Psychological Processes of Dreams
There are many theories as to why people dream and the functions that they serve. However, there seems to be only a couple of explanations as to the exact psychological process of dreams. The biological process of dreams was greatly enhanced with the finding that sleep involves a REM stage. It was discovered in 1953 by Nathaniel Kleitman (van den Daele, L., 1996). The REM stage of sleep is the considered one of the most fundamental parts of sleep and dreaming. Each psychological approach to dreaming has its own explanation as to the exact process of dreaming.
It is known that the sleep cycle consists of 4 stages plus the REM stage. Each stage can be recorded using and EEG, or an electroencephalogram. This device records electrical activity is the brain (Feldman, R., p. 79). Each stage is different than the next and produces different brain waves on the EEG.
When a person first falls asleep, they enter stage 1. During stage 1 of sleep, brain waves are rapid and of low-amplitude. People may see still images, but this is not dreaming (Feldman, R., p, 142). Dreaming really begins with the onset of stage 2 and becomes more apparent as a person falls into the deeper sleep cycles. Each stage of sleep may experience some form of dreaming, although vivid dreams are more likely in REM sleep.
As the sleep cycle moves into stage 2, brain waves begin to slow down. As stage 2 progress, it becomes harder and harder to rouse a person from sleep. Dreaming can begin during stage 2 sleep, however emotions and auditory stimuli are more common than visual images (Pagel, J., 2000). Sleep stages differ greatly. Everything from the depth of sleep, intensity of dreaming, eye movements, muscle tone, brain activation, and communication between memory systems will change with each stage that progresses.
Stage 3 and 4 are the hardest times to try to rouse a person from slumber. Both stages show slow brain waves (Feldman, R., p. 142). Like stage 2, stages 3 and 4 will be accompanied by dreaming, however, the dreams will be more emotional and auditory than visual. The four stages of sleep are not considered as important as REM sleep. Many psychological approaches emphasize the importance of REM sleep.
REM sleep is also known as rapid eye movement sleep. This final stage of the sleep cycle is accompanied by an irregular heart rate, an increase in blood pressure, and breathing rate increases (Feldman, R., p. 143). The fact that they eyes move back and forth like reading a book, give the name to this type of sleep. The muscles seem to be paralyzed,however in some people this does not happen leading to abnormal sleep.
REM sleep is the major time for dreaming. Dreams can happen any time during the sleep cycle, however dreams are more vivid and more easily remembered when they occur in the REM stage (Feldman, R., p. 144). Since the discovery of REM sleep in 1953, REM sleep has been the main focus for the study of dreams.
There has been research done to support the theory that REM sleep may be the most important part of the sleep cycle. In experiments, those that were allowed to sleep, however not allowed to enter the REM stage, performed more poorly on tasks the following day. Those that were allowed to complete all sleep cycles, including REM faired significantly better on tasks the following day ( Dixon, M. & Hayes, L. 1999). The importance of REM sleep varies depending on which psychological approach is describing it.
The cognitive approach to dreams focuses on the psychological process of memory and learning during sleep and the REM cycle. Cognitive research on dreams suggests that memory formation may begin in stage 2 and reach full peak by stages 3 and 4 (Stickgold, R., 2005). The process is finalized in REM sleep. If REM sleep is deprived, the memory and learning process will not be finalized.
The neuroscience approach to dreams relies on the idea the dreaming is a neurological process. Experts emphasize the fact that certain areas of the brain turn on and off during sleep, especially in the REM stage of sleep. The prefrontal cortex becomes disengaged during sleep (Krippner, S. & Combs, A., 2002). This area of the brain is responsible for working memory and the ability to keep important facts in mind as tasks are completed. With this area of the brain disengaged during sleep, it is not surprising to researchers that dreams often quickly change plot and older memories find their way into current dreams.
Not all areas of the brain shut down. There is research to suggest that certain areas turn on and may become heightened during sleep. For example, the limbic system in the body almost seems to go into overdrive during sleep. The limbic system is responsible for emotion. Some researchers suggest that this is one reason dreams are very high in emotion (Krippner, S. & Combs, A., 2002). Since many dreams are accompanied by high levels of emotion, the idea is not beyond acceptable.
The behavioral approach to dreaming describes the psychological process of dreaming as a result of the environment and stimuli that a person experiences. Research has been done to suggest that their content can be influenced by introducing certain stimuli prior to a person going to sleep
(Dixon, M. & Hayes, L. 1999). In many experiments, participants dreamed about certain objects and auditory and visual stimuli that were introduced just prior to the onset of sleep.
The humanistic and psychodynamic approach to dreams does not focus too much on their psychological process. Some say the if Freud had been aware of REM sleep and sleep cycles during his research on dreams, his theory would be different than the one that he proposed (van den Daele, L., 1996). These approaches focus on the unconscious mind and the self. Very little of the concepts deal with how a person dreams.
How a person dreams and why remains to be a topic of study by psychologists and research alike. While there is some disagreement about the main functions of dreams, many psychologists agree that there are some cases where dreaming becomes out of the ordinary, even abnormal in nature. These disorders may indicate an underlying psychological condition, or a problem with processing in the brain.
