Why We Dream: The Expectation Fulfilment Theory of Dreaming

15 Jul

Recently I discovered a new website called Why We Dream, which explains a new theory of dreaming known as The Expectation Fulfilment Theory of Dreaming.

This theory has been put together by psychologist Joe Griffin, co-author of the book Dreaming Reality, as well as the Director of Studies at MindsField college, and a big player in the field of psychotherapy in general, evidently.

I encourage you to take some time to read the entire theory as put forth on their website. I found it fascinating, well thought-out, and thought-provoking. I also appreciate that the theory specifically addresses lucid dreaming as a real phenomenon.

So What is the Expectatation Fulfilment Theory of Dreaming?

The website states 3 premises that summarize the theory:

  • “Dreams are metaphorical translations of waking expectations”.
  • “But only expectations that cause emotional arousals that are not acted upon during the day become dreams during sleep.”
  • “Dreaming deactivates that emotional arousal by completing the expectation pattern metaphorically, freeing the brain to respond afresh to each new day.”

Below are the most interesting points I see in regards to this theory of dreaming.

Read up on the Why We Dream website and join in with what you think!

On Dream Interpretation and The Meaning of Dreams

“The key to identifying what the dream was about is its emotion.”

I think this is the most meaningful advice ever in regards to dream interpretation.

On Lucid Dreaming

“Theories of dreaming that do not allow for occasional lucidity are, necessarily, incorrect or incomplete, because lucid dreaming is an acknowledged phenomenon. Our view of the REM state and the function of dreaming does not exclude lucidity in dreams.”

“However, lucid dreaming is a fairly volatile and rare phenomenon, even for those who have experienced it, and so such hopes have not been realised.”

“Lucid dreaming occurs in the REM state like any other phenomenon involving memory, metaphor and imagination. The same effects can be achieved through hypnosis, a focussed state of attention that artificially accesses the REM state. Knowledge of how to do this has been around for perhaps 40,000 thousand years.””

Ah! Finally – a theory that actually addresses lucid dreaming without dismissing it!

But wait! Doesn’t that last bit almost sound like a dig at lucid dreaming?” i.e. “The same effects can be achieved through hypnosis…” Huh?

On FLYING in Lucid Dreaming

This one caught me off guard!

The author implies that flying in a lucid dream is common because we are touching upon an ancient, pre-mammalian template in our brains for…swimming!

To quote:

“They describe their limbs as pulling or propelling them through the air, as though swimming. It’s as if an ancient premammalian template for swimming, left over from a time when our far distant ancestors lived in the oceans, is still able to be co-opted by the brain for a metaphor.”

On the Similarities Between Dreaming and Hypnosis

They state 3 similarities between the two states:

Amnesia – Time Distortion – Trance Logic

I love this last term, trance logic.

It aptly describes how when dreaming and when hypnotized, people accept whatever is going on. It’s as if there’s no backdrop of what’s normal to compare the experiences against, and thus everything is accepted as it is, without question, no matter how absurd.

Side note : Based on these three points, this list can also be expanded as similarities between dreaming, hypnosis, and tripping.

On The Relationship Between Dreams and Depression

This theory states that excessive dream sleep and “reduced slow-wave sleep” causes depression. Check out their video about dreaming and depression.

On Dreams Being Actually Not All That Bizarre

This one surprised me too. The author claims that dreams are actually overwhelmingly NOT bizarre; most dreams are dreams of our routine experiences. We simply tend to remember the incredibly strange dreams, and forget the rest.

Unless it’s just true that I forget most of my dreams because they’re boring, this one just doesn’t vibe with what’s in my dream journal, so I have am skeptical about this one.

On Dreaming and…(not) Going Insane?

One point that is actually pretty funny is that Joe Griffin claims that dreaming keeps us from going insane. By derousing the autonomic nervous system every night, our stress levels don’t overwhelm us to the point of insanity. Whew – That’s a relief. 🙂

Questions I have about this theory

If this theory is right, it would be possible to create a scenario to cause an unfulfilled emotion that would then, by default, be fulfilled within that night’s dreams.

So couldn’t we purposely create unfulfilled emotions to cause a certain metaphor in the dream? To in effect, pre-emptively control our dreams?

But then how can you create an emotion and not fulfill it, for certain, before going to bed?

