The science of decoding dreams: do they really mean anything?

This article first appeared in issue 16 of our free digital magazine CURIOUS.

Dreaming is an almost ubiquitous human experience. As we drift away each night, images fill our sleeping minds – sometimes vivid and realistic, other times nonsensical or nightmarish. Some dreams are committed to memory, to be shared, laughed at or perhaps even Googled, while others are quickly forgotten. Despite their universality, there are still many unanswered questions surrounding dreams. Perhaps the most pressing of these, for anyone who has had a particularly intriguing experience, is, “What does it mean?”

Today we know quite a bit about what happens in our brains while we sleep—we even have some insight into what dreams might look like in other species—but as to why we dream and what those dreams might mean, a lot remains mystery.

In light of this, we decided to dive into the science of dream decoding and ask: Is there really any merit in that?

If you’ve ever dreamed about snakes or your teeth falling out (as apparently many of you have) and wondered what it might tell you about the inner workings of your brain, this is for you.

What are dreams?

“Dreams are sensory experiences we have during sleep,” David Billington, a psychotherapist and director of the Dream Research Institute, told IFLScience. “They can range from emotional impressions or subtle colors to complex stories to consciously willed lucid dream experiences, where you are aware that you are dreaming even though you are physiologically asleep.”

In dreams, anything is possible, added Joseph De Koninck, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Ottawa who has studied dreams for 50 years, leading him to consider them “open season on the mind.”

We’re still learning what’s happening in our brains as we dream, but we do have an idea, Billington explained.

“We can see that there is almost as much activity in the brain during dreaming as during waking, albeit of slightly different types. The visual, memory, and motor areas of the brain are active (although sleep hormones keep most people from achieving their dreams), but the logical areas of the cortex are less active, which may account for the bizarre nature of many to dream. ”

Dreams can happen at any time while we’re napping, but our most vivid dreams happen during a stage of sleep known as rapid eye movement (REM), where—surprise surprise—our eyes move quickly.

It is thought that we spend about two hours dreaming every night, although there is much debate as to why we do that.

“There is no scientific evidence for this so far [dreams] serve a biological function,” De Koninck told IFLScience.

It has been suggested that dreams can help us process emotions and memories and help us solve problems in our waking lives. Other theories posit that dreams can benefit our perception of reality, or, à la psychologist Sigmund Freud, that they serve to protect sleep from disruption or represent the fulfillment of unrealized wishes. Francis Crick, who turned to dream theory after his work on identifying the structure of DNA, came up with an explanation called “reverse learning,” where “we dream to forget.”

Even with these numerous theories, some of which make more sense than others, the question of why we dream still has no definitive answer.

Do they really have meaning?

Our old friend Freud would say – perhaps unsurprisingly given that this is Freud – that they represent repressed, often sexual desires.

If you thought the question of why we dream was complicated, the question of what they might mean is even more complicated, made even more complicated by the fact that it largely depends on who you ask.

If you happened to have the ability to travel in time and asked the ancient Greeks or Romans, they would probably tell you that dreams did indeed have meaning, and that they functioned as omens or predictions of future events.

Our old friend Freud would say, as we touched on above, perhaps unsurprisingly given that this is Freud, that they represent repressed, often sexual desires.

Carl Jung, founder of the field of analytical psychology, meanwhile, might note that “dreams are messages sent from the unconscious” and as such can help us understand our inner psyche.

But what do modern psychologists and psychotherapists have to say on this subject? Do dreams really have meaning?

“’Meaning’ is a tricky term in the context of medicine,” Billington told us. There is no scientific consensus on what specific dreams mean, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t useful.

“You can also say in a very broad sense that dreaming about specific things means that those things are related to your waking preoccupations – whether conscious, semi-conscious or unconscious,” Billington added.

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“But what a specific dream experience or a specific image means to a specific person is very subjective, just as what we make of waking experiences is very subjective: a moment of conflict with a stranger can be very disruptive for a librarian, but is only a part of every day for a nightclub doorman.”

De Koninck agrees: “Dreaming about a train does not always mean death, but will have a different meaning depending on the situation [on] if you often travel by train, or as a driver, or if you are afraid to take the train, or if you have never been on one before.”

“In other words, the meaning depends on the waking experience of the dreamer [and] what the dream content resonates with you.”

Dreams can be a very useful source of self-knowledge, believes De Koninck, and can be used in various ways in psychotherapy.

“They have meaning in the sense that […] it is your brain, with your memory bank, and your emotions that are being expressed, just they are being expressed in a different way.”

What can we learn from our dreams?

We may not understand that dreaming about spiders universally means fear of the unknown, as a quick Google might lead you to believe, but there is still a lot that we, and especially professional psychotherapists, could learn from them.

“Our dreams are part of our overall consciousness, but they happen without external stimulation, so in some ways they form a clearer picture of our ‘inner’ psychological self,” Billington said.

As mentioned, dreams often reflect our waking life, even if they are not a replication of waking, but subsequent to it. They can therefore reveal things that our minds have been thinking about, with or without our knowledge.

“[Dreams tend] to reflect and reinforce your current concerns. And that is where it is interesting in psychotherapy,” says De Koninck.

This is consistent with the Continuity Theory of Dreaming, Billington explained. “Related theories are the Threat Simulation Theory and the Social Threat Simulation theory, which postulate an evolutionary use of dreams: that they let us rehearse responses to threatening situations (physical or social) without actually endangering ourselves.”

In this sense, they can help us adapt. “There could be a survival advantage in being able to ‘try out’ responses to situations before they arise,” Billington continued.

Dreams, or more specifically nightmares, can also be linked to trauma we face in our waking lives and “may be symptoms of broader disorders,” Billington said.

“Repeated dream memories of frightening, damaging, or harmful memories, leading to disturbed sleep and physiological symptoms of stress (increased heart rate, increased cortisol levels) are a sign of unresolved trauma.” Occasional or idiopathic nightmares may be normal, Billington added, but “frequent and disruptive may be signs of other non-trauma psychological disturbances, including nightmares.”

Dreams may be allegorical stories or myths about ourselves.

Persistent nightmares, according to De Koninck, can indicate other conditions, such as PTSD or schizophrenia. They can also be a risk factor for suicide. “If someone has a lot of nightmares, that has a certain meaning for us. Meaning to say, ‘Oh, you have to pay attention, there’s something wrong there.’”

It is also possible that repressed thoughts and feelings, which we may not be aware of, come back to us in our dreams. “It can therefore be helpful to spend some time thinking about what comes up in our dreams,” Billington advised, whether this is individually, with someone close to you, or, ideally, with a therapist.

“Is that dream of a colleague turning into a werewolf perhaps a dramatization of a side of them that we are only peripherally aware of? Their volatile, changeable, aggressive side perhaps? Or was it just that you were looking An American werewolf in London last weekend?”

Not only we can learn from our dreams. When we share them with others, we tell them things about ourselves that even we are not aware of, “because our vulnerability is shared through metaphor and symbol rather than directly,” Billington explains. “In this way, dreams may be allegorical stories or myths about ourselves.”

All things considered, we might all be able to pay a little more attention to our nighttime fantasies, but it’s best not to get bogged down in unraveling them, especially if you can’t remember them, De Koninck emphasized.

“It can be important to pay attention to that [dreams]. But if you don’t, that’s no problem. Sleep well – just get a good night’s sleep.”

CURIOUS magazine is a digital magazine from IFLScience with interviews, experts, deep dives, fun facts, news, book excerpts and much more. Issue 19 is out now.

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