

A favored neurobiological theory to explain dream activity is the “activation-synthesis hypothesis,” which states that dreams result from a purely physical source, namely electrical brain impulses that harvest indiscriminate thoughts and images from our memory stores, which the mind then attempts to make sense of on waking by creating "story-lines". Psychologists attribute more mental significance to dreams, including the “threat simulation theory” which suggests that dreaming should be interpreted as primeval biological defence mechanism allowing the simulation of potential threats. This is thought to develop and hone the neuro-cognitive mechanisms required to cope with these situations in waking life.

Whether dreams are just the product of random physical responses, psychological outlets, or portals to the spirit world may be a subject of considerable debate for the next few millennia, but here at Unknown Country all potentials are explored.

For more on this fascinating subject, check out the latest Dreamland featuring the discoveries of Robert Moss, one of our greatest contemporary dream teachers. Roberts tells Unknown Country about his discoveries made by going through the gateway of dreams into other universes and levels of existence that are very real, and very, very important.

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