Why Dreams Don’t Matter

Those thoughts you have while asleep mean far less than you think

Photo: May Pamintuan/Unsplash

Amy was falling. The air was dark all around her. As she plummeted through the empty void, she realized the pavement coming up beneath her. Her speed gained as she grew more aware of her plight. When the moment came for her to finally hit the ground, she woke up.

Dreams like this happen all across the world. Called common dreams, they occur in most people at least once in a lifetime. Some of the more typical examples include flying, getting chased by something (e.g., a bear, rhino, grizzly bear), losing all your teeth, or—something I certainly never had experience with—showing up late to an exam.

Almost as common as these dreams is the attempt to interpret them. In the sections that follow, I aim to show why most of these interpretations are bunk. While dreams certainly can have meaning, it’s normally not the meaning people think. And because these interpretations can influence real-world behavior, it’s important that we get their meanings straight.

Dreams

Dreams come in all shapes and sizes. But before we can discuss how they’re often misinterpreted, we have to agree on their basic nature. To start: Most of our dreams are unexceptional.

The bulk of dreams are composed of nonsensical narratives with the people closest to us—friends, family, new colleagues at work. Sometimes these people are mixed together; sometimes they’re blended with memories from our past. Whatever it is, our brain doesn’t really care: The areas that normally control judgement and decision-making are shut down.

Dreams also often incorporate information from earlier that day. Called day residues, these bits of information show that our dreams are in some way tied to our everyday experience. If the printer at work explodes or your sister tries to stab you with a toothbrush, the scene might replay itself in your dreams.

Most dreams are so mundane that we forget about them almost immediately after they occur. Amusingly, Freud attributed this amnesiac disposition to the actual content of dreams. According to him, the content is so intensely sexual and violent that our mind must repress it in order to maintain its health. This is why our dreams are masked in symbols, the primary focus of dream interpretation.

Symbols

While dream interpretation dates back to antiquity, the process was brought to its current salience by Freud. And while dream analysis in no way stopped with him (many of his disciples, including Carl Jung and Alfred Adler, went on to perform the practice in their own way), showing the error in Freud’s methodology shows the error inherent to most forms of dream interpretation.

The main flaw with Freud’s methodology (and there were many) was his use of symbols. These symbols were vaunted as the Rosetta Stone of dreams, transforming their “latent” content into their “manifest” content—that is, translating their veiled qualities into their actual meaning. Here are a few of my favorite examples to help illustrate, all taken from Freud’s seminal book, The Interpretation of Dreams:

Rooms in dreams are usually women.

A dream of going through a suite of rooms is a brothel or harem dream.

… a woman’s hat can very often be interpreted with certainty as a genital organ.

All elongated objects, such as sticks, tree-trunks, and umbrellas… stand for the male organ.

… many landscapes in dreams, especially those containing bridges or wooded hills, may clearly be recognized as the genitals.

As you can see, Freud thought a lot about anatomy. He surmised that everything from an umbrella to a nail file symbolized a penis, and everything from a cupboard to an empty box a vagina. Modern day dream interpretations are only slightly different.

The difference between Freudian dream analysis and the versions given today isn’t anything related to methodology—it’s related to the specific symbols people use. Since Freudian psychoanalysis started to fall from popularity in the 1970s, wild ascriptions of neckties to genitals tended to fade while other, less salacious connections crept in. But the problem with both styles of analysis isn’t the quality of the symbols—it’s the use of symbols itself.

Falsifiability

In response to all of this Freudian psychobabble, not everyone stood by and applauded. Karl Popper, who would later become one of the most famous philosophers of science ever to live, did the opposite. Having witnessed a few lectures from Einstein, he realized there was something fundamentally different about the two theorists’ approaches to science. This difference was falsifiability.

Falsifiability is the ability of a hypothesis to be proven wrong. And, ultimately, the more ways in which it can be proven wrong, the more reliable and trustworthy a hypothesis it can become. If a theory can’t be disproven at all, it’s completely useless (we’ll come back to this point).

