Enter Sandman: Nocturnal Cognitions

We look to dreams for premonition and insight. Do dreams foretell the future?

By Matthew Hutson, published on May 1, 2009 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

A unicorn impales you. Then your teeth fall out. What does it all mean? The urge to interpret dreams is hard to resist.

Carey Morewedge at Carnegie Mellon University and Michael Norton at Harvard found that people in the U.S., South Korea, and India all prefer the Freudian theory that dreams reveal buried emotions over theories that dreams sort new memories, solve problems, or simply reflect random brain activity.

Furthermore, 68 percent of Boston commuters believe dreams foretell the future. They also said dreaming of a plane crash would make them anxious about flying—even more than would a warning from Homeland Security.

Even non-Freudians said they'd consider canceling a planned flight. In another survey, people said a dream about a friend defending them from harm would increase their glow of affection for that friend come daybreak. A dreamt betrayal wouldn't sully a friendship, though, suggesting that we invest more in agreeable dreams.

Why do we put so much faith in nighttime visions? In part because we treat thoughts insulated from obvious external influences as especially insightful. But sometimes a unicorn is just a unicorn. —Matthew Hutson

Guided by the Night

How do dreams alter PT editors' behavior?

"I have a recurring dream about a childhood friend. I developed the belief that he symbolizes my 'true self' and that it's a sign that I'm not being true to myself in waking life." —Carlin Flora

"After I have a recurring dream about a train bearing down on me, I always stand a few extra steps away from the subway platform edge when the train comes."—Jay Dixit