Do animal dream? Everyone who has got a pet animal at home and has the chance to watch them sleeping is likely to answer in the affirmative. But is there any scientific justification of the phenomenon with animals? In the current essay I am going to refer to some research on dreams, primarily to Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams to find out whether the assumptions have any ground and if so, which function dream can perform in an animal’s psychic life and what the possible content of it is.
We found a good reason to deny animals of being able to think like we do: human thinking is based chiefly on the verbal factor. In case of dreams, however, human language loses its domination and is taken over by another form of expression, which involves the senses and combines them into intricate visions. Biologically, dreams are connected to the so-called REM – rapid eye movement state, in which most dreaming occurs. Another name for the phase is D-sleep (dreaming, or desynchronized, sleep).Numerous studies have shown that the phenomenon of REM is characteristic of animals as well. Ernest Hartmann claims that the bulk of research shows that for both animals and humans REM sleep performs the same functions, either biological or cognitive. When rats were deprived of the phase, the biological functions of their organisms deteriorated tremendously; first of all it concerns thermoregulation. Also, it was confirmed that REM sleep was essential in assimilating knowledge and memorizing because tests have proved that after intense learning the rats’ phase of REM was profoundly longer. Hence, an assumption can be made that dreaming serves as an organism’s natural method to combine new information in a suitable way.
The classical work The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud has another hypothesis underlying. Although it is devoted to human dreaming, some ideas can be applicable to animals as well. When Freud said that geese dream about maize, it was first of all a beautiful metaphor to formulate his thesis that every dream when truly understood represents the fulfillment of a wish. It is a perfectly valid psychic phenomenon, actually a wish-fulfilment; it may be enrolled in the continuity of the intelligible psychic activities of the waking state; it is built up by a highly complicated intellectual activity” ( Freud , Chapter III) But the very fact that he turned to such a metaphor proves his serious attitude towards the possibility of animals dreaming. Like humans, animals are as a rule still when they are dreaming, that’s why in most cases it is impossible to find any persuasive evidence of the phenomenon. Yes, we know that REM sleep is typical for animals, that it performs some vital biological functions but does this prove that they see dreams during REM phase? Luckily, both professional researcher and private pet-owners can observe an interesting phenomenon, which sometimes takes place during animals sleeping.
What I mean is motion and switching on senses which are usually disabled when sleeping. Thus, one can sometimes observe that cats produce exactly the same movements and exactly the same sounds as they usually do when seeing birds and hunting them. This is what every cat-owner can watch. On a professional level, as Ernest Hartmann suggests it looks even more convincing: “There have also been several studies of sleeping cats that have had lesions placed in the portion of the brainstem responsible for muscle inhibition during REM sleep. These cats entered REM sleep, and rather than lying quietly with only their eyes moving, they stood up, walked around, and chased imaginary creatures, all without waking up. It appeared to the observers that the cats were “acting out their dreams.”(213).Besides, a number of research report that animals show strong activity in an area of the brain called the visual cortex during REM sleep, which proves that animals perceive visual images like humans.
No doubt, there should be variation between species but the experiments with monkeys prove that they see something while sleeping. Ernest Hartman report on the study, which involved training monkeys to respond by pressing a bar when they see any picture projected on a screen in front of them. These monkeys were then observed while they slept, and the author reports that the monkeys had definite periods when they started to press the bar in their sleep, suggesting that they were “seeing” something. (213)
Turning back to the function of dreams, it is important to note that Freud’s interpretation of dreaming as a wishful thinking does not necessarily fir in with the dreams of the animals. It is a proved fact that cats and dogs dream of chasing, hiding, fighting and so on. It might seem that it is so because they have a hidden desire to do so, which actualizes itself through dreaming when their mind does hunt and fight, whereas their body is blocked by a cut-off mechanism. This argument makes sense. But how can puppies’ and kitten’s “adult” dreams of hunting be justified? Instincts? Maybe. They actually never did it in real life, that’s why it seems like a learning play for them. It is closely connected with the cognitive function that was described above. But if cognitive function, aimed at assimilating new knowledge comes into play during the whole life, the function of dreaming for young animals can be even more essential. Ernest Hartmann writes: “First, at the earliest or most basic level, a newborn or very young animal needs to develop its nervous system, by making and regulating connections between neurons. Presumably this happens all day and all night, but quite likely the connections relating to specific skills and abilities (tightly woven areas) are best made in waking, while broader weaving-in occurs especially in REM sleep” (205). As becomes plain from the previous abstract, dreaming performs the adaptive function in case with young animals, which is vital to their normal existence in the animal world and acquiring all skills necessary for survival.
So, judging from the above information, what can the content of an animal’s dream be like? There is little doubt that considerable difference must occur between the species of animals, which can depend upon their intellect and their role in nature in general. Besides, it is very much connected to whether they are naturally herbivorous like monkeys or carnivores like cats and dogs. It is obvious that the former are unlikely to participate in virtual chasing in contrast to the latter. What unites them both is the replacing function about which Freud wrote in his Interpretation of Dreams: “The dream takes the place of action, as elsewhere in life” (Chapter III) It also seems plain that although the general pattern of consciousness transformation can be more or less similar to that of a human, a certain shift is inevitable due to specific biological peculiarities. Thus, it is but natural, that human speech will be absent completely from animal dreams, whereas the senses of seeing and hearing will be greatly involved, and the sense of smell is likely to interfere far more than it would do in case with human dreams.
To sum up, it is important to say that there is enough scientific evidence that animals (at least mammals) are capable of dreaming. The content of a dream depends largely on what kind of animal it is but overall it reduplicates the usual actions of an animal of a given species. There is no consensus about what function dreams perform: either cognitive, or adaptive, or regulative, or probably substitutive as Freud suggested. These hypotheses are not mutually exclusive, however, and broaden our understanding of the nature of dreaming not only within animal, but also within human context.
Hartmann, Ernest. The New Theory on the Origin and Meaning of Dreams The New Theory on the Origin and Meaning of Dreams. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 1998.
Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. 1900. 6 May, 2005 http://psychology.about.com/library/classics/blfreud_dream.htm