The theory that gave Popper this insight was Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, the notion that gravity is a wrinkle in spacetime (the fabric that holds our universe together). While it might sound as outlandish as talk of empty rooms and genitals, Einstein’s theory maintained a crucial difference that separated it from Freud’s. Namely, it could be falsified.

Einstein had made a prediction from his theory: If gravity is indeed a warp in spacetime, you would expect that light traveling through the Sun’s gravitational pull would get warped and bent as a result. An eclipse, allowing us to view the light from stars behind the Sun, should reveal this warping. In 1919, such evidence was found. The find was termed gravitational lensing, which has enjoyed abundant confirmatory support since.

The same predictions aren’t possible for dream interpretation. If Freud is right and the umbrella represents the “male organ,” what sort of hypotheses could you formulate to support this conclusion? I can’t really think of any. And the same is true for most of the symbols used in dream interpretation.

If you’re tempted to say that a lack of falsifiability is not enough to discard a hypothesis, consider these other unfalsifiable things: unicorns in space, the Giant Spaghetti Monster, invisible teapots orbiting the Earth. Each of these hypotheses is similarly unfalsifiable; you can’t provide conclusive evidence against their existence (only that no evidence for them exists). This is the same problem we face with dream interpretation.

Metaphor

Some have proposed that recent evidence from the cognitive sciences has breathed new life into the practice of dream interpretation. These discoveries come from the study of conceptual metaphor.

Conceptual metaphor describes the way in which we graph certain abstract concepts onto physical realities. Here are a few common examples (most assiduously forwarded by George Lakoff, a prominent cognitive linguist), given with their colloquial usage in language and how they might aid in dream interpretation:

  • KNOWLEDGE IS SEEING. I see what you’re saying. That notion is clear as day. He’s blinded by his ignorance. Blindness in a dream could represent a feeling of ignorance or stupidity.

Conceptual metaphors like these are powerful indicators of complex cognition. Moreover, they have vast empirical support. But they don’t get you out the symbolism trap.

Flying dreams are a perfect example. Most people report that flying dreams feel good. It is conceivable that this derives from the UP IS HAPPY metaphor. There’s a problem here: There are several competing metaphors for UP. UP can also mean HEALTH (he’s in peak condition), STATUS (he’s at the height of his career), or CONTROL (she’s on top of things). How can you determine which metaphor is correct?

More evidence that these metaphors might not be interpreted correctly comes from studies on actual sleeping people. Sometimes external stimuli imposed on research participants while they’re sleeping will end up in their dreams. In one study, water dripped on a participant’s head showed up as a leaky roof. In another’s, it turned up as a squirt gun. But in the majority of participants the water didn’t show up as anything. The same poor connection between reality and dreams could apply to metaphor: The happiness might not manifest as anything.

What Dreams Actually Mean

If dreams can’t give us concrete details about our waking mind, what can they do? Several theories have been proposed to answer this question, and the answers they offer range from the evolutionary to the emotive.

Clearly, some dreams can mean something. Those who experience PTSD will often suffer dreams reliving their past trauma. If you’re attacked by a shark, you might have recurring nightmares about being attacked by sharks. The same is true for other types of traumatic experience.

The relationship between negative emotions and dreams is made especially clear when you consider that significant life stress is strongly correlated with the occurrence of nightmares. In effect, the more stress you experience, the more nightmares you will have.

Because of these findings, some have proposed that dreams are the way in which our brain rehearses unpleasant situations it’d like to avoid in the future. These situations are detrimental to our wellbeing, so it’s advantageous to rehearse them. When combined with what we know about sleep’s positive effect on memory, this makes for a plausible case: While our brain sleeps, it relearns situations it’d rather not repeat.

Regardless, none of the established connection between negative emotions and dreams can get you to a place where symbols can be usefully recognized to aid in dream interpretation. While you might be able to glean that you’ve been feeling an abnormal amount of stress, you won’t be able to understand with any certainty how that stress materializes in your dreams. For all you know, that umbrella could be a phallus.

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Taylor Mitchell Brown

Taylor Mitchell Brown

I used to drum in a hair metal band. Now I read and write. Get my work for free on Twitter @toochoicetaylor. | Biology | Evolution | Neuroscience |