Do dreams have any real meaning?
- Rapid Eye Movement, or REM, is the stage of sleep where most dreams occur and where “the eyes and eyelids flutter…[and] breathing becomes irregular...it is normal to have short episodes when breathing stops (apnea)... [and] your brain paralyzes your muscles, so you do not act out the dreams.”
- A recent Frontiers in Psychology study revealed that amongst all foods, consuming dairy, sweets, and chocolate before bed was most likely to contribute to “bizarre” and “disturbing” dreams.
- According to the National Sleep Foundation, the average person has about four to six dreams every night.
- A lucid dream is defined as “a dream during which dreamers, while dreaming, are aware they are dreaming.”
Aside from maybe in the future being able to take data and form conclusions about sleep patterns and brain functionality, dreams do not have any psychological meaning. In fact, before Sigmund Freud, the so-called 'Father of Psychoanalysis,' mining dreams for meaning was not taken seriously.
Psychoanalyzing dreams is not science. Even Freud said that when talking about the future of dream analysis, 'without metapsychological speculation and theorizing—I had almost said 'phantasying'—we shall not get another step forward.' The interpretation of dreams was, and is, as much fantasy as the phenomenon it tries to analyze.
So if dreams are not something that can be 'interpreted' to have psychological meaning, what are they?
Aristotle himself understood that 'the faculty by which, in waking hours, we are subject to illusion when affected by disease, is identical with that which produces illusory effects in sleep.'
Modern scientists find the same conclusion as to the meaning of dreams and also explain the cause. Dreaming is 'the brain [...] warming its circuits, anticipating the sights and sounds and emotions of waking.'
Allan Hobson, Emeritus Professor at Harvard Medical School and the modern expert in the field of dreams, can even point to the specific processes that occur in our brain, '...the limbic lobe [directs] the forebrain to construct dreams in a manner similar to that by which it creates the dreamy states of temporal lobe epilepsy.'
What we see in dreams has no more real meaning than waking hallucinations, their cause simply being our brain preparing for the day.
Since ancient times, dreams have been regarded as having not only meaning but also real value. Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians practiced oneiromancy or prophetic divination from dreams. In ancient Greece and Rome, people believed that dreams held omens and prophetic signs, while the Egyptians thought that gods communicated to mortals through dreams to warn them about the future. In fact, dreams were so important to the Egyptians that a book about their interpretation was created thousands of years ago.
Artemidorus, an ancient writer of the 'Oneirocritica,' or 'Interpretations of Dreams,' suggests that dreams have a singular meaning to each individual, which is shaped by their waking life. In other words, all metaphors and symbols shown in a dream are influenced by the dreamer's uniqueness.
Additionally, the Mayans believed dreams to be sacred places where their ancestors communicated with them to guide them in their times of need.
In a more practical light, Hippocrates believed that dreams were how one's soul would communicate an illness manifesting in the body or if the body was already suffering from it. Several Hippocratic practices experimented with and explored diagnosing through dreams. And through dream interpretation, they modified treatments, diets, and exercise regimes so that patients could recover.
More recently, a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology revealed that people believe more in dreams than in thoughts of a similar nature while awake. And over fifty percent of the population believe their dreams provide insights into their subconscious, a notion that very closely resembles Freud's Theory of dream interpretation.