Dream Study Discussion Section -
Dreams are Often Threat Simulations, so What?
The primary survival mechanisms have been synopsized as the four F’s: fleeing, fighting, feeding, and…mating. In dreams, we see the first two F’s regularly manifested, and sexual dreams are common enough (whether they are normally positive or negative experiences is another matter). Feeding, and by relation, foraging, may be less pervasive a dream theme. To the “F” list we may add freezing, falling, flying (often as a means of escape), and various failures and frustrations as predominant dream themes. That many, even most, of the dreams in this study focused on threatening scenarios has been demonstrated, but the survival value which such a system as the Threat Simulation Theory of dreaming posits may have been better suited for our evolutionary past (in which it arose) than for modern times.
If dreaming is indeed an evolved psychological function selected for its value in the avoidance and detection of the kinds of threats faced by our ancestors in a very different environment than that in which humans are currently embedded, it may not be serving our best interests. Dreaming may very well be maladaptive in the world as it now is. How rare is the wild beast or strange male chasing us with intent to harm. Extreme aggression, on our part or directed from others is less beneficial today than would be an attitude of diplomatic, equitable discussion. Allowing the Threat System of dreaming to operate without volitional super-ordinance may be keeping us running from fears long deemed superfluous by our application of human ingenuity. Evading monsters from the past do not aid in our challenges of this moment in history. Lucid dreaming may help shine the light of awareness onto an otherwise somber dream-scape.
Revonsuo (2000) hypothesized that only the experience of threatening events in the waking world would fully activate the Threat Simulation system in dreams, and this system should in turn confer adaptive advantage to humans through the rehearsal of detecting and avoiding similar threats in future waking times. Any theory which purports dreaming to be a useful system supposes this kind of two-way interaction between waking experience and dream simulations. In the case of lucid dreaming, which is notoriously difficult to realize (but can be learned through practice), competence and gallantry amidst challenges may carry over between waking and dreaming (or between dreaming and waking). Nobody said life was supposed to be easy, and if they told you that dreams were a cake-walk, they were misinformed. But what adventure is easy? You can run away from your monsters, or you can face them. Or, you can fly away to majestic vistas. But remember, the thrill of flying is almost always coupled with the threat of falling. As it should be.
Directions for Future Research
There is so much we have yet to learn about dreaming. The Threat Simulation Theory (TST) for the function of dreaming at least gives us a solid platform from which to aspire to higher understanding. We know that aggressions are common in dreams, but what does it mean if the dreamer is the most aggressive character in his dreams? What would it mean to regularly become aware of the simulations in dreams, to be lucid and capable of directing otherwise threatening events into empowering adventure scenarios – are we missing out on some beneficial learning or are we improving upon an outdated system run on autopilot?
It would seem that the next steps in a TST-centered approach to dream studies would be to analyze the dream reports from more varied populations, both traumatized and not. One other seeming “no-brainer” would be to test whether threatening dreams, including those accompanying PTSD, do infer an advantage of some sort to the person while awake. However simple this may seem, we would have to define what an “advantage” in this case would be. In ancient times, if a man of a certain look (from a particular tribe) had attacked you, or if a dog chased you, it would make adaptive sense to be vigilant, defensive and avoidant of these same cues in the future. This is what the Threat Rehearsal System of dreaming would prepare us for. Yet in today’s small world, we are expected to react to each new encounter as an isolated incident. We cannot run from every man who looks similar to the one who once attacked us. We cannot hide from every dog in our path. Creative hypothesis formation and testing will have to work around these seeming limitations for testing the “value” of what does appear to be an active and intelligent, although archaic, cognitive and behavioral system.
What we can say at this point in the field of dream studies is that there is likely a small number of innate themes which are played as scripts, drawing from a kaleidoscopic collection of day residue, usually negative or threatening in affect, which we experience while in nightly repose and call dreams. Studies such as this one suggest that a large amount of data can be collected in a short time and analyzed through scales which reveal consistent results across time and locality.
Good night. And don’t let the bedbugs bight.