Do dreams mean anything?

I know there is quite a bit of scientific thought on the subject out there, but recently dream analysis has dropped off the public radar. I was wondering what the consensus is on dreams- Do dreams have meaning? Are some dreams universal (such as falling=anxiety)? What’s up with dreaming?

According to William Calvin’s The Cerebral Symphony, they don’t. In a nutshell, the current scientific thinking at the time was that the main function of the conscious mind is to select useful ideas from what the subconscious throws at it, which consists of random juxtapositions of old ideas. During dreaming, that censor function is not available, so you get to see the random crap that your subconscious comes up with.

Sleep is when the brain does its real work on all the information you absorb throughout a day. The brain stores most of a days events in “short term memory” basically. Sleeping is a time for the brain to take that memory and decide what is important and what is extraneous and to find the links to other memories and information already in our “permanent” areas. Everwhere an association is found a new weight is given to a piece of information. Dreams I think are a result of the brain waking while in the middle of this housekeeping process and trying to make sense of the flood of old and new memories. Strong associations can be made while asleep that can be realized later while awake and is why “sleeping on” a problem can be useful.

Short term memory is something entirely different. Can you provide a cite, Rhapsody?

They mean you are asleep. :wink:

You kind of took a future SDMB idea from me, SwimmingwithChickens. Don’t worry though, I don’t mind:).

I kind of wonder though, if dreams are purely mechanical, then what is the significance of directed dreaming. I could be using the term wrong, but I use it to mean when you study the symbols in your dreams so well, you tend to see them more and more after that.

Places are very powerful symbols in my dreams. I have a restaurant that I often dream of (it only exists in my dreams) that looks alot like my old maternal grandmother’s house. This is especially poignant because she died when I was only 3. I also have a small stone chapel in one of my dreams that symbolizes a time in my life when I felt most happy and secure.

As for me, as I get older I tend to take the more practical view of things. So I tend to take the view dreams are automatic and related to memory or something like that. And yet I still have these powerful symbols that recur in my dreams.


Like I said, the subconscious is juxtaposing ideas that you already have. My guess is that emotionally charged memories or ideas tend to recurr more often, but I have no cite for that.

Short term memory is truly short (between 12 to 20 seconds unrehearsed), and IIRC quite limited in what it can hold. A short-term memory exercise I taught in my classes showed that most people can hold only about 7 pieces of data (a list of objects or numbers) in memory at a time. That’s hardly a good assortment of a day’s worth of images.

Moreover, AFAIK there’s no evidence that the brain retains and processes images each day in the manner you describe.

Your brain can’t automatically take memories and decide anything. Whether something gets committed to long term memory depends on how often you practice it: for example, an action you repeat daily for a year, or a piece of information you recite frequently. These are conscious actions, not automatic responses, and therefore are difficult, if not impossible, to do while asleep.

There is also what is called flashbulb memory, which is a clear, long-term memory of a particularly striking or significant moment. For example, most people can remember what they were doing when they heard about the WTC or the Challenger explosion.

Associations between memories need not be formed while asleep. You can consciously associate memories with one another.

Perhaps. I find it more likely that sleeping on a problem helps you distance yourself from the anxiety you feel towards the problem, allowing you to think more clearly and be less influenced by worry.

If dreams are based on memories and associations, then why do my dreams sometimes consist of components I’ve never experienced or heard of anyone else experiencing, nor seen in a book or movie? Also, how does this explain repeating dreams? I have the same dream roughly every six months. Given that each day’s experience is different, shouldn’t this be unlikely?

So they don’t mean anything? Phew, thats a relief. Cause’ in my last dream I assasinated a CEO of an important company (A dreamt up company, but it was an important one in the dream) with guns I stole from police officers. And as I ran from the cops (Being shot at with automatic rifles, obviously) I hit a cop with a cricket bat.
But as long as it doesn’t mean anything I guess I’m fine…

This is mostly IMHO, but from my experience and from what I’ve learned, dreams can have various degrees of meaning, but by and large fall into the nonsensical category. I certainly do not believe in any “dream analysis dictionaries” in which items dreamt are listed along with an analysis. I think “broken teeth” symbolizes bad luck, since I often have dreams involving broken teeth, yet I’m a fairly luck person by and large. If there is any symbolism in dreams, I am thoroughly convinced that it conforms to a subjective, ie pesonal, symbology. One person’s dream of a crucifix does not mean the same thing as somebody else’s dream involving a crucifix, insofar as there is any meaning.

If dreams have any meaning, for me they are usually associated with an anxiety of some sort, and it may be represented in some usually obvious manner in a dream. For example, I’ve been feeling a bit homesick lately, maybe thinking about returning to college, etc. So a few nights ago I had a dream, being back in Chicago, walking around Northwestern University’s campus and crying. So far so good. Meaning is clear. 'Course, then I met some students who were Sicilian mobsters and I got my throat slit by a “policeman” and I actually died in my dream. OK, so that part seems nonsensical.

Therefore, I think dreams are a mix of what’s weighing on your mind with a heavy dose of random information thrown in. And usually, they’re composed more of the latter, for me.

For me, broken teeth dreams mean that I’m not taking good enough care of my teeth. Very obvious connection. I give my teeth an extra brushing and/or add mouthwash to the routine and the dream goes away. This is another reason I believe that dream analysis is mostly crap.
I do believe there can be meaning in dreams but the analysis dictionaries were dreamt up by new agey folks to make money off the gullible. Real analysis of your dreams is most likely a matter of personal interpretation and cannot be scientifically categorized to apply in a general sense.

Gestalt psychologists do help clients interpret dreams in pretty much this way. The rationale is that everything that you dream comes from you… and a dream is among the purest expressions of the self. If you dream of walking on a sidewalk covered with nails, you are the person walking on the sidewalk, but you are also the sidewalk and you are also the nails. A gestalt shrink might ask you to try to experience the dream from the point of view of the sidewalk and the nails.

This doesn’t have a whole lot to do with scientific analysis (being purely idiographic), and it’s certainly different from the tarot-card type analysis of dreams, where symbols have definite meanings and their relevence to you depends on where you find it.

OTOH, I do think there’s a grain of truth in the idea of jungian archetypes. I don’t believe in the subconscious, much less any communal sub-basement, but our culture does have common associations with many different symbols. Dreams could use these as an emotionally impacting short-hand… but at the very most the occurance of a common symbol is an abbreviation too ambiguous to interpret without a thorough understanding of both the dream and the dreamer. It adds to the feeling and experience of the dream, but the symbol is not a signpost to meaning.

The remark somebody made about a recurring restaurant is interesting. I have a similar experience with about five different locations. I don’t think these necessarily mean the same thing every time they come up… it is likely to be more a function of the brain recycling well. My brain’s already built a set for a city, a hotel, a cattle ranch in Nevada, etc. More economical to use those.