Post No.: 0508
Furrywisepuppy has been discussing dreams and nightmares and I want to say some things about them too…
We’ve all naturally tried to understand what the content of our dreams mean, what they might be telling us and how we should treat them. But in the main – dreams aren’t reliable ways for generating confessions or predictions, and aren’t reliable guides of one’s innermost desires, thoughts, feelings or unfulfilled needs. Dreams don’t hold any paranormal or supernatural powers such as telepathy or clairvoyance.
They cannot be used to predict the future. Any ‘hits’ will be down to an ‘interpretative bias’ when interpreting ambiguous information, for which dreams tend to be incredibly ambiguous. There’s the ‘hindsight bias’ when reinterpreting an ambiguous dream to attempt to make it fit actual events after they’ve happened. There’s also the law of large numbers i.e. pure coincidence and chance, because there are billions of dreams being experienced every night around the world so it shouldn’t be surprising if some occasionally appear to accurately predict the future, and one of those dreams could be yours. So it’s a combination of the use of suggestibility and confirmation bias; like with other methods of false prophecy. Reports of genuine clairvoyance have been merely anecdotal or apocryphal.
Unless we immediately record what happened during a particular dream in all of its perceived detail and never later twist, alter or add to what we had recorded – the recall of our own dreams is typically sporadic and incomplete, and the reporting of our own dreams is always potentially unreliable, especially the longer that time passes. This is just like the recall of our memories of conscious events (false or manipulated memories of childhood can even be planted regarding our conscious experiences), except much worse because dreams are way more fuzzy in detail, patchy and come with many jump cuts and unnatural events that wouldn’t or couldn’t happen in reality. We often (inadvertently) exaggerate or fill in the gaps with assumptions to find a coherent and meaningful narrative. Then there’s the interpretation of what a dream meant, which will always be hugely subjective.
The fidelity of the memories of our dreams fades far faster than our memories of conscious events. Unless we keep revising them, we can soon forget what we had dreamt about within just a day, yet can still remember that we did have a dream of some sort. We can even forget that we had a particular dream altogether after a couple of days. And if we believe that dreams are prophetic then we mustn’t ignore all of the forgotten or unreported dreams and the much larger mountain of dreams that never came true.
Most times, our retelling of our own dreams tends to be over-coherent. Our dreams are typically full of disconnected or ambiguous parts and events but we read and recall them as if everything were neatly connected and try to make one orderly and tidy story out of it all, where we attribute intentions to the characters and causal explanations for the events too. These are symptoms of our ‘system one’. In other words, our recalls and interpretations of our own dreams are naturally biased.
Dreams may indeed have meanings, but their meanings are typically extremely equivocal, yet we recall them through a filter that is our own interpretations to make them seem coherent, but this coherency and these interpretations will be inherently subjective. Of course, the interpretations of dreams by anyone, including those who might call themselves ‘dream experts’ and what you might find in dream dictionaries, will inevitably be subjective too. It’s like if someone read a sexual innuendo in what you said where you didn’t intend any – it’d speak about their dirty mind, not yours(!)
And because we are uninhibited when REM sleep dreaming because our prefrontal cortices are deactivated during this time, we can dream of doing many things we wouldn’t ever do when awake (unless maybe drunk). For example, people who occasionally have very violent dreams of punching people may have never ever punched another person in real life. The suppression of this area of the brain that’s vital for critical thinking is perhaps the reason why we’re usually unaware we’re in a dream while we’re in one, until we wake up, are just about to wake up or can manage to enter a lucid dream.
So both the recollections and interpretations of dreams are incredibly subjective, which makes the study of the contents of dreams and their meanings very difficult or subjective. All we know for sure is that dreaming is vital for our well-being. The brain can interpret what it experiences in many ways, and we tend to accept the explanation that personally makes the most sense or is most convenient for us.
For exactly the same reason, interpreting Rorschach ink blot tests or similar tests in the field of psychoanalysis also fails to stand up to scientific rigour for predicting pathologies. Their ambiguous nature and the meanings therapists attach to particular symbols (e.g. seeing an eagle means x) is akin to dream interpretations – the supposed results (the examiner’s interpretations of the subject’s interpretations) will likely speak far more about the examiner than the subject because what’s considered a ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’, or a ‘good’ or ‘bad’, response has no known or knowable objective basis. Meow.
It’s like those once-quirky questions like, “If you were a pizza topping, what would you be?” And if someone said, “Meat feast” then would this mean that this person is ‘a hunky piece of flesh’, ‘unhealthily fatty’ or something else?(!) It’s a bit of fun but we cannot take what it all means seriously.
