Brain Myths

Stories we tell about the brain and mind.

Seize Control of Your Dreams

Do we really need eight hours sleep? Do teenagers sleep in late because they're lazy? Can we really take control of our dreams? This post explores four myths and one surprising fact about sleep. Read More

Great read

Great article! Very insightful. Thanks.

Thanks for your kind

Thanks for your kind feedback!


I can't believe that the topic of meaning of dreams have been treated so lightly in this article. There are studies that show that at least dream contents are not random, they are strongly connected with what is going on in dreamers life. DO your homework, do your research! Not to mention the fact that many psychotherapies do use dream content to work with people's issues - for a reason.

It's a disappointment.

Day residue

Hi Joanna, thanks for your comment. I'm sorry you are disappointed. Yes, it's true that our waking activities can affect the kinds of things we dream about. There's even some recent (fairly iffy) research suggesting that your sleeping position can affect the content of your dreams:
However, there is no scientific foundation to claims about the Freudian symbolism of dreams, which is a different issue. The reason that some psychotherapists analyse dream content is that they believe it is a way to expose subconscious conflicts, fears or desires that the client is not aware of. However, this is not a scientific process. It can be risky, especially if the client is highly suggestible.

re: Day residue

Hi Christian,
I'm in agreement with Joanna's opinion that dreams can provide meaning, especially given their uniqueness and originality. They are as individual as thoughts and feelings are between people. Many people have gotten benefits from interpreting them, myself included.

In terms of scientific evidence, I believe that a different approach is needed. We all have to consider our own dreams to see what meaning is held within them, rather than looking to see what the literature or data says about other people. Until scientific research can be more participatory in nature (where we are the researcher and research subject), it will remain limited. If that sounds like it goes against science or isn't objective, then we should look to quantum physics to see that it's impossible for the researcher not to affect research, even if they're a passive observer.

Dream Symbolism

About dream symbolism, I'd like to point out that anybody who's ever read freudian theory knows that wish fulfilment occurs mostly by subrogation of symbols, e.g., you may fulfill your desire to walk but in a dream this activity may be replaced by an analogous symbol that could be related to walking in the dreamer's psyche.
What's more, actual dreaming has always escaped objetivation since it's a fully subjetive experience. Hence, trying to prove scientifically that dreams have no meaning is as impossible as proving they do. For what accounts to subjetive meaning of a dream, which is psychoanalysis's objective regarding dream interpretation, anyone can give a certain meaning to a dream. That is the actual royal way to the subconsciuos.


I don't know about controlling dreams, but I can use them. I know this sounds peculiar, but if I am having difficulty getting to sleep, I focus on a particular dream and I have a library of them--always the same concept, wandering, fact, I am beginning to feel sleepy.

I love this

I love this article!

Personally, I feel that dreams have fairly obvious 'symbolism,' so much so that once you pay attention, the 'symbolism' disappears and dreams just appear to be very honest, abstract ways of thinking and processing information. I do not believe that dreams tell or show us things that we 'do not know' or 'don't yet understand.' Perhaps people mistake this unfiltered honesty for deeper meaning. I don't believe we possess the ability to shield ourselves from certain thoughts or feelings while we sleep like we can while awake (you can put off nagging thoughts throughout your day).

However, speaking from personal experience: My dreams correspond with how I'm feeling, especially when I'm stressed out: these 'stress dreams' are very memorable, distinct, and bizarre... often a little scary. Sorry for ranting... my take on dreams is that they are just our brain processing thoughts and feelings in an unfiltered, free way.

Great content

Thanks for an interesting article. I'm a long time lucid dreamer myself, and I've also practiced various dream control techniques. In terms of symbolism: on one side, I agree with the group of experts claiming that dreams aren't really mirrors of our subconsciousness. They are models of the world, formed by our assumptions, motivations and expectations. We CAN and SHOULD alter these models if there is something wrong with them (e.g. managing nightmares).
On the other side, creating or seeing dream characters in our dreams might be a truly interesting insight into our own self, as in many cases they represent certain elements of our psyche.
"We need men who can dream of things that never were."John F. Kennedy
Learn How To Control Dreams

Teens Sleep

I truely agree with the fact that melatonin levels are higher in teens at later times in the afternoon. I for one, being 19 years old, often find myself most tired after school around 5pm. This often creates problems within my everyday life because my sleep schedule is so off. Even after 12 hours of what I think is a pretty restful sleep, I still feel completely exhausted and feel like I hadn't even slept at all. Could this be effected by the higher melatonin levels in teens my age or is this because I never fully enter REM sleep?

Dreams have no meaning? Wha???

