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Do Dreams Really Reveal Our Deepest Secrets?

What the heck is happening in this dream?
What the heck is happening in this dream?
(Image: © Shutterstock)

You jolt awake in the middle of the night, your heart pounding. It takes you a moment to realize that, no, you didn't just rush out for a job interview wearing nothing but a bath towel. 

Depending on which dream interpretation dictionary you consult, you might find that your dream reveals anxiety about work, a sense of shame or embarrassment, or perhaps even a deeply repressed inner exhibitionist. 

Given all these possibilities, is it true that dreams can reveal our deepest secrets?

Related: Why Can't We Remember Our Dreams?

Dreams can provide useful insights on our lives, but despite what Hollywood or your favorite novel might have you believe, there aren't any studies showing that dreams can lay bare our inner workings. 

"There's really no research that supports that point of view," said Deirdre Barrett, a psychologist and dream researcher at Harvard Medical School. Dreams don't contain symbols. No dictionary or dream interpreter can tell you what a dream really "means," she said. 

Humans have long sought meaning in dreams. Ancient Mesopotamians and Egyptians saw them as messages from the gods. Greeks and Romans used them to predict the future. But the belief that symbols in dreams harbor secret truths about ourselves originates with 19th-century psychologist Sigmund Freud. He proposed that dreams functioned as a kind of wish fulfillment, revealing our deeply repressed desires. 

Since Freud, the science on dreaming has moved on — and it suggests a reality that's a little more mundane than the one Freud proposed. Dreams aren’t cryptic or fantastical. In fact, dreaming is a lot more like your daytime thinking than you might realize.

But that doesn't mean dreams are meaningless. Research suggests that while we're dreaming, we're really just processing the same interests, memories and concerns that would normally occupy us during the day. 

"We're having wishful fantasies, we're thinking about threats and fears, we're thinking about our social lives and loved ones," Barrett told Live Science. 

Therefore, dreams have psychological meaning as extensions of our waking thoughts and concerns, explained G. William Domhoff, a dream researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in a paper published in The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice. Studies suggest that dreams are more often plausible narratives of our day-to-day lives than trippy action movies. Except, that is, when something really strange happens, like your mom transforming into Oprah without an explanation.

Although dreams are more similar to waking thoughts than we might assume, our brain functions very differently while we're asleep. 

"Our mind is just operating in a very different biochemical chemical state," Barrett said. That means that during sleep, the cocktail of chemicals in our brains change. Some portions of our brain become far less active; others become far more active. For example, the secondary visual cortex — the part of our brain that forms images — becomes far more active, helping us produce the vivid images we "see" during sleep. Meanwhile, the prefrontal cortex, which normally filters our thoughts, gets tamped down. 

Some psychologists see that as a valuable tool. While psychologist and psychoanalyst Karl Stukenberg of Xavier University in Cincinnati is skeptical that dreams contain intrinsically meaningful symbols or channel repressed desires, he uses dream interpretation with both his students and his patients. 

"A dialogue emerges between the parts of the mind that are functioning in a more symbolic sense and the parts of the mind that's functioning in a logical sense," he told Live Science.

There's no formula for interpreting dreams, Barrett said. Dreams aren't a cache of Easter eggs, waiting to be discovered. But they do offer insight into how we process the world during the third or so or our life that we spend asleep.

And for that, at least, Freud was right, Barrett said. "He introduced the idea that dreams are meaningful. That they can tell us about ourselves," she said.

Originally published on Live Science.

  • Camila G
    For being a science website, this is very poor science. Just because you can't prove anything or there isn't enough evidence, doesn't mean the contrary is true. This would just be another theory not a fact. I personally don't believe in psychics or anything, but we humans know more than we conscientiously think. I've had dreams of my friend's family member dying just a couple weeks before she did. This is what I would think without God, I won't mention that though cause this is a "science" website.
    Reply
  • silverfox
    I am in complete agreement with you. It's a good thing Einstein didn't apply these poor skills to physics, nor Tesla.

    What I found so amusing was the contradiction in her own writings. It may be semantics, yet she states:
    Egyptian and Mesopotamian people saw dreams as messages from their
    (G)gods but dream interpretation didn't begin until Freud 's time.

    There is rock solid evidence some people do experience forewarning of events in dreams. This is part of recorded human history, that has been discovered and excavated thus far.

    No scientific quest for knowledge here, and she is a Professor. I would take issue with that tuition, personally.
    Reply
  • davidp
    To start, the suggestion that dreams only reflect the processing of our waking world is technically an unprovable hypothesis, as no one but ourselves have direct access to our interior experiences. Reports are needed to validate this hypothesis, and reports are always subjective by nature...a scientific “no, no.”

