Dreams: What Does Science Say About Their Interpretation?

Dreaming permits each and every one of us to be quietly and safely insane every night of the week. Sleep researcher William Dement, Newsweek, Nov. 30, 1959, regarding dreams

What should we make of our dreams? What’s their purpose? What do we dream about the most? Can we interpret our dreams with any accuracy?

The following information is taken from a couple sources, Jeremy Dean‘s PsyBlog and a Psychology Today post by Dr. Patrick McNamara, Associate Professor of Neurology at Boston University School of Medicine.

I. What’s the purpose of dreaming?

According to Dean, no one knows for sure. Maybe there is none? Or maybe there is. Just some of the possible theories:

  • They consolidate information
  • They test out ideas
  • They help us work out problems
  • They help us process emotions

II. What do we dream about?

According to research by Calvin S. Hall et al., as cited by Dean, people all over the world dream about a lot of the same things. Some commonalities:

  • They’re usually phantasmagoric: a lot of merging of various elements.
  • Anxiety is the most frequently felt emotion.
  • Negative emotions are much more common than positive ones.
  • Most of us dream in color.
  • About 10% are sexual in nature—more so, though, among teenagers.

III. Can we interpret our dreams?

In one post called “The Over-Interpretation of Dreams,” Dean introduces some pertinent ideas on this subject: “According to some psychologists, dreams are nothing more than the by-product of a brain disconnected from its normal sensory inputs, free-wheeling its way through the night. To others, dreams denote night-time learning or problem-solving, even automatic sifting of the mind’s detritus, the skimming off of useless information to be dumped like so much mental junk.”

Any of the theories out there, however, is yet to be proven.

Morewedge and Norton (2009), says Dean, found that most of us believe we can make sense of our dreams and that they reveal, á la Freud’s thinking, some significant things about ourselves. People also tend to think their reveries will influence their waking life and/or predict the future.

Morewedge and Norton argue that there is also a basic psychological process supporting people’s belief in dreams. We have random thoughts all the time, like day-dreaming about getting a raise at work. If a thought comes while awake, it can be consciously dismissed as wishful thinking. But when the same thought comes during a dream, it’s harder to dismiss.

Although logically impossible, dreams can feel like they come from outside ourselves. Along with the long cultural history of dream analysis, their apparently mysterious source may be partly why some people find dreams so influential.

What about the science behind this? Notably, neuroscientist Patrick McNamara, Ph.D., writes in “The Folly of Dream Interpretation” that it’s lacking—not that there aren’t some researchers trying to make sense of it all. Moreover, most dream interpreters’ websites are based on “nonsense”:

In short, what the dream interpretation websites offer up for dream interpretation systems is mere metaphor mongering. Freud is partly to blame for this but the ancients used the same sort of analogical imagining procedure when interpreting their dreams as do our modern ‘experts’. The art and science of dream interpretation has not really progressed beyond ancient dream interpretation manuals and soothsayer nonsense.

On the other hand, there’s no reason not to track your dream patterns and themes if you’re so inclined—doing so may help you pay better attention to certain important issues in your life. In other words, although how you actually wind up interpreting your dreams is highly subjective, the process and results may be meaningful to you nevertheless.

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