I agree with Joanna that this article is very disappointing regarding dreaming and symbolism. It is clear you did not do your homework because you only refer to Freud whose theories on dreams have been greatly debunked. You didn't bother to look into Carl Jung's work on dreaming or any of the modern dream researchers, such as myself and our findings.

You state that because neuroscience cannot find any meaning in dreams, that is evidence enough for you. Neuroscience does not do a comparative analysis between the content and emotions and thoughts of the day to the imagery in dreams at night. That is like asking a TV repairman to explain the show on worm holes you just saw on the Discovery Channel.

I have been researching the dreaming mind since 1996, have written three books on the subject and have spoken at universities about my findings that dreams do have meaning and that dreaming is actually a thinking process and is in fact a continuation of your thoughts from the previous day.

There are plenty of dream researchers out there and plenty of mental health practitioners who successfully use dream-work to help their clients sort out their issues, overcome the past and greatly improve their lives. Did you bother to find or interview any of us? I believe THAT evidence is clear.

Peer-reviewed research

Hi Lauri, thanks for your comment. If you have published any peer-reviewed research in a respected psychology journal about dream symbolism, I would be very interested to know of it. Of course any one can look for meaning in dreams - the point is that this is a wholly subjective process; dreams don't contain truths about the unconscious waiting to be unlocked with a magical decoding system. In fact, a therapist who listens to their client's dreams and then purports to "decode" them is engaging in a risky business.

PS. I just did a Google Scholar search and I couldn't find a single journal article published by you on the symbolism of dreams.

Robert Hoss is a great

Robert Hoss is a great researcher to start with. This is a PDF of his presentation at the 28th annual International Association for the Study of Dreams conference.

The footnotes in this article, I'm sure, you will also find very helpful.

No evidence

You said you've been researching dreams since 1996 - please could you point me to one of the peer-reviewed papers you've published on this subject? I couldn't find a single paper when I performed a Google search. The footnotes in the article you linked to also do not include a single scientific study that tests the idea that dreams contain meaningful symbolism.

I have not subjected my

I have not subjected my research to peer review as I use it solely in my private practice. I apologize for not answering you about that in my previous comment. Please see Dreaming Journal for peer reviewed articles and research. The senior editors will be a fantastic resource for you. I do hope you follow up with this. Dreams have been dismissed as nonsense for far too long. All the best and sweet dreams!

Still no evidence

Really, to be persuasive about dreams having meaningful symbolism, it would help if you were able to point to a single study - by you or anyone else - that has tested this idea and come up with a positive result.

For example, a good starting point would be to present several "dream analysts" with examples of dreams and see, without conferring, if they came up with the same kinds of interpretations of the same dreams. I'm not aware of any studies that have found that to be the case.

Or what about a properly controlled study that showed that people who analysed their dreams (or had them decoded by an "expert") enjoyed subsequent advantages, in terms of better mental health or life satisfaction etc, compared with control participants.

Or a study that showed that people were able to decode the hidden meaning in their dreams and thereby arrive at novel (and later corroborated) insights about themselves or their relationships that were previously beyond reach.

One single study along these lines - can you point me to one?

Of course we can look for meaning in dreams, just like we can look for patters in clouds or the bubbles in the bath. But the idea that dreams operate according to a system of fixed symbolic rules (i.e. if you dream x, it actually means y), known only to trained analysts, is not supported by science. I'm sorry if this fact is unpalatable to you and I hope it doesn't give you nightmares.

I have pointed you towards

I have pointed you towards several psychologists and researchers who can provide you what you are looking for in the Dreaming Journal link in my previous comment. I am a private practice. I can certainly connect you to my clients but what you are looking for can be better provided by the list of psychologists and researchers who edit Dreaming Journal: Kelly Bulkeley PhD, Deirdre Barret PhD, etc.

dream symbolism

Hi Christian:

As a fellow psychologist who has lost faith in the capacity of psychological research to get past trivialities, it would be more interesting, rather than going to 'peer reviewed research", to see if you could counter Jerome Kagan's 1999 statement that after a century of psychology research, there is little that researchers agree on - in fundamental ways about the nature of psychology, that is - beyond trivial facts about learning and memory.

It's absurd to think that a profession that cannot come up with a coherent definition of consciousness (or, as Fodor once said, can't even come up with a coherent way to think about coming up with a coherent definition of consciousness) can even begin to come to grips with dream symbolism. See Iain McGilchrist's "The Master and His Emissary" for an astute analysis of left-mode thought and its deleterious effects on the pursuit of genuine understanding (rather than technocratic knowledge)

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Christian Jarrett, Ph.D is the editor of the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and staff writer on their magazine The Psychologist.


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