    The subjectivity of dreams does not mean, however, that direct subjective experience is not valid or worthy of examination. As another comment mentions, dreams have a long history of being considered prophetic and meaningful throughout history. Unfortunately, the sceptic in us discounts all first hand accounts of dream experience as being merely subjective—as if dreams could ever be anything else. A whole category of human experience is therefore reduced to scientific platitude and second hand judgment because of “lack of objective evidence.” In other words, dream states are resistant to scientific objective study, and therefore are subjected to academic hypothesis and theory—the creation of a “story” that processing is all that is happening. First hand evidence is therefore generally dismissed, despite being more grounded in reality than the theories that supplant first hand reports.

    From personal, first hand experience (gasp), I can attest to dreams being prophetic. I have had a number of specific dreams that seemed to be significant...so much so that I immediately told my wife on awakening so that she would be able confirm things if they turned out to be prophetic, as I suspected.

    One dream foretold the hit and run death of my four year old neighbour (backed over in a driveway...a very specific way for a four year old to die) and another foretold a workplace fire at a relative’s place of employment, which happened two days after I related the dream. Again, a very specific event that was conveyed in a somewhat symbolic, yet direct, dream.

    The details, of course, are everything in these matters and the source of the “report” (myself in this case) is inevitably deemed by science to lack credibility because all reports are subjective. Nice catch 22 there—a facile dismissal of human reality and truth based on the “lack of experience” of the critic, as much as on the non-objective nature of a report.

    Until you have direct, personal experience with dreams being more than just processing of ”reality” (which they definitely do do, by the way...just not exclusively so), then you are likely to reject a reality which is simply out of your own personal experience. Cheers.
    Reply
  • Kelvarolvar
    My brother had dreams for many years where he was being hunted by secret societies. Now, he has developed paranoid schizophrenia. But he has always been paranoid. He wouldn't agree but everyone else in the family did. It would not surprise me to find that how we experience the world through dreams reveals a less repressed response to a realish scenario.
    Reply
  • Babieta
    I agree wholeheartedly. Dreams are prophetic and I too have dreamed of events that happened in my future, not anyone's else's though. Thankful for that since obviously some of us have a greater reach and witness to tragic events.
    Reply
  • jessetutt
    Great article. Here are the top 10 most common dreams and their meaning. Jesse Tutt, CEO, https://gottasleep.com
    Reply
  • davidp
    jessetutt said:
    Great article. Here are the top 10 most common dreams and their meaning. Jesse Tutt, CEO, https://gottasleep.com
    I am confused. Just posting a link to your business, or a genuine mistake in posting a link that went wrong? I suspect this is just spam.
    Reply
  • Truthseeker007
    I do know a day or two before 911 I had a dream of a plane crashing in my yard. I heard a lot of people experienced these types of dreams before 911. So it is obvious that sometimes dreams can predict the future. Or atleast tap into the future of a really big event.
    Reply
  • Truthseeker007
    Kelvarolvar said:
    My brother had dreams for many years where he was being hunted by secret societies. Now, he has developed paranoid schizophrenia. But he has always been paranoid. He wouldn't agree but everyone else in the family did. It would not surprise me to find that how we experience the world through dreams reveals a less repressed response to a realish scenario.

    That is interesting. Which secret societies did he think was chasing him?
    Reply
  • davidp
    Kelvarolvar said:
    My brother had dreams for many years where he was being hunted by secret societies. Now, he has developed paranoid schizophrenia. But he has always been paranoid. He wouldn't agree but everyone else in the family did. It would not surprise me to find that how we experience the world through dreams reveals a less repressed response to a realish scenario.

    To be clear, prophetic dreams are rather rare, but are a reality and not just a misinterpretation of vague dream elements.

    However, dreams can also clarify life dynamics that run below the surface that are repressed, or simply not clear to our waking consciousness, as you mentioned.

    In one dream, for example, I saw a friend standing in shallow, slippery rapids. I tried to enter the water to offer her a helping hand back to shore, but she was blissfully “sowing” rock salt into the water in front of her and did not want my help. I almost slipped and fell myself and had to grab a railing on the shore to get back on solid ground.

    On waking I recognized the symbolism in the dream: in real life this friend was ”sowing” discord, anxiety, and drama into her marriage and extended family life—effectively “poisoning” the relationship waters around her. I was both concerned and upset at her destructive behaviour, and was on the verge of approaching her to try to help.

    The dream, however, made the underlying dynamic clear to me in a way that my conscious mind had not fully grasped: she did not want “rescuing” or help. She was content to sow discord into the watery stream of her life, even if it meant poisoning the ”waters” around and in front of her. She was too lost in her own ego—her “story” of how others were offending her, always against her, or unsupportive. She was not receptive to a helping hand, and any effort I made would only serve to make me lose my balance in the swift and slippery waters of her unhappiness. My efforts would be fruitless.

    This dream allowed me to see more clearly the inter-personal dynamic of what was going on, and kept me psychologically safe from being swept into her ”stream of drama.” So, dreams are sometimes re-workings of life events, but they definitely can be symbolic and they definitely can reflect a “higher” wisdom—even if that wisdom is just a manifestation of our unconscious processing of events that we are too close to in waking life to “see” clearly.
    Reply