And then how can you actively measure if an emotion is even fulfilled?

Questions I would like to ask Joe Griffin in an interview

1) Is there a relationship between the mechanism behind dreams and the mechanism behind individual psychedelic experiences? Could the content of the “trip” be determined in the same way our dreams are i.e. from the days un-fulfilled emotional arousals to the nervous system?

2) Is there a connection between having many dreams each night and then waking up with headaches? Could I actually be causing my headaches by intensifying or prolonging the REM state with my intention to have, remember, and control my dreams?

3) Can you explain what you mean when you equate the effects of lucid dreaming and hypnosis? Are you saying that the experience achieved through lucid dreaming can be achieved through hypnosis?

What do you think about this theory of dreaming?

11 Responses to “Why We Dream: The Expectation Fulfilment Theory of Dreaming”

  1. Eleanor July 16, 2007 at 11:23 am #

    Hello Ben, thanks for your review of the site and its contents!

    You have provided some fascinating questions for consideration. I will try and respond to them and provoke some further discussion!

    I think the key to considering how lucid dreaming is like hypnosis is to remember that they are both activations of the REM programming state (as proposed by the expectation fulfilment theory).

    Hypnosis is the activation of the REM state (via relaxation and the use of the right hemisphere/imagination/focused attention – which responds to pattern matching and suggestion). The strange thoughts and awareness of dream-like events or weird thought processes are what happens when your brain performs a ‘hemisphere switch’ from the left to the right in order that you can switch off and go to sleep. This means that your brain is using metaphors more and more, so you can appear to be having a weird dream, yet be aware of it at the same time. Your brain is thinking in metaphors (and all dreams are metaphors) because you’re in the right hemisphere, and that’s what the right hemisphere does. During this switch, at some point both your left hemisphere and right hemisphere are going to be working at the same time, hence you can be aware of the strange metaphorical thoughts going on and perhaps even train yourself to ‘direct’ them or at least be aware of them more – hence lucid dreaming, and why we no decent theory of dreaming can deny it is going on. I regularly experience this myself when I’m falling asleep – I suddenly become conscious (using my left brain) than I am sleepily thinking strange meandering fantastical thoughts, but the minute I recognise it in my left brain, the right brain thinking stops, as the brain flips back over to the left side.

    REM sleep occurs during sleep (dreaming to dearouse us) but can also occur during our waking lives, either induced by someone else (hypnosis), by something else (hallucinogens) or whenever we learn something new (REM programming in the womb and when you get really absorbed in something and focus your attention) or go into a short trance to assimilate the information and learning bombarding us. I think it’s something like every 20 minutes we go into a short trance (REM) state to process information. We do a mini hemispherical ‘switch’ from left brain to right brain so we can process this information from the left brain to the right (knowledge is contained in patterns).

    Like everything else, the REM state needs to occur in balance to be healthy, as it is a very powerful tool – hypnosis can be very harmful if used by someone who doesn’t know what they are doing, and so can taking hallucinogenic drugs. It’s worth remembering what can be triggered with unbalanced amounts of REM. Grossly simplified: too much REM sleep can trigger depression and too little can result in high stress levels and even psychosis/schizophrenia.

    Well I have rambled on enough now i think!

    Would you like me to forward your questions to Joe Griffin?

    🙂 Eleanor

  2. Jonathan July 16, 2007 at 1:54 pm #

    Why do we dream is for me totally clear! That’s not the problem. The 3 premises are just a little shadow of the truth. 😉

  3. Ben July 16, 2007 at 11:19 pm #

    Thanks for jumping aboard with such a detailed response!
    If you could forward my questions to Joe Griffin that would be awesome. I will definitely post his response on Dreaming Life.
    In regards to this point where you write:
    “REM sleep occurs during sleep (dreaming to dearouse us) but can also occur during our waking lives, either induced by someone else (hypnosis), by something else (hallucinogens)”
    Can you elaborate on the relationship between REM sleep and hallucinogens? The waking state of a subject after taking hallucinogenic compounds – is this experience accessing the REM state of mind?

  4. Eleanor July 17, 2007 at 9:01 am #

    I have forwarded your questions to Joe.

    “The waking state of a subject after taking hallucinogenic compounds – is this experience accessing the REM state of mind?” – if the nature of the REM state has been correctly assessed then, yes, drugs are certainly a way of accessing the REM state! That is what hallucinations are, either stress induced in psychosis, or artificially induced with drugs – it’s waking reality processed through the dreaming brain.