Saul McLeod, updated 2013
There are various approaches in contemporary psychology.
An approach is a perspective (i.e., view) that involves certain assumptions (i.e., beliefs) about human behavior: the way they function, which aspects of them are worthy of study and what research methods are appropriate for undertaking this study. There may be several different theories within an approach, but they all share these common assumptions.
You may wonder why there are so many different psychology perspectives and whether one approach is correct and others wrong. Most psychologists would agree that no one perspective is correct, although in the past, in the early days of psychology, the behaviorist would have said their perspective was the only truly scientific one.
Each perspective has its strengths and weaknesses, and brings something different to our understanding of human behavior. For this reason, it is important that psychology does have different perspectives on the understanding and study of human and animal behavior.
Below is a summary of the six main psychological approaches (sometimes called perspectives) in psychology.
If your layperson's idea of psychology has always been about people in laboratories wearing white coats and watching hapless rats try to negotiate mazes in order to get to their dinner, then you are probably thinking about behavioral psychology.
Behaviorism is different from most other approaches because they view people (and animals) as controlled by their environment and specifically that we are the result of what we have learned from our environment. Behaviorism is concerned with how environmental factors (called stimuli) affect observable behavior (called the response).
The behaviorist approach proposes two main processes whereby people learn from their environment: namely classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Classical conditioning involves learning by association, and operant conditioning involves learning from the consequences of behavior.
Classical conditioning (CC) was studied by the Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov. Though looking into natural reflexes and neutral stimuli he managed to condition dogs to salivate to the sound of a bell through repeated associated with the sound of the bell and food. The principles of CC have been applied in many therapies. These include systematic desensitization for phobias (step-by-step exposed to a feared stimulus at once) and aversion therapy.
B.F. Skinner investigated operant conditioning of voluntary and involuntary behavior. Skinner felt that some behavior could be explained by the person's motive. Therefore behavior occurs for a reason, and the three main behavior shaping techniques are positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, and punishment.
Behaviorism also believes in scientific methodology (e.g., controlled experiments), and that only observable behavior should be studied because this can be objectively measured. Behaviorism rejects the idea that people have free will, and believes that the environment determines all behavior. Behaviorism is the scientific study of observable behavior working on the basis that behavior can be reduced to learned S-R (Stimulus-Response) units.
Behaviorism has been criticized in the way it under-estimates the complexity of human behavior. Many studies used animals which are hard to generalize to humans, and it cannot explain, for example, the speed in which we pick up language. There must be biological factors involved.
Who hasn't heard of Sigmund Freud? So many expressions of our daily life come from Freud's theories of psychoanalysis - subconscious, denial, repression and anal personality to name only a few.
Freud believes that events in our childhood can have a significant impact on our behavior as adults. He also believed that people have little free will to make choices in life. Instead, our behavior is determined by the unconscious mind and childhood experiences.
Freud’s psychoanalysis is both a theory and therapy. It is the original psychodynamic theory and inspired psychologists such as Jung and Erikson to develop their own psychodynamic theories. Freud’s work is vast, and he has contributed greatly to psychology as a discipline.
Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, explained the human mind as like an iceberg, with only a small amount of it being visible, that is our observable behavior, but it is the unconscious, submerged mind that has the most, underlying influence on our behavior. Freud used three main methods of accessing the unconscious mind: free association, dream analysis and slips of the tongue.
He believed that the unconscious mind consisted of three components: the 'id' the 'ego' and the 'superego.' The 'id' contains two main instincts: 'Eros', which is the life instinct, which involves self-preservation and sex which is fuelled by the 'libido' energy force. 'Thanatos' is the death instinct, whose energies, because they are less powerful than those of 'Eros' are channeled away from ourselves and into aggression towards others.
The 'id' and the 'superego' are constantly in conflict with each other, and the 'ego' tries to resolve the discord. If this conflict is not resolved, we tend to use defense mechanisms to reduce our anxiety. Psychoanalysis attempts to help patients resolve their inner conflicts.
An aspect of psychoanalysis is Freud's theory of psychosexual development. It shows how early experiences affect adult personality. Stimulation of different areas of the body is important as the child progresses through the important developmental stages. Too much or too little can have bad consequences later.
The most important stage is the phallic stage where the focus of the libido is on the genitals. During this stage little boys experience the 'Oedipus complex,' and little girls experience the 'Electra complex.' These complexes result in children identifying with their same-sex parent, which enables them to learn sex-appropriate behavior and a moral code of conduct.
However, it has been criticized in the way that it over emphasizes the importance of sexuality and under emphasized of the role of social relationships. The theory is not scientific, and can't be proved as it is circular. Nevertheless, psychoanalysis has been greatly contributory to psychology in that it has encouraged many modern theorists to modify it for the better, using its basic principles, but eliminating its major flaws.
Humanistic psychology is a psychological perspective that emphasizes the study of the whole person (know as holism). Humanistic psychologists look at human behavior, not only through the eyes of the observer, but through the eyes of the person doing the behaving.
