Aristotelian Theory of Dreams
Dreams and dreaming have been the point of discussion in philosophy and psychology since as far back as the Hellenic times. At that, Aristotle, the most prominent student of Plato’s, is credited as the genius to build the foundation for the modern psychology of sleep. Despite the fact that Aristotle mainly relied on the knowledge of his time in his descriptions, he explained the basics of dreaming in the terms that are widely accepted to-date.
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Being by nature a person with a thirst for empirical knowledge, Aristotle had a prolific scientific career and wrote 170 works in 40 years (Hunt, 2007, p. 30). Among those that have survived up to the present, his theory of sleep stands out. Although he was mistaken in his assumption that a person only had dreams during deep sleep, his contribution set a direction for further studies in this field. Most obviously, he allocated the non-divine nature of dreams and the fact that dreams did not predict the future.
Further, he stated that a person’s dreams were affected by the experiences they had during the day. Importantly, Aristotle maintained that some non-significant impressions were likely to pass unnoticed when the intellect was in full function during the day and subsequently manifest themselves during the nighttime (Windt, 2015).
The discovery of diverse stages of sleep, particularly rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, changed the Aristotelian understanding of the process. As said, his assumption that dreams only occurred in deep sleep was wrong: most vivid dreams are likely to happen in REM sleep, which is superficial (Windt, 2015). Another change of Aristotle’s paradigm brought by the discovery of REM sleep was the attitude towards sleeping. Aristotle described sleep as a helpless state of deafness to the world.
This negative attitude was followed by other philosophers up to the 1950s. The discovery of REM sleep stopped the radical division of sleep and wakefulness, defining dreaming as the third state of mind (Windt, 2015). Thus, it would be true to say that many of Aristotelian conceptions were abandoned with the development of psychology. On the other hand, there are several aspects due to which his theory is relevant today.
When Aristotle tried to answer just how a person can see dreams when their vision is not functioning, he established the involvement of three intrapsychic concepts: sense-perception, consciousness, and imagination, regarding the first one as fundamental (Ierodiakonou, 2011, p. 51). Perceived by the senses, the images were propagated into the consciousness, as stated above. The consciousness acting together with imagination, as per Aristotle, retrieved the extruded experiences into the canvas of the dream.
Today, psychology accepts sense-perception as the ultimate cause of dreams. In addition, the process of propagation of, so to say, unimportant daily experiences and further retrieval of them into the dreams have become known as “repression into the unconscious” in psychoanalysis (Ierodiakonou, 2011, p. 53). Finally, and most interestingly, he seemed to foresee the transmission of neuron signals, with his idea of propagation easily paralleled to excitation between the neurons. Consequently, Aristotle’s works have laid the basis for a variety of study fields, particularly psychology.
To conclude, Aristotelian genius was able to perceive and operate the intrapsychic concepts at the foundation of the sciences. His theory of dreams, despite excusable errors, still serves as a basis for the modern oneirology and psychology of dreaming.
Hunt, M. (2007). The Story of Psychology (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Anchor Books.
Ierodiakonou, C. S. (2011). The Psychology of Aristotle, the Philosopher: A Psychoanalytic Therapist’s Perspective. London, UK: Karnac Books.
Windt, J. M. (2015). Dreams and Dreaming. Web.