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Are Dreams Actually Subconscious? Maybe Not

Contrary to popular belief, dreams are consciously accessible.

Key points

  • Many people consider dreams to be "subconscious."
  • But dreams are consciously accessible.
  • We should question pseudoscientific ideas about subconscious processes.
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In psychology, the study of consciousness has long been a source of enthusiastic debate and disagreement. Even the very definition of what consciousness is can be a source of consternation. But many people, both experts and non-experts, seem relatively comfortable with an understanding of the term "subconscious." This typically refers to mental processes we are not aware of, or not fully aware, but which still may influence our behaviors and could sometimes be brought into conscious awareness. Some common examples include basic motor movements, like breathing or blinking. Most of us do those automatically and without much deliberate thought, but we still have the potential to increase awareness or focus on those movements. Subconscious mental activity is sometimes thought to be elusive or mysterious, while conscious thoughts are more tangible and straightforward.

Part of the reason I’m interested in the idea of the "subconscious" is because it’s connected to popular myths about how our minds operate. As discussed previously, many people fear subconscious manipulation from outside sources, such as subliminal advertising, and I think those fears are largely misguided. I also think much of the popular misunderstandings about our subconscious come from long outdated and disproven theories from Freud, Jung, and their ilk. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that modern science hasn’t yielded much at all in the way of solid discoveries about the subconscious mind. We still don’t really know much about how subconscious experiences may influence our day-to-day behaviors. A true and sophisticated understanding of the subconscious mind remains inaccessible. Because of this, I remain skeptical towards many claims about latent psychological manipulation in media, politics, or internet technologies.

“But Dylan!” some of you may object, “Don’t you study dreams? Aren’t dreams part of our subconscious mind? And isn’t it true that dreams impact our lives?”

Well, I’d argue that dreams are not actually subconscious based on our working definition. Dreams are directly accessible to us, just like thoughts we have while we’re awake. Even though dreams happen while sleeping, we are keenly aware of what we’re experiencing in our dreams. In fact, while in a dream, people regularly think, feel, and behave in ways that are consistent with their tendencies while awake. Some of my research has demonstrated exactly this pattern. People with secure attachment styles tend to have dreams about romantic partners that reflect their attachment security. Other research teams have found similar correlations.

Image by Jess Foami from Pixabay

In addition, most healthy people can recall their dreams after waking up with confident regularity. Plenty of people keep dream journals (I'm one of them!). And the dreams that people report are mostly deemed credible by neutral observers. Dreams may not be fundamentally different from waking fantasies, or daydreams. In fact, the term "daydreaming" is revealing because it can refer to thoughts we have while awake that have a dream-like quality, but there’s nothing inaccessible or mysterious about those thoughts, whether we’re awake or asleep. Actual dreams may not be any more "subconscious" when compared to daydreams.

Returning to my earlier point, people typically use the term "subconscious" to refer to mental processes that they are unaware of, but which may influence behaviors nonetheless. Dreams may also influence our behaviors under some circumstances, but that still does not make them subconscious. Indeed, most healthy people have an awareness of how their dreams may be impacting them. People often share their dreams with others, reflect on them, and sometimes even act on them. In addition, when people choose not to act on their dreams, this also reflects deliberate conscious awareness. Some research has shown that people can feel guilty after doing something immoral (such as cheating) or unhealthy (such as smoking) in a dream. After waking up, perhaps they may be extra motivated to exercise more self-control and avoid those behaviors.

Freudian psychoanalysts may argue that there’s a difference between the manifest and latent content of dreams. For instance, you may have a dream about a dog or a forest. Those are elements that we can definitely say with confidence appeared in your dream, and would be considered manifest content. By contrast, the latent content of a dream would be the subconscious symbolic meaning of those elements. Perhaps the dog represents a desire for companionship or safety, while the forest represents a spirit of adventure or social isolation. But there is precisely zero scientific evidence to support a latent content theory of dreams. There has never been any rigorous study that showed how dream elements reflect subconscious symbolism. Any potential interpretation of subconscious dream elements is inherently subjective and open to multiple meanings. Much of it is completely unfalsifiable.

All of this means that dreams are not "subconscious" in the traditional meaning of the term. To the contrary, I would argue that dreams are largely conscious experiences that we happen to have while sleeping. So why does this matter? Why do people think of dreams as subconscious? Perhaps we believe in the subconscious power of dreams because we yearn for mystery or want to add some flavor to our lives. Maybe we want to attach greater significance to otherwise routine experiences, as a larger quest for meaning or purpose. Perhaps the same part of us that is drawn to fantasy and fiction also points to dreams as having a mysterious and supernatural quality.

But I also think it’s crucial for us to draw a clear line between fantasy and reality, because conflating the two can lead to some really bad ideas. Lots of people still believe debunked theories of dreams along with other pseudoscientific psychological ideas. A majority of teachers surveyed said they believe students learn best in their preferred “learning style,” which isn’t true and can get in the way of actual learning. Plenty of people still believe that the Myers-Briggs test is valid, and that repressed traumatic memories can be “recovered” through therapy. None of these ideas are supported by research.

Misconceptions about the subconscious mind are still pervasive as well. While I think it’s great to contemplate the significance of dreams, I would urge caution against the idea of the "subconscious" as applied to that area of our lives, since it may lead us down a path of unfalsifiable beliefs and poorly thought-out ideas.

References

Mikulincer, M., Shaver, P. R., Sapir-Lavid, Y., & Avihou-Kanza, N. (2009). What’s inside the minds of securely and insecurely attached people? The secure-base script and its associations with attachment-style dimensions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97(4), 615.

Selterman, D., Apetroaia, A., & Waters, E. (2012). Script-like attachment representations in dreams containing current romantic partners. Attachment & Human Development, 14(5), 501-515.

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