What Happens When We Dream | Classification of Dreams

What Happens When We Dream?

In illustration of the sleep curve, we see that during the REM phases, we are very close to awakening.

These dream phases are transitional stages; our soul-spiritual aspect has already partially immersed itself back into the physical body.

Paul Ernst put it very aptly in his poem: “…because dreams are with reality still infused.”

Rapid eye movement (REM) is observed during this phase of sleep. This phenomenon was observed and first described by Aristotle in the fourth century B.C.

The outer world becomes the content of our consciousness through our sense perceptions. In contrast, our soul-spiritual aspect works from the inside during our waking state. In other words when we are outside with another person, we are concurrently intensively observing that person.

We are “in” the flower we are observing. Steiner described how during sleep the soul-spiritual part of a person, which has immersed itself into the spiritual cosmos, reacts with us through our sense organs, such as the eyes, for example.

If we now look at the content of our dreams, we can determine that their origin and meaning are different. The following classifications have been known since Aristotle’s time.


There are dreams that have physiological causes, i.e. they are caused by physical processes. For example, if someone has a headache she might dream that she is crawling through a cave.

Dreams about snakes often indicate irregularities in the intestinal tract. Bad air could be the catalyst for a nightmare. If someone dreams about a hot oven or a fire, then the cause may be fever or bedcovers that are too warm.

Subjective Dreams

Often dreams can be traced back to the soul life and are also referred to as subjective dreams. Wishes and various scenes from daily experience appear imaginatively decorated and altered. Dreams help us to work through our experiences.

Further, what we have learned during the day penetrates our long-term memory. Dreams about people who have died belong in this category. Such a dream experience is a witness to the fact that we have previously been engaged with the dead person before, whether on a conscious or unconscious level.


Finally, there are dreams caused by some outside stimulus. For example, someone dreams a long, exciting story, with many details, in which someone falls. At that moment the person wakes up and hears the noise of some falling object in the room. The long, imaginative, dramatic, dream story plays out in a short moment of time. Time appears to stretch.

Another example: We experience a terrifying fire in a dream, see a huge home go up in flames and hear the hissing of the fire. The trigger was a fire truck driving by outside with its sirens going that we perceived during our sleep.

Or of a dream in which dogs are being chased away, the cause might have been a blanket that got bunched up in the wrong place and had to be pushed out of the way.

In another case, a child had a dream in which the child wildly fought against a lion when his sister had thrown a pillow in his face. These dreams reflect reactions to direct, outside effects or perceptions and do not indicate psychological problems.

The images are echoes from daily, waking life. There is something arbitrary about the way these dreams are formed. When the wild animal that is being repelled in the dream is a lion, then perhaps the child has consciously or unconsciously seen a picture of a lion during the day.

The dream alters the waking sense perceptions into a creative, imaginative picture. When the soul is completely disengaged, these pictures sink and dreamless sleep begins. Prophetic dreams in which clairvoyant perceptions are reflected are well known.

Rudolf Steiner pointed out that these dreams more often occur with people who are spiritually highly-developed and have gone through an suitable training. One should be careful and reserved regarding the interpretation of every dream. One can quickly fall into generalizations and schematizing psychology.

For an anthroposophical doctor the content of dreams is much less significant than their quality and quantity. When the spiritual-soul aspect of the human organism harmoniously takes hold of the enlivened physical aspect and then correctly detaches itself again during sleep, then an abundant amount of dreams do not occur. The frequency of dreams can be a key to revealing a person’s constitution.

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