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Over the past century, evolution of thought on dreams has virtually come full circle.
Contemporary research has largely debunked the notion that dreams can be reduced to meaningless firings of neurons.
-Dr.Jason Holland, Lifespark
In Sigmund Freud’s 1899 book, The Interpretation of Dreams, he argued that dreams are meaningful and reveal secrets about our inner, subconscious wishes.
This understanding of dreams dominated academic thought and study on the subject, until it was largely replaced in the late 1970’s by a theory called the activation-synthesis hypothesis, which contended that dreams simply represent mental imagery elicited by random neural firings in the brain.
And contemporary research has largely debunked the notion that dreams can be reduced to meaningless firings of neurons. As a testament to how far we’ve come, in a recent review of research and theories on dreams, the psychologist and consciousness expert, Dr. Matthew Erdelyi, suggested that “the question in modern psychology should not be whether dreams have meaning but whether it is possible for dreams not to have meaning.”
So, if you’re looking for meaning in your own dreams, here are 5 findings that reveal the importance of dreams and their possible significance in our lives:
1. Dreams reflect recent life concerns
If you ever wake up and wonder ‘Where did that dream come from?’, consider the events from the preceding day. Dreams are likely to incorporate events from the prior day or two—a phenomenon referred to as the day-residue effect. These same events also have a tendency to reappear 5-7 days later in what is termed the dream-lag effect.
But unlike ordinary wakeful remembering, in dreams these events tend to show up as fragments, sometimes bizarre and nonsensical in nature, and are often mixed in with more distant memories. Thus, piecing together the significance of a particular dream is likely to involve consideration of the idiosyncratic meaning of dream imagery and how it reflects both immediate and long-standing concerns.
2. Emotions play an important role in dreams
The material from our day that ends up making it in dreams does not appear to be selected at random. Events rated as having a higher level of emotion associated with them, whether positive or negative, are more likely to show up in dreams. It’s as though emotions tag events that are important to us and worthy of reconsideration during sleep.
So, if you are having trouble placing a dream that you’ve had, use your emotions as a guide. The emotional vibe of the dream is likely to reflect recent feelings you’ve had about some issue in your life.
Have you ever crammed for a test, gone to sleep, only to wake and find that your memory for the material had strengthened during the night? A number of studies have now shown that these post-sleep memory boosts are real, indicating that one important function of sleep is to consolidate new memories into more permanent forms of memory storage.
Many have theorized that this memory consolidation process during sleep is what we experience as dreams. And some research has emerged supporting such a claim, demonstrating that recall of new information after sleep is stronger if it was incorporated into a dream. From this perspective, dreams may then be thought of as a rehashing of what’s important and needs to be remembered.
4. Dreams may help forecast future
The American 20th century mystic, Edgar Cayce, once remarked that “Dreams are today’s answers to tomorrow’s questions.” Recently, this notion of dreams forecasting possible future problems in one’s life has seen a revival of sorts.
According to the psychologist and dream expert, Dr. Sue Llewellyn, in a recent piece for Aeon, “we are better at making non-obvious…associations after REM sleep because our brains are primed during that sleep – by our dreams – to spot non-obvious, probabilistic patterns of experience and events.” From this vantage point, dreams may be thought of as messages to the self about what could be important to pay attention to in the future, based on identification of patterns in prior events. Preliminary evidence showing a link between dream content and the onset of disease provides some support for this notion. For example, women with breast cancer have described having “warning dreams” prior to their diagnosis. These dreams are described as conveying a strong feeling of threat, menace, or dread in a particularly vivid way, often involving the specific words “cancer” or “breast” or a sense of physical contact with that part of the body.
5. Symbolic meaning in dreams is highly personal
Though dream dictionaries may promise to interpret dream imagery for you, the truth is that no one is in a better position to make sense of your dreams than you. As Dr. Llewellyn explained in a recent article, “Experiences (or things) are associated in the mind/brain when their meaning is the same or similar. For humans…meaning is often personally specific.”
The imagery of a window in a dream, for example, may then mean one thing to you (e.g., perhaps an escape to freedom), but have an entirely different meaning for me (e.g., a dangerous precipice) or someone else (e.g., a work of carpentry), depending on our unique personalities and life experiences
So, making sense of dream content is likely to involve searching within yourself to decipher the personal meaning of imagery and symbols in dreams.
If you’d like to understand your dreams better, consider recording them using our dream diary based on the findings presented here. What patterns do you notice? How does that reflect recent and long-standing concerns in your life? Give it a try, and let us know what you think in the comments box below.
Cipolli, C., Ferrara, M., De Gennaro, L., & Plazzi, G. (2016). Beyond the neuropsychology of dreaming: Insights into the neural basis of dreaming with new techniques of sleep recording and analysis. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 35, 8-20.
Nielsen, T. A., Kuiken, D., Alain, G., Stenstrom, P., & Powell, R. A. (2004). Immediate and delayed incorporations of events into dreams: further replication and implications for dream function. Journal of Sleep Research, 13, 327-336.
Wamsley, E. J., Tucker, M., Payne, J. D., Benavides, J. A., & Stickgold, R. (2010). Dreaming of a learning task is associated with enhanced sleep-dependent memory consolidation. Current Biology, 20, 850-855.