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The Folly of Dream Interpretation

Don't believe the "experts" who want to interpret your dreams.

If you google the word dreams you will get millions of hits for websites devoted to dream interpretation. Are any of them worth a visit? Very likely not. Why not? Because there is no scientifically supported system of dream interpretation. What you will get if you look at dream interpretation blogs, sites, pages, and the like will be garbage pure and simple. Or they will be the writer’s own idiosyncratic interpretation of dream images and that typically is not very interesting at all.

Most of the dream interpretation sites out there peddle nonsense, mostly along the lines of new age “spiritualities” and ideologies.

Occasionally you will get a scientist with some track record in dream research offering his or her idiosyncratic interpretation of a dream or two. The dreams most often given interpretations even by some dream scientists are the so-called universal dreams—the dreams all of us have experienced. These are dreams of being chased by a monster or criminal; of showing up in a public forum completely naked; of being asked for one’s ID and not being able to produce it and so forth.

The typical interpretations both scientists and the new agers give to these dreams are predictable enough: In the chase dream you are supposedly running from your uncomfortable affects or memories. In the case of appearing naked in public you are attempting to deal with feelings of inadequacy at work or with respect to some other social role. In the case of being asked for an ID but not being able to produce it you are supposedly grappling with feelings of social anomie or personal disorientation.

In short, what the dream interpretation websites offer up for dream interpretation systems is mere metaphor mongering. Freud is partly to blame for this but the ancients used the same sort of analogical imagining procedure when interpreting their dreams as do our modern “experts”. The art and science of dream interpretation has not really progressed beyond ancient dream interpretation manuals and soothsayer nonsense.

Scientists who have studied dreams and nevertheless post “interpretations” of common dream themes do a dis-service to both their readers and to the study of dreams as they know full well that there are no data to support any particular interpretative scheme over another.

The data on dream content do support some common linkages between specific dream content variables such as type of characters (e.g. male strangers) and very broad outcomes in dream action (such as presence of physical aggression in the dream)…but that is about as far as it goes in unraveling the dream code at this point in the scientific study of dreams.

What are the prospects that the dream code will one day be cracked? Will dream interpretation ever progress beyond metaphor mongering? I believe the prospects are good that we will one day crack the dream code. I have reported on developments in the efforts to crack the dream code in this blog several times in the past and will continue to do so. Websites that allow for posting and sharing and commenting on hundreds of thousands of dreams will facilitate more precise identification of correlations between dream content and waking experiences/behaviors. New neuroimaging techniques will allow for better identification of correlations between dream activity patterns and dream images.

Despite these exciting technical developments we are still no way near to breaking the dream code. When someone offers you an interpretation of your dream, politely decline the offer no matter how expert the soothsayer appears to be.

More from Patrick McNamara Ph.D.
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