It’ll at least partially speak of the interviewer’s interpretations of the interviewee’s interpretations (like the interpretation of all art). Our subjective explications of other people’s subjective explications of something will inevitably speak about ourselves! Plus our interpretations are often contextual too, although that might be part of the point (e.g. if you’re currently hungry then you might think of food-related images, and all anyone can read from that is that you’re currently hungry, which you could’ve just told them without such a test!)
Dreams therefore don’t have fixed or objective meanings or symbolism, whether you’re being chased, falling, flying, naked in public, struggling with a test, fighting off a horde of zombies, or your teeth are falling out.
…But they do arguably have meanings – just very personal ones. So the same type of dream images or objects can mean different things to different people. Being naked in a dream might mean insecurity, or the complete opposite for it could mean body confidence, for instance. And again we must remember that even our own interpretations of our own dreams will be post hoc readings of imperfect memories of typically hazy resolution imagery!
If you nonetheless still want to try analysing a recent striking dream you can recall – describe it in as much detail as you can (e.g. describe who was there, where it was, when it was, what happened, the emotions or feelings you felt, and anything else), then think about how it might relate to the current events in your life or whatever nightmare fuel has been on your mind recently. Perhaps something key in your past or some recent event triggered the dream? Then assume the dream has some hidden meaning or message for you. What might it be saying about your personal life, career, personality, relationships or something else? Imagine that you can change this dream in any way you like. What would you change? How would the dream end? Who else might be involved? And then explore the implications of these interpretations and what this new, improved dream might say about how it could apply to, or how you should tackle or change, your real waking life?
Of course, this doesn’t solve the problem that such an interpretation will still be highly subjective, and it assumes that the dream has coherent meaning about your waking life. Sometimes, like our conscious waking thoughts, what goes through our minds are just exploratory or whimsical thoughts or ideas, which means they might not be useful for identifying issues in your life; although they could maybe still be useful for conjuring up creative and innovative solutions to a problem? Even our waking thoughts are occasionally strange (e.g. imagining hugging a big tree and it turns into an irresistibly cute feathery Trico!) but it doesn’t necessarily mean they express our dying wishes or ultimate, deepest fantasies. So weird dreams can mean just as much as those kinds of thoughts. Constantly recurring dreams, or thoughts, will possibly mean far more than one-off ones however, although again what these may exactly mean will be subject to subjectivity. The benefit of this approach though is that it at least takes an individual and personal approach to each dream and doesn’t attempt to apply sweeping generalisations or symbols based on other people’s experiences of what they saw in their own dreams.
There may be universal or at least common themes and imagery between different people’s dreams, but I wouldn’t conclude that there are universal meanings; just like I wouldn’t say everyone perceives the same meaning of life itself. Some people like snakes, other people don’t, for instance, so if you see snakes in your dreams then it’ll have different associations for you compared to others. Thus you’ve got to find your answers for yourself and not so much listen to what other people think your dreams mean.
I also wouldn’t start trying to read too much into them. You could’ve just been hot, sweaty and restless during bedtime and this caused you to have a nightmare (read Post No.: 0494). It perhaps could’ve been something you ate the evening before? It might be due to a row you had with someone last night, but in such cases you wouldn’t need a dream to tell you what’s on your mind. We’re quite interested in what our deepest unconscious thoughts are trying to tell us; although some will dispute that the mind has much depth at all.
All in all, dreams aren’t generally used as indicators of psychopathologies or necessarily about wish fulfilment. Dreams seem to simply be the things our minds are thinking about whilst we’re sleeping, although sometimes with less inhibition. They don’t seem to be premeditated or consciously pre-determinable (at least reliably). They’re seemingly random like mental ad-libbing yet not always or entirely meaningless. Before we attempt to read their meanings, we’ve got to first somehow work out if there’s any meaning at all? Some may provide deep insights into your feelings whilst others are just speculative creative thinking. If you can imagine it then you can dream it, but not all imagination is revealing of one’s hopes or fears. It’s like asking whether something ‘is art’ first before trying to read the meaning behind it – otherwise we could be fruitlessly trying to find the meaning behind a coffee stain(!)
There’s still admittedly plenty to try to understand about dreams and their overall purpose, but currently – even with (or precisely because of) modern neuroscientific understanding – the contents of dreams aren’t formally used to diagnose any problems or pathologies with rigour, which is a departure from Sigmund Freud’s ideas and beliefs from over 100 years ago. (He absolutely kick-started and contributed much to the field of psychoanalysis but many of his ideas don’t stack up anymore.) So dreams aren’t currently used for clinical diagnoses any more than ‘psychics’ are used for catching criminals; or if they are used then such practices are liable to creating dubious insights or terrible injustices.
Meow. More science will continue to be conducted in this area but we might never be able to escape the fact that other people’s interpretations of our dreams might speak more about them than us, and our interpretations of other people’s dreams might speak more about us than them.