Dreams, Part 2: What Do Dreams Mean?

Asleep in Battery Park on hot day (Library of Congress)

While dreams have been of interest to people throughout the centuries, it was Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud who first made the “scientific” study of dreams popular after the publication of his book “The Interpretation of Dreams” in 1899. In this book, Freud discussed his theory that all dreams were wish fulfilments. He felt that our primal urges and impulses had to be suppressed in waking life and that dreams allowed these impulses to be expressed. At the same time, he believed that, even in dreams, these urges could be too disturbing and they would often appear in disguised symbolic form. So for instance, according to Freud, stairwells, mine shafts, and small narrow recesses in buildings had symbolic repressed sexual undertones.

For the better part of the 20th century, Freud’s theory of dreams, or some version of it, dominated the field of psychology. However in the later part of the century, advances in brain imaging technology led to theories that made fewer inferential leaps and stuck to the “facts” that were being discovered through functional MRI’s. In other words, neuroscientists began to track areas of the brain that were active during sleep, and with their knowledge of the typical uses of these brain areas, were able to surmise a more functional rational for dreams. What these studies showed is that during sleep, motor areas of the brain are “turned off” thereby keeping us from physically acting out our dreams. At the same time, the visual areas of our brains, the parts of our brains that interpret visual information, and the emotional brain centers, all remain active. So according to these researchers, the brain is simply trying to make sense of random simulation coming from the parts of our brain that remain active during sleep.

So what do dreams mean? The theories of Freud and the more modern day neuroscientists reflect two ends of a continuum. There are psychologists who continue to see significant symbolism in dreams and use dream material to help their patients come to understand their emotional functioning and relationships. There are also psychologists that consider dream interpretation of little use as they subscribe to the idea that dreams simply reflect random brain activity. However, like most people, most psychologists fall somewhere between these two extremes.

In the end, dreams mean what you want them to mean. Generally, people who find life to be meaningful will also want to find meaning in their dreams. Similarly, people who see life as random and lacking in meaning will tend to see their dreams in the same light.

For those who are so inclined, dreams can be another source of information about life that compliments or contradicts what you know about yourself in waking life. Making sense of your dreams can be an integrating experience. While on the surface, dreams are often bizarre and obscure; the emotional content is often very understandable and revealing.

Tell us about your dreams and what dreams mean to you.

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