  5. The Mad Hatter July 26, 2007 at 6:40 am #

    “On Dreams Being Actually Not All That Bizarre”

    I’d disagree as well. When I was remembering 90%+ of my dreams, I would say that the greater half were most certainly out of the ordinary, usually greatly so.

    Interesting theory though.


  6. Kris July 27, 2007 at 11:08 pm #

    I’m jumping into this conversation a bit late, but I’m curious about some of the comments made by Eleanor, particularly these two:

    “The strange thoughts and awareness of dream-like events or weird thought processes are what happens when your brain performs a ‘hemisphere switch’ from the left to the right in order that you can switch off and go to sleep.”


    “We do a mini hemispherical ’switch’ from left brain to right brain so we can process this information from the left brain to the right (knowledge is contained in patterns).”

    I’m just curious about the science behind those comments and where the information about the hemispheric switch came from. If Eleanor happens to read this and could direct me to the book/article/research paper about it, I’d be very grateful. I study the mind/brain for a living so I’m always interested in things of that nature.


  7. Eleanor August 1, 2007 at 9:16 am #

    Hi Kris, thanks for your question, i should have expanded on that. you ask for books and research on the brain switches hemispheres:

    There is Ernest Rossi’s book called ‘The Twenty Minute Break’ (1991 Palisades Gateway Publishing) in which he recounts the research which shows how the brain switches from left neo-cortical functioning to right neo-cortical functioning about every ninety minutes lasting for about twenty minutes.
    This ultradian rhythm lasts throughout the 24 hour cycle and it is following this switchover that dreams occur at nighttime.

    Also in the book which explains the expectation fulfilment theory, Dreaming Reality: how dreaming can keep us sane or drive us mad (2006 Human Givens Publishing) expands on the importance of Silberer’s
    almost overlooked research on the autosymbolic effect which occurs at sleep onset whereby the leftbrained thought can be observed being converted into rightbrain metaphor.

    – Silberer, H. 1951 Report on a method of eliciting and observing certain symbolic hallucination phenomena. Organization and Pathology of Thought, transition and commentary by Rapaport, D. Columbia University Press, 195-233″ and

    – Silberer (1909) Bericht uber eine Methode, gewisse symbolische halluzinations – erscheinungen hervozurufen und zu beobachten, Jarhbuch psychoanalit. psychopath. Forsch., 513. 114, 176, 460-61, 499, 645-8″ [sorry I’ve only got the german language reference for this!])

    Hope this helps


  8. Kris August 1, 2007 at 1:42 pm #

    Hi Eleanor,

    Thanks so much for replying with that info. I think I’m going to order a copy of Rossi’s book this week. It sounds quite interesting. I wonder if people could apply his theory to perform that type of hemispheric switching at will. I’m sure there are many artists, musicians, and writers who would love to be able to shift their brain into a state dominated by the right hemisphere rather than the left. I know it can be achieved via certain types of brain/mind technology, and other techniques such as meditation also seem to trigger heightened right-brain activity in many people, but it would be very useful to be able to shift the dominant state back and forth at will.


  9. Eleanor August 15, 2007 at 11:31 am #


    Hm, as it happens every 90 minutes as a natural learning consolidation process, I don’t know whether it would be very useful to start trying to control it at will!

    Hypnosis and meditation, which are both forms of focused attention, do engage the right hemisphere you’re absolutely right. But these states are useful more for ‘learning’ rather than for ‘creating’ I think, so you can still write and create art without specifically switching hemispheres!

  10. sandhya August 23, 2008 at 8:29 am #

    I am not clear about dreaming and self conciousness.Do we find relaxation by dreaming?

  11. Jonathan August 27, 2008 at 7:09 am #

    Hi Sandhya,

    you can use dreaming for more relaxing if you try or for feeling refreshed at the morning or even for therapy, but dreaming is the first step to expand your consciousness, to become aware of the existence of other realities and subuniverses. Okay, for the last thing you have to train a lot, but in this way you can live several lifes at the same time and can collect more experiences than the most other people will ever have.
    Last but not least it is the next step in our evolution to become aware that we live in a huge network of realities, selves and planes.

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