Humanistic psychologists believe that an individual's behavior is connected to his inner feelings and self-image. The humanistic perspective centers on the view that each person is unique and individual, and has the free will to change at any time in his or her lives.
The humanistic perspective suggests that we are each responsible for our own happiness and well-being as humans. We have the innate (i.e., inborn) capacity for self-actualization, which is our unique desire to achieve our highest potential as people.
Because of this focus on the person and his or her personal experiences and subjective perception of the world the humanists regarded scientific methods as inappropriate for studying behavior.
Two of the most influential and enduring theories in humanistic psychology that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s are those of Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow.
Psychology was institutionalized as a science in 1879 by Wilhelm Wundt, who found the first psychological laboratory.
His initiative was soon followed by other European and American Universities. These early laboratories, through experiments, explored areas such as memory and sensory perception, both of which Wundt believed to be closely related to physiological processes in the brain. The whole movement had evolved from the early philosophers, such as Aristotle and Plato. Today this approach is known as cognitive psychology.
Cognitive Psychology revolves around the notion that if we want to know what makes people tick then the way to do it is to figure out what processes are actually going on in their minds. In other words, psychologists from this perspective study cognition which is ‘the mental act or process by which knowledge is acquired.’
The cognitive perspective is concerned with “mental” functions such as memory, perception, attention, etc. It views people as being similar to computers in the way we process information (e.g., input-process-output). For example, both human brains and computers process information, store data and have input an output procedure.
This had led cognitive psychologists to explain that memory comprises of three stages: encoding (where information is received and attended to), storage (where the information is retained) and retrieval (where the information is recalled).
It is an extremely scientific approach and typically uses lab experiments to study human behavior. The cognitive approach has many applications including cognitive therapy and eyewitness testimony.
We can thank Charles Darwin (1859) for demonstrating the idea that genetics and evolution play a role in influencing human behavior through natural selection.
Theorists in the biological perspective who study behavioral genomics consider how genes affect behavior. Now that the human genome is mapped, perhaps, we will someday understand more precisely how behavior is affected by the DNA we inherit. Biological factors such as chromosomes, hormones and the brain all have a significant influence on human behavior, for example, gender.
The biological approach believes that most behavior is inherited and has an adaptive (or evolutionary) function. For example, in the weeks immediately after the birth of a child, levels of testosterone in fathers drop by more than 30 per cent. This has an evolutionary function. Testosterone-deprived men are less likely to wander off in search of new mates to inseminate. They are also less aggressive, which is useful when there is a baby around.
Biological psychologists explain behaviors in neurological terms, i.e., the physiology and structure of the brain and how this influences behavior. Many biological psychologists have concentrated on abnormal behavior and have tried to explain it. For example, biological psychologists believe that schizophrenia is affected by levels of dopamine (a neurotransmitter).
These findings have helped psychiatry take off and help relieve the symptoms of the mental illness through drugs. However, Freud and other disciplines would argue that this just treats the symptoms and not the cause. This is where health psychologists take the finding that biological psychologists produce and look at the environmental factors that are involved to get a better picture.
A central claim of evolutionary psychology is that the brain (and therefore the mind) evolved to solve problems encountered by our hunter-gatherer ancestors during the upper Pleistocene period over 10,000 years ago.
The Evolutionary approach explains behavior in terms of the selective pressures that shape behavior. Most behaviors that we see/display are believed to have developed during our EEA (environment of evolutionary adaptation) to help us survive.
Observed behavior is likely to have developed because it is adaptive. It has been naturally selected, i.e., individuals who are best adapted survive and reproduce. Behaviors may even be sexually selected, i.e., individuals who are most successful in gaining access to mates leave behind more offspring.
The mind is therefore equipped with ‘instincts’ that enabled our ancestors to survive and reproduce.
A strength of this approach is that it can explain behaviors that appear dysfunctional, such as anorexia, or behaviors that make little sense in a modern context, such as our biological stress response when finding out we are overdrawn at the bank.
Therefore, in conclusion, there are so many different perspectives in psychology to explain the different types of behavior and give different angles. No one perspective has explanatory powers over the rest.
Only with all the different types of psychology, which sometimes contradict one another (nature-nurture debate), overlap with each other (e.g. psychoanalysis and child psychology) or build upon one another (biological and health psychologist) can we understand and create effective solutions when problems arise, so we have a healthy body and a healthy mind.
The fact that there are different perspectives represents the complexity and richness of human (and animal) behavior. A scientific approach, such as behaviorism or cognitive psychology, tends to ignore the subjective (i.e., personal) experiences that people have.
The humanistic perspective does recognize human experience, but largely at the expense of being non-scientific in its methods and ability to provide evidence. The psychodynamic perspective concentrates too much on the unconscious mind and childhood. As such, it tends to lose sight of the role of socialization (which is different in each country) and the possibility of free will.
The biological perspective reduces humans to a set of mechanisms and physical structures that are clearly essential and important (e.g., genes). However, it fails to account for consciousness and the influence of the environment on behavior.
How to reference this article:
McLeod, S. A. (2013). Psychology perspectives. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/perspective.html