Do Dreams Really Mean Anything?
Some neuroscientists think dreams don’t mean a thing.
Posted Jan 19, 2018
When I was 14 years old, I had a dream I’ll never forget. Though it wasn’t dramatic or worthy of cinematic adaptation, it has stuck with me all these years.
I found myself wandering through the endless hallways of an ancient and eerie mansion. The cobwebs that adorned its opulent furniture made it obvious that no one had been there for many years. Even in its abandonment, however, the electricity was on, and numerous ornate crystal lamps and chandeliers lent a dim glow to its gloomy countenance. I was anxious—but not terrified. Like a character in a horror film, I felt strangely compelled to explore, even while dreading what I might encounter. In the garage, I found a crumbling horse-drawn carriage. In the dining room, a feast was laid out, but there were no diners. And throughout the house, I found more and more crystal lamps. There must have been thousands of them lighting my way.
Then I woke up.
Dreams have fascinated people since the beginning of recorded history. In ancient Egypt, people with vivid dreams were considered to be blessed with special insight, and many of their dreams have been found recorded on papyrus. In fact, the Egyptians believed that one of the best ways to receive divine revelation was through dreaming, and some people even slept on sanctified "dream beds” to gain wisdom from the gods.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, scholars largely abandoned these supernatural ideas. Prominent figures such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung instead concluded that dreams provided insights into the inner workings of the mind. In his book The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud detailed a complex system of dream analysis. At its core, his theory stated that while our conscious minds slumber, our unconscious minds produce images that can give us special insight into our deepest selves.
Regardless of whether dreams foretell the future, allow us to commune with the divine, or simply provide a better understanding of ourselves, the process of analyzing them has always been highly symbolic. To understand the meaning of dreams, we must interpret them as if they were written in a secret code. A quick search of an online dream dictionary will tell you that haunted houses symbolize “unfinished emotional business,” dimly lit lamps mean you’re “feeling overwhelmed by emotional issues,” a feast indicates “a lack of balance in your life,” and garages symbolize a feeling of “lacking direction or guidance in achieving your goals.” So there it is: At 14, I was feeling emotional about lacking balance and direction in my life.
But what if there’s no secret code, and we’ve been spending our time reading into a bunch of random images, much like people find shapes and objects hidden in the clouds? What if dreams don’t actually mean anything?
That’s the conclusion drawn by some modern neuroscientists, who believe that dreams are just a side effect of more fundamental neurological processes. Although people often think that the brain is shut down during sleep, researchers now know that sleep is a period of intense neurological activity. One of the main reasons we sleep may be to allow the brain to consolidate and organize our memories. Much like computers must periodically optimize their hard disks, our brains must continuously consolidate the memories we have stored. You can think of it as a kind of neurological housecleaning, sweeping away the unnecessary experiences from the previous day and storing the important ones more securely. Research shows, for instance, that people’s recall of recently learned tasks improves after sleep, and that their memory suffers if sleep is interrupted. That’s why parents and teachers often urge children to get a good night’s sleep before taking a test.
Although not all researchers agree, many think that dreams may be an unintended consequence of these and other underlying neurological processes. Harvard psychiatrists J. Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley, for instance, proposed that, as various brain circuits become active during the night, this triggers sensations, emotions, and memories, all of which are essentially random. Given that we’re meaning-making creatures, however, our brains assemble all of this underlying activity into a story. But this story doesn’t actually mean anything. It’s simply an attempt to make sense of the neural activity that has taken place. This is why dreams seem so illogical and strange.
So why do people cling so tightly to their dream dictionaries?
It may have something to do with what researchers call the “Barnum Effect,” named for circus entrepreneur P. T. Barnum. Psychology professor Bertram Forer first demonstrated this effect in 1948, when he administered a fake personality test to 39 students. They didn’t know it, but all of them received exactly the same results, including statements like, “You have a great need for other people to like and admire you,” and “You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.” Afterward, the students were asked to rate how accurate they felt these results were on a five-point scale. The average rating was an astounding 4.3, indicating that even though everyone received the same fake feedback, they felt that the test did an almost perfect job of summarizing their minds’ inner workings.
“Barnum statements” are easily accepted as true because of their wide applicability. Even though they sound specific, they can apply to almost anyone, much like the interpretation of my haunted house dream. Doesn’t “feeling emotional about lacking balance and direction” apply to virtually everyone, to some degree? We could reasonably ask the same question about almost any interpretation given by a dream dictionary. And if all interpretations apply equally well to almost everyone, then they’re not truly accurate of anyone.
But not all scientists agree that there’s no inherent purpose or meaning to dreams. Tore Nielsen and Ross Levin have proposed a theory midway between Freud’s almost magical symbol-based system of dream analysis and the view that dreams are simply random. Their perspective, the Neurocognitive Model of Dreaming, is complicated, and impossible to completely explain here. Although this theory still states that dreams are closely tied to neurological memory consolidation processes, that doesn’t mean they’re random. Instead, Nielsen and Levin believe, the stories our brains weave from seemingly random dream images are guided, at least in part, by our emotional states. For instance, as the amount of negative experiences in our waking life rises, the probability of having bad dreams also rises. This may be why people who have experienced trauma are more susceptible to nightmares than others. According to this theory, an important function of dreams is what the researchers term “fear extinction"—that is, dreams help us to process our stressful experiences in a healthy way, putting them “to rest,” so we’re not overwhelmed with negative feelings during our waking lives. When the process is working properly, dreams use the stresses and waking concerns in our lives as source material, taking them apart and reassembling them into odd but generally harmless stories, a procedure which ultimately allows us to move past them.
Though the Neurocognitive Theory of Dreaming would suggest that the particular symbols in my haunted house dream don't have any objective or universal meanings that I could find in a dream dictionary, the overall emotional quality of the dream probably does have meaning. Like many 14-year-olds, I was full of youthful angst as I encountered the stresses of growing up—feelings which showed up in my dream.
So while dreams may not tell the future, allow us to commune with the supernatural, or give us special insight into the depths of our unconscious, they do tell us something about our emotions. Because most of us occasionally get out of touch with how we’re feeling, this is a useful insight.
In other words, if you’re experiencing a stream of bad dreams, it might be worth checking in with yourself about how you’ve been feeling, and perhaps consider whether there’s some action you could take to help improve your mood.
I suggest you start by putting the dream dictionary down.