THOUGHTS ON DREAMS
JAMES N KRAUT, PSY.D.
Even if you never remember your dreams, you’re surely having them every night. Everyone dreams. The meaning of dreams, however, is not so nailed down as the evidence of their universal existence. There are a number of widely varying theories regarding the meaning of dreaming.
One theory is that dreams are simply random neuronal firings that create the illusion of meaning where it really does not exist. This is known as the activation-synthesis hypothesis. Dreams, according to this theory, have no innate meaning, but are only brain impulses that randomly take their content from our memories. I think this theory becomes dubious, however, when we examine the dreams that follow the occurrence of a psychologically significant event. For example, many people report having dreamed for long periods of time of a loved one who has died. Similarly, if a traumatic event occurs, it is often revisited repeatedly in dreams. So, if there is a connection between psychological significance and prominence in the dream world, the idea of “random” does not make sense. In other words, there is no randomness if there is a correlation between the significance of the event and the frequency of its appearance in dreams. It seems more likely that the unconscious mind is assisting us to process the difficult work that these experiences leave in our laps by returning us again and again to the source of the loss or trauma.
Existential psychotherapists believe that each character in your dreams is an aspect of yourself. The existentialist view on the meaning of dreams lies in what is posited as their ability to shed light on what is happening at the particular point in the dreamer’s life from which the dream emerges. So, dreams give us ways of integrating different aspects of ourselves as represented by the characters of our dreams. A simple example: If a dream contains an interaction between a very aggressive character and a passive character, it might be concluded that, with regard to the present of the dreamer’s life, a middle ground is being suggested by the dream.
Some see dreams as predictive. The Bible is full of examples. One that is well known involves Joseph, who served as Pharaoh’s dream interpreter. Joseph curried much favor from his Egyptian leader by warning him that, according to his dream, Egypt was due to experience seven years of abundance, followed by seven years of famine. When the Pharaoh was able to make use of Joseph’s interpretive data, he used the abundant years to prepare the Egyptians for the coming years of drought and famine. Joseph was generously rewarded for his facility with dreams.
Consistent with traditional psychoanalytic perspective, Sigmund Freud’s dream theory suggests that dreams represent unconscious thoughts, desires and motivations. While these thoughts do not make their ways into our conscious thinking process, Freud suggested that they enter into our awareness via our dreams. The unconscious is the unrepressed version of who we are. (If you’re interested in a somewhat Hollywood-influenced version of this theory, the movie, Freud, starring Montgomery Clift, presents a fascinating and fairly detailed depiction of it.)
One of C.G. Jung’s most significant contributions to psychology is his theory of dream interpretation. Essentially, Jung saw dreams as a way the unconscious communicates with us in the interest of Individuation, which Jung saw as a process serving wholeness that involves bringing material from the personal and collective unconscious into consciousness. (The collective unconscious, according to Jung, is an unconscious that we all share. A way of understanding it is through our looking at archetypes, like the hero. Every culture, throughout history, creates or has created stories involving a hero, so Jung saw the hero as an archetype, that is, a form that exists in all human psyches.) Jung believed that dreams served the integrating process of individuation whether or not the dreams were interpreted.
Whatever your particular belief in terms of the meaning of dreams, most of us find them, at least on occasion, deeply moving, sometimes disturbing, other times exhilarating, and frequently capable of leaving their mark on us long after we have awakened. I encourage you to read more about whatever you were drawn to in this article. Sweet dreams!