Daniel Hawes

Daniel R. Hawes Ph.D.

Quilted Science

Interpreting Dreams

Interpreting Dreams

Posted Dec 29, 2009

Sigmund Freud was convinced that dreams carry meaning, and that one of the pathways to revealing unconscious thoughts lays in the skillful interpretation of our nightly meanderings. For example, according to Freud's 1953 classic, "The interpretation of dreams", dreams of flying through the air reveal subconscious thoughts of sexual desire, while dreams of failing to fly (i.e. falling) through the air reveals thoughts of...well ... eh... also sexual desire...
Now, this little quip isn't quite fair, since Freud's classic book is of course more nuanced (e.g. falling represents succumbing to sexual desire), and being 692 pages in volume it also has much more to offer than simple impositions of sexual desire onto dream images. But anyway, what I am truthfully trying to get at is that even if I or you may look skeptically upon some of Freud's work on dreams, it remains that most people today share at least the underlying Freudian belief that dreams are indeed somewhat meaningful.
American Psychological AssociationCorroborating this, a survey of American, Korean and Indian students showed that an overwhelming majority of the sampled students entertained Freudian views of dreams as possessing meaningful interpretation, while only very few students supported competing scientific views of dreams as being either entirely meaningless by-products of random brain activity, or similar neurological derivative of creative problem-solving processes, memory or learning.
Given that a belief about dreams as meaningful messages is deeply entrenched in global culture, through our religious texts, art and literature, it is not really surprising, that many people would entertain such Freudian views about dreams, but the finding does raise a couple of interesting questions as to how people might subsequently go about making sense of their dreams. For example, one might ask whether people are systematically biased as to how they interpret their dreams, or even towards which dreams they assign credence to in the first place. Or in terms of behavioral impact, we might ask whether a person who dreamed of a plane crash the night before embarking on a intercontinental flight, would be more or less inclined to step onto an airplane the following day, than a person who had a similar waking thought (for example, while reading a newspaper article about a plane crash)?
These, and other interesting questions, lay at the heart of a series of studies, undertaken by researchers Carey Morewedge from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and Michael Norton from Harvard.
As already mentioned depicted in the figures above, the two social scientists find that

"laypeople [...] endorse [...] a general belief that dreams provide meaningful insight into both themselves and their world."

Not unsurprisingly, Morewedge and Norton also note a general bias in the way people interpret their dreams.

"[...] people's interpretation of the meaningfulness of any specific dream is impacted, by the extent to which that dream accords with their beliefs and desires when awake, and that these interpretations subsequently influence the impact of dreams on their diurnal (i.e., waking) lives.".

For example, people who reportedly believe that dreams are generally meaningful, will nonetheless deem those dreams that they find to correspond with preexisting beliefs as far more meaningful than those which contradict preexisting beliefs and desires. In this sense,

"Dreams about friends were deemed meaningful when those dreams reflected positively upon friends and were deemed less meaningful when they did not, whereas dreams about disliked individuals demonstrated the opposite pattern."

And although, believers are of course much more willing to deem dreams about communications from God as meaningful, than are agnostics, agnostics nonetheless

"were influenced by the extent to which dreams matched their secular desires, finding greater truth in God's commandments when those commandments entailed world travel rather than selfsacrifice."

More generally, according to Morewedge and Norton,

"when dreams reinforced and reflected (religious) beliefs that were important to perceivers, those dreams were considered to be meaningful regardless of the desirability of the dream content. When dreams did not reinforce or reflect beliefs that were important to perceivers, those dreams were considered to be less meaningful, particularly when the dream content conflicted with perceiver's preexisting worldly desires."

While the above results are fairly intuitive, the next thing that Morewedge and Norton's study observed in their research might come as more of a surprise: As the study's authors point out, their research seem to indicate that

"people do not merely lend the same amount of credence to thoughts that occur in dreams as thoughts that occur while awake but actually treat the content of their dreams as more meaningful than the content of similar waking thoughts."

