Why do we dream and what do our dreams mean? These questions both fascinate and captivate our imagination. Shakespeare's Prospero, in The Tempest, proposed that "we are such stuff as dreams are made on." But what do dreams tell us about ourselves?
Freud, of course, used dream interpretation as the basis for his psychoanalytic approach to therapy. He proposed that dreams represent the intrusion into our slumber of ugly unwanted desires or what is known in common speech as "wish fulfillment."
Although modern dream theory gives some credence to Freud's proposals, most scientists would argue now that dreams are due to the arousal of particular brain patterns. The sensory parts of our brain play and replay fragmentary memories of our daily experiences. Our higher-level brain centers weave those pits and pieces together in a story-like fashion, according to this theory.
This modern, rational, explanation of dreams has a good deal of evidence to support it. However, there still remain many unanswered questions. Why do we occasionally have a dream that later seems to come true? Don't these experiences suggest that dreams can predict the future? And what about dreams that, upon reflection in the daytime, seem to reveal important truths about ourselves or other people?
A perspective on dreams, very popular in some psychotherapy circles, comes from the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung. At first a disciple and later a rival of Freud, Jung saw dreaming as an expression not of our unconscious wishes but of issues and concerns buried deep within the psyche. Jung believed that universal themes, called "archetypes," pervade our psyche. Because of these archetypes, we respond to certain universal themes such as the hero, the male (in females) and the female (in males). Sometimes these archetypes appear in dreams.
Jung also believed that throughout our lives, we are continually seeking balance or harmony between the conscious and unconscious parts of our minds. The process of "individuation," or achieving that perfect balance, can take years if not decades. Sometimes the unconscious parts of our mind, he believed, are aware of problems in our lives that our conscious mind chooses to ignore. In his book, Man and His Symbols, Jung states, somewhat ambiguously that: “What we consciously fail to see is frequently perceived by our unconscious, which can pass the information on through dreams. Dreams may often warn us in this way; but just as often, it seems, they do not” (p. 51).
Nevertheless, Jung tells stories of patients he saw in therapy who told him of certain dreams that convinced him they were in mortal danger. Turns out later, he was right. One woman who in today's terms would be called "uptight" reported that she had "shocking dreams, reminding her of all sorts of unsavory things" (I don't think he means food). In her waking life, she had a bad habit of wandering through the woods where she "indulged in soulful fantasies" (again, probably not of food). He tried to warn her of the danger, but she ignored him and soon after, she was "savagely attacked by a sexual pervert." To Jung, this woman's dreams told him that she had a secret longing for just such an adventure. Her attack was, in this way, "predicted" by her dream. If she had acknowledged her supposedly unsavory desires in a healthier way, she could have achieved a better psychic balance and the attack might never had occurred.
Jung's dream theory, dismissed by many academic psychologists as overly spiritual, whimsical, and unsupported by data, has some interesting points to make nevertheless, points that fit in well with modern psychology's concept of "inattentional blindness." It is well known that we are unaware of many events taking place around us. The most dramatic illustration can be seen on this video. I will not tell you anything about the video so that I don't spoil it for you. Go watch it.
Now that you've seen it (I hope), you've learned that you can be fooled by having your attention directed one way while something of importance that you look at but never see goes on right in front of you. There are many examples of this phenomenon, and some of them can have serious consequences. You may look but not see something coming at you while you're driving down the road until it's too late.
Screening out irrelevant stimuli is a good thing in many cases. If we noticed, thought about, and reacted to every sight and sound in our environments we would be unable to carry on any useful activities at all. The problem is when what we're screening isn't irrelevant.
Bringing this all back to the Jungian concept of dreaming, perhaps it is true that there are issues, concerns, and even dangers lurking in our everyday experiences to which we are inattentively blind. If events in your conscious life that you ignored (and shouldn't have) start to creep into your dreams, maybe in your waking life you need to pay more attention to them. Maybe you're slacking off on some of your job tasks or schoolwork but you don't want to admit it. You dream that your boss (or professor) confronts you about your behavior. You "know" that you should be working harder, and now your unconscious has confirmed this hidden truth about yourself. If you pay attention to that dream and admit honestly to yourself that you are shirking, you can avoid that undesirable outcome.
Right now, I think it's fair to say that most academic psychologists and clinicians would agree that we don't know why we dream and what our dreams mean. We may never know. But the bottom line for all of us is that our true fulfillment may lie in paying attention, both in our waking and dreaming lives, to what might be important clues from our unconscious.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2010