What do dreams really mean?

by Dorian Minors

November 21, 2016

Analects  |  Newsletter

Excerpt: I bet you’ve heard stories of ‘prophetic dreams’. Or maybe you’ve had one yourself. Well, if you’re here, you probably want to know what the science says. Dream interpretation has long been a staple of some psychological practices. It all...


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I bet you’ve heard stories of ‘prophetic dreams’. Or maybe you’ve had one yourself. Well, if you’re here, you probably want to know what the science says.

Dreams as a psychological tool

Dream interpretation has long been a staple of some psychological practices. It all dates back to Sigmund Freud and later, Carl Jung. Freud was a big believer in the idea that dreams possessed symbolic content. That the stories dreams told were a kind of proxy for your internal desires or conflicts and issues from the past that still bother us. Carl Jung extended this idea, suggesting that dreams reveal our anxieties about the future in a kind of coded form. TV and movies took the ball and ran with it. In one episode, Tony Soprano dreams that one of his compatriates is a talking fish, and decided that the man must be an FBI informant. Countless characters have a wacky dream and wake up wondering 'what does it mean?'. More often than not, the dream turns out to be some portent of the future.

This kind of popularisation has led a bunch of websites to treat dreams like a kind of fortune cookie. Dream this thing and a great romance will blossom. Dream that thing and you’ll have some kind of financial disaster. It pains me to point out that as fun as that would be, even as crazy as he was, Freud never thought this kind of thing was the case. The point of dream interpretation, in the psychoanalytic tradition, is to look at the content of the dream (the manifest) and identify the themes and patterns that reveal the conflicts of the inner mind (the symbolic content). Since dreams are created using our individual experiences of the world, no psychologist in their right mind would suggest that a single symbol has an immutable and universal meaning. Each dream must be interpreted for each individual based on who that person is and what’s going on for them.

So what do dreams reveal?

The question remains, were Freud and Jung right? Do dreams give us an insight into our inner conflicts? Scientists aren't very confident about this. During REM sleep (rapid eye movement; happens every hour and a half or so while we're under) our brains are super active. This is where dreams happen. The common themes of these dreams tend to be common activities, like going to work or school. Often, they don't make much physical sense and usually have some kind of affective (emotional) aspect to them. Any attempts to identify symbolic content in these messy storylines are hampered by the fact that no one can agree what they might mean. Ask three different psychoanalysts to interpret a dream, and you'll likely get three different answers.

A more convincing theory comes from a pair of Harvard psychiatrists by the name of Hobson and McCarley. They suggest that the unusual amount and patterns of brain activity during REM sleep force our brain to try to make sense of it all. It does this by cobbling it together into a story. If this is true, and dreams are merely a product of our poor narrative driven brain under the pump, then the notion that these stories might contain clues to our inner psyche is not a very compelling one.

Another very interesting theory comes from Jonathan Gottschall and the work he reviews in his book. He suggests that dreams are a kind of conflict simulator. Our brains work very hard every night to put us through countless tough situations so that we’re better at problem-solving when we wake up. This could explain why the vast majority of dreams seem to be stressful in one way or another. In fact, Gottschall echoes Jung’s assertions that dreams are anxieties about future conflicts that may arise.

This doesn’t mean that dreams have no value as a tool though. Freud and Jung were dead-on when they suggested that our thoughts and feelings do influence our dreams. There’s no doubt that many of our dreams revolve around past issues or future events. The problems only start to come when we try to delve more deeply into an issue than thinking that a dream which reflects reality in some way may tell us we have some kind of concerns about what’s going on for us. Trying to figure out what those concerns might be or seeking out some kind of hotline to our unconscious probably just muddies the waters. The fact of the matter is that our brains go nuts when we go into REM sleep and any kind of message is going to be scrambled by all the crazy brain activity going on.

So how does that explain prophetic dreams? Well, it doesn’t, does it? I’m inclined to say that most prophetic dreams are coincidences. Remember that we only selectively attend to and remember things. And our thinking is subject to all kinds of biases and shortcuts that often change what we remember. A prophetic dream might just be a dream that we wanted to be prophetic. But there are some dreams that can’t just be dismissed. Dreams that are so specific and memorable that when they come true later, it’s like you were watching an episode of your own life. How can we explain those? Well, I’m a psychologist, not a magician, so you won’t find those kinds of answers here. Not until our understanding of the brain is way better than it is. In the meanwhile, my suggestion? If you dream something funky, don’t think too hard about it. More often than not, trying to interpret its meaning isn’t going to help you any. Rather than figuring out what your night-dreams mean, focus on making your day-dreams a reality, then you can write a song like this one and make millions.

Freud was wrong about a bunch of things, but one of the most pervasive was the idea that pent up emotions come out in destructive ways, an idea that’s putting you in danger. Not all of the crazier theories to come from the psychodynamic approach are wrong, learn how subliminal messaging really works. Turning scholarship into wisdom without the usual noise and clutter, we dig up the dirt on psychological theories you can use. Become an armchair psychologist at The Dirt Psychology.

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