the content and meaning of our dreams -- 6/24/21

Today's encore selection -- from Dreamland by David K. Randall. The content and meaning of our dreams. Sigmund Freud revolutionized modern thought with his theories -- including his belief in the symbolic nature of dreams. Many contemporary researchers disagree:

"In The Interpretation of Dreams, [Sigmund Freud] argued that, far from being random events, dreams were full of hidden meanings that were projections of the dreamer's secret hopes and wishes. In effect, Freud identified the subconscious, a realm of thought beyond the mind's control that colors our desires and intentions. Every night when a person went to sleep, Freud said, the mind cloaked these thoughts in symbols that could be uncovered and interpreted with the help of a therapist. Without dreams, our unconscious concerns would be so overwhelming that few of us could function. ...

"Perhaps unfairly, Freud's theories soon became reduced to the view that everything in a dream had a sexual meaning that reflected and uncovered long-repressed urges from childhood. One review of Freudian literature found that by the middle of the twentieth century, analysts had identified 102 stand-ins for the penis in dreams and ninety-five symbols for the vagina. Even opposites -- flying and falling -- were called symbols for sex. Freudians pointed out fifty-five images for the act of sex itself, twenty-five icons of masturbation, thirteen figures of breasts, and twelve symbols for castration. ...

"[In the mid-twentieth century], dream research [became] stagnant until a psychology professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland named Calvin Hall decided to catalog what people dream about. Hall spent more than thirty years gathering dream reports from everyone who would share them. By the time he died in 1985, Hall had synopses of more than fifty thousand dreams from people of all age groups and nationalities. From this large database, he created a coding system that essentially treated each dream like it was a short story. He recorded, among other things, the dream's setting, its number of characters and their genders, any dialogue, and whether what happened in the dream was pleasant or frightening. He also noted basics about each dreamer as well, such as age, gender, and where the person lived.

"Hall introduced the world of dream interpretation to the world of data. He pored through his dream collection, bringing numbers and statistical rigor into a field that had been split into two extremes. He tested what was the most likely outcome of, say, dreaming about work. Would the dreamer be happy? Angry? And would the story hew close to reality or would the people in the dream act strange and out of character? If there were predictable outcomes, then maybe dreams followed some kind of pattern. Maybe they even mattered.

"Hall's conclusion was the opposite of Freud's: far from being full of hidden symbols, most dreams were remarkably straightforward and predictable. Dream plots were consistent enough that, just by knowing the cast of characters in a dream, Hall could forecast what would happen with surprising accuracy. A dream featuring a man whom the dreamer doesn't know in real life, for instance, almost always entails a plot in which the stranger is aggressive. Adults tend to dream of other people they know, while kids usually dream of animals. About three out of every four characters in a man's dream will be other men, while women tend to encounter an equal number of males and females. Most dreams take place in the dreamers' homes or offices and, if they have to go somewhere, they drive cars or walk there. And not surprisingly, college students dream about sex more often than middle-aged adults.

"Hall's research deflated the idea that dreams are surreal.

"The plot may not follow any logical order and characters may have strange requests, but the dream world isn't that far from reality. More important, dreams tend to be unpleasant. Hall found that the average dream is filled with characters who were aggressive, mean, or violent. Dreamland, in short, sounds a lot like the worst days of middle school. ...

"[But disagreement remains over the purpose of dreams. In one theory], Ernest Hartmann, a professor at the Tufts University School of Medicine, ... sees dreams as a form of built-in nocturnal therapy. In dreams, he says, the mind takes what is new or bothersome and blends it into what the brain already knows, making the new information seem less novel or threatening. ... Hartmann argues that the life of early man was filled with the kind of traumas -- watching friends gored by animals with sharp tusks or fall through holes in the ice and drown, just to give you two possibilities -- that few people experience today. Those who were able to regain their emotional balance after living through a traumatic event were more likely to survive over the long run than those who dwelled on the negative."



David K. Randall




W.W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2012 by David K. Randall


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