As a visitor to our site, you probably already believe that dreams are interesting and relevant to our waking lives. Humans have also endeavored to understand the larger significance of dreams through the lens of indigenous and religious traditions, social sciences like psychology and anthropology, and medical sciences such as neurology. These very different models of reality have all striven to answer the basic question, “Are dreams meaningful?”
Clearly, dreams are meaningful to the person who has them, both during the dream and when they examine or analyze it after waking. Indigenous cultures and modern religions have viewed dreams as messages from their ancestors, God and friendly spirits, and the inner Self, which bear important messages for the dreamer and his or her family and society. Artists and people with creative tendencies often value dreams as a conduit for inspiration: in dreams we are able to effortlessly think out of the box to arrive at creative solutions to problems and projects. The idea that the brain discovers solutions through dreams is so powerful that it has made its way into other frameworks for explaining the significance of dreams.
A framework or model that human beings use to understand a concept is called a story context. People have used story contexts like the two above to assign significance to dreams as messages from the supernatural or inspirations from the self. Today, scientists also use story contexts to explain the significance of dreams within a psychological, anthropological, neurological, or evolutionary model. Story contexts are models of reality which give meaning to anything that contributes to the model and discard possible meanings that don’t fit the story context. Because dreams have many potential functions for human beings, it can be helpful to examine the significance of dreams using a variety of story contexts to illuminate different facets of dreams’ importance to us as individuals and as a species.
Psychology examines the significance of dreams for the individual; in a psychological story context, dreams contain subconscious messages that a person can respond to in order to make positive changes in their lives. The psychological approach requires that people look at the content of specific dreams for symbolism that may relate to the context of their lives— their problems, interests, desires and needs. Researcher Clara Hill performed an experiment in which people were asked to discuss their lives using three different contexts: the content of their own dreams, someone else’s dreams, or their waking life issues. They then had to rate which context seemed the most meaningful. People perceived the most meaning in their own dreams, suggesting that your dreams are an important tool for understanding your personal experiences.
Neurology studies how dreaming restores our health, regulates brain functioning and assists in neural processing. Neurology focuses on phenomena in the brain that are directly observable by researchers, such as rapid eye movement and electrical activity in brain structures. Researchers have theorized that dreams help the brain consolidate new memories, move memories from short-term to long-term storage, and process new experiences and emotions. The learning centers of the brain are also active during REM sleep, and some neurologists have theorized that dreams may aid learning in humans by allowing us to rehearse behaviors and test the outcomes of certain actions in a safe context. Neurology usually doesn’t discuss what specific dreams might mean to dreamers, because that’s impossible to answer within a physical evidence-based story context.
Biologists use an evolutionary framework to address the significance of dreams: following up on the learning theory, some biologists have suggested that dreams contributed to the evolution of behaviors in our past which encouraged the survival of the human species. According to primitive instinct rehearsal theory, dreams are “rehearsals” or automatic stimulations of the body that train it to face real-life threats, challenges and opportunities. Professor Antti Revonsuo of Turku University in Finland has argued that dreams are rehearsals for threats to the self and allow us to hone our self-defense instincts. Researcher Keith Stevens has taken a more integrated view where dreams are rehearsals for all human instincts: resource competition, threat response, pair bonding, mating, and searching out new experiences. Instinct rehearsal theory argues that dream experiences prime the brain to carry out these kinds of survival functions in real life, and don’t need to be consciously remembered to be beneficial.
Anthropological theories of dreams examine the roles of dreams in various cultures, using story contexts that interpret dreams as a kind of cultural survival mechanism. Depending on their cultural significance and interpretation, dreams can affirm or alter a human group’s way of life, affect social ties within groups and interactions with other groups. In societies knit together by relations of blood and marriage, one person’s dreams were and are of importance to the whole village or band: people would often report their dreams to family members and the village’s spiritual leaders for interpretation. Significant interpretations could change village events such as marriages, seasonal migration patterns, and trade with other villages.
Modern dream movements such as the Association for the Study of Dreams have argued that it’s outdated to ask after the significance of dreams using a specific framework like those above. Dream worker Montague Ullman has argued that dreams should be their own story context; that dream work can and should be taught outside of any external frames of reference. Ullman argues that we live in a dream-deprived society that has socialized most people to dismiss dreams, and has advocated integrating dream work into primary, secondary and post-secondary education. To rediscover the significance of dreams in their own story context, we must create a dream-literate society that values these experiences as part of the largest story context of all: what it means to be human.