While many theories exist to explain why we dream, no one yet fully understands their purpose, let alone how to interpret the meaning of dreams. Dreams can be mysterious, but understanding the meaning of our dreams can be downright baffling. Our dreams’ contents can shift suddenly, feature bizarre elements, or frighten us with terrifying imagery. The fact that dreams can be so rich and compelling is what causes many to believe that there must be some meaning to our dreams.
Freud: Dreams as the Road to the Unconscious Mind
In his book “The Interpretation of Dreams,” Sigmund Freud suggested that the content of dreams is related to wish-fulfillment. Freud believed that the manifest content of a dream, or the actual imagery and events of the dream, served to disguise the latent content or the unconscious wishes of the dreamer.
- Condensation – Many different ideas and concepts are represented within the span of a single dream. Information is condensed into a single thought or image.
- Displacement – This element of dream work disguises the emotional meaning of the latent content by confusing the important and insignificant parts of the dream.
- Symbolization – This operation also censors the repressed ideas contained in the dream by including objects that are meant to symbolize the latent content of the dream.
- Secondary Revision – During this final stage of the dreaming process, Freud suggested that the bizarre elements of the dream are reorganized in order to make the dream comprehensible, thus generating the manifest content of the dream.
Jung: Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious
While Carl Jung shared some commonalities with Freud, he felt that dreams were more than an expression of repressed wishes. Jung suggested that dreams revealed both the personal and collective unconscious and believed that dreams serve to compensate for parts of the psyche that are underdeveloped in waking life. In contradiction to Jung’s assertions, however, later research by Hall revealed that the traits people exhibit while they awake are the same as those expressed in dreams.
Hall: Dreams as a Cognitive Process
Calvin S. Hall proposed that dreams are part of a cognitive process in which dreams serve as “conceptions” of elements of our personal lives. Hall looked for themes and patterns by analyzing thousands of dream diaries from participants, eventually creating a quantitative coding system that divided what’s in our dreams into a number of categories.
- the actions of the dreamer within the dream
- the objects and figures in the dream
- the interactions between the dreamer and the characters in the dream
- the dream’s setting, transitions, and outcome
The ultimate goal of this dream interpretation is not to understand the dream, however, but to understand the dreamer.
Domhoff: Dreams as a Reflection of Waking Life
G. William Domhoff is a prominent dream researcher who studied with Calvin Hall at the University of Miami. In large-scale studies on the content of dreams, Domhoff has found that dreams reflect the thoughts and concerns of a dreamer’s waking life. Domhoff suggests a neurocognitive model of dreams in which the process of dreaming results from neurological processes and a system of schemas. Dream content, he suggests results from these cognitive processes.
Popularizing Dream Interpretation
Since the 1970s, dream interpretation has grown increasingly popular thanks to work by authors such as Ann Faraday. In books such as “The Dream Game,” Faraday outlined techniques and ideas than anyone can use to interpret their own dreams. Today, consumers can purchase a wide variety of books that offer dream dictionaries, symbol guides, and tips for interpreting and understanding dreams.
A Dream’s Meaning Might Depend on Your Biases
Researchers Carey Morewedge and Michael Norton have studied the dreams of over 1,000 individuals from the United States, India, and South Korea. What they discovered is that few of the college students who participated in the research believed that their dreams were simply the brain’s response to random stimulation. Instead, most endorsed Freud’s notion that dreams reveal unconscious wishes and urges.
What they also discovered, however, is that the weight and importance people attach to their dreams depend largely on their biases. People are more likely to remember negative dreams if they involve people that they already dislike. They are also more likely to take positive dreams seriously if they involve friends or loved ones.
In other words, people are motivated to interpret their dreams in ways that support their already existing beliefs about themselves, the world, and the people around them. The researchers found that such things as the confirmation bias and the self-serving bias even impact how people respond to their own dreams.