More specifically, when Morewedge and Norton looked at the impact of different messages regarding air travel, they actually found that dreaming of a plane crash seemed to exert greater influence on a person's imminent travel plans, than did news reports about similar tragedies or even official government warnings about travel security. In other words, a bad dream is more likely to make most people cancel a flight, than is a heightened security alert, or a news paper report about an airplane that crashed the night before.

American Psychological Association
The psychological explanation for this observation is somewhat paradox, and appears to have a lot to do with the actual randomness of our dreams: It may very well be that the very fact that dreams often appear to be entirely random, leaves us with few other explanations than the conclusion that our dreams must have a higher meaning. Sticking with the example of air travel it seems to be the case that any fear about traveling by plane that follows, for example, a newspaper report can easily be dismissed as being a direct consequence of having read the news report. Hence, in the case of the news report, although we do perceive the information as meaningful, but since we find it so easy to identify the trigger for our fear response, we are quick to explain away any doubts about embarking on our travel plans, and thus remain fairly unaffected by the report. In a way, this kind of information processing is a direct attempt to avoid bias in our (waking) thoughts, caused by external stimuli, such as the newspaper report.
A dream about an airplane crash on the other hand, which may appear to be rather random, makes it far more difficult, or even impossible at times, to identify a causal trigger for this particular (sleeping) thought, and thus we have a more difficult time dismissing this type of information information; especially so, when we hold the general belief that dreams are meaningful. As the study's lead author Carey Morewedge puts it

"a decreased ability to trace dream content to an external source may lead people to give greater weight to that seemingly random information and increase the likelihood that it will impact subsequent judgments and behavior. Ironically, then, although the content of dreams often appears to be produced purely by random associations, which might make one expect that information to seem less meaningful, it may be the apparent randomness of those associations that makes people believe their dreams."

This type of explanation finds further theoretical grounding in research on anchoring and attribution effects ; both of which the authors rely upon to formulate the hypotheses for their research.

It is interesting in this context of laypeople's view of dreams, to note that scientific inquiries into the origin and purpose of dreams is a rapidly developing area of research, with newly emerging theories as well as competing hypotheses. For one, it seems clear that dreams play an integral role in learning and memory consolidation, and it is also well established that many creative processes, such as finding solutions to puzzles or mathematical problems, can be aided by rapid random associations we form during sleep. It also seems to be the case that we begin our dreaming phases with associations of thoughts and images we encountered during the day (try playing the computer game Tetris for a couple of hours, and you'll most likely begin your afternoon nap with the image of falling blocks), but that we quickly progress to different associations, which we can at the moment best describe as random.
Whatever the case, it seems very unlikely that dreams should be able to predict future world events, such as e.g. an earthquake in a distant country (Although it is of course statistically almost certain - given that earth quakes happen, and billions of people dream each night - that some person, somewhere, will at some point of time have a dream of an earthquake in a distant country, precisely when the actual event occurs...). Nonetheless, because of the way that dreams are integrated in memory formation and creative associative problem solving, it is quite plausible that dreams may at time open our eyes to matters pertaining to our own life, which may have eluded our waking consciousness.
Morewedge and Norton give the nice example, of a dream that integrates the seemingly unrelated evidence of

"unexplained credit card charges, smudges of lipstick, distant behavior, into a correct diagnosis of infidelity".

In the same way - and thereby providing the proverbial nod to Sigmund Freud -, the authors concede that dreams may actually also

"provide insight into the concrete problem of making sense of ourselves as well".


Main Reference:

Morewedge, Carey K. (2009) When dreaming is believing: The (motivated) interpretation of dreams. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(2), 249-264. DOI: 10.1037/a0013264

Cross-posted with <Ingenious Monkey>

About the Authors

Kimberlee D’Ardenne, Ph.D.

Kimberlee D’Ardenne, Ph.D. is a neuroscientist by training, science writer by choice.

Rachael Grazioplene

Rachael Grazioplene is a graduate student in Psychology at the University of Minnesota. Her research is focused on individual differences and behavioral genetics.

Daniel Hawes

Daniel R. Hawes is a social psychologist stuck in an applied economist's body.

More Posts