For thousands of years, people have been trying to divine the meaning of dreams. To make sense of the movies that played in the populace’s head as they slept was, a sought after skill, one that affected your station in life and made you an emissary for beings above. In fact, the ancient Egyptians, Romans and Mesopotamians considered dream interpretation an art that required divine inspiration as well as great intelligence. And dreams get an honorable mention in the Bible.
In the second century A.D., Artemidorus wrote Oneirocritica (The Interpretation of Dreams), a multi-volume reference set that would later influence psychologists Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud and, as a result, the ways in which millions of people viewed their inner selves.
Despite millennia of fascination, however, dreams are apparently one of seven topics you’re not supposed to talk about, because (unless they’re yours) they’re profoundly boring to other people. And they’re of little worth in the psychological realm these days.
So where can you turn for guidance when you’ve had another dream about being naked in public? The Internet, of course.
A quick search on dreams will lead you to sites that interpret everything from computer hacking — not included in Artemidorus’ ancient Greek texts — to dreams about different types of dogs. When you find yourself looking up “nachos” in the dream dictionary, though, you have to wonder — is this a legitimate pursuit?
Is it? Is there any science behind this stuff?
If you mean cold, hard factual data, the answer is no, not at the moment. But that doesn’t always have to be the case.
In a post for Psychology Today, Patrick McNamara, Ph.D., wrotes that there’s “no scientifically supported system of dream interpretation” and dismisses it as “nonsense.” That dream dictionary you clicked on — which diagnosed you as indecisive after you dreamed about waffles — is in no way rooted in medical science.
Maybe I just wanted waffles for breakfast.
Exactly. A flaw with one-size-fits-all dream interpretation is that the same object can have different meanings to different people, based on personal experiences. As Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D., wrote for Psychology Today, “Your chipmunk is not someone else’s chipmunk.”
What about the history of interpretation by psychologists?
Since Jung and Freud presented the idea that dreams provide insight into the unconscious mind, dreams have been the subject of scientific studies and experiments. Though there are plenty of theories, psychologists still aren’t sure what dreams mean — or if they even have a purpose at all.
Your personal therapist who knows you and your issues might be able to shed some light on why you’re dreaming a particular dream. However, broad interpretations are probably not that accurate. (McNamara calls general interpretations “mere metaphor mongering.”)
But there are certain dreams that many people have, like flying, for instance.
William Domhoff, a research professor in psychology and sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has found that those “typical” dreams — your teeth falling out, for example — don’t occur as often as you think. However, he’s also found that dreams have universal elements dealing with human concerns and preoccupations — essentially the things we all think about the most.
Dr. William Braun, a psychologist who’s interpreted dreams at The Rubin museum’s annual Dream-Over event explains that “dreams can go many ways” depending on a person’s inner psyche. But he agrees that they can be manifestations of some universal human feelings.
What does it mean when I dream my teeth fell out?
It could be the manifestation of pent-up anxiety. "We might think of this as being concern about one's potency, competence, strength, power, ability to 'take a bite out' of the world, " Braun says. This common dream can also be associated with times of change and transition.
So is there any worth in dwelling in dreams?
According to Rubin Naiman, Ph.D., an integrative sleep and dream specialist, dreaming is a healing and spiritual stretching, “like yoga for the soul.” He says that it may be impossible to ever fully understand a dream, but that the value of dreams doesn’t lie in understanding them, but in dreaming — and sleep — itself.
If nothing else, they’re a safe outlet for our neuroses. And also a creative outlet. Without dreams, we wouldn’t have Mad Max: Fury Road or Wiz Khalifa’s lyrical poetry. Artists, musicians and writers from Salvador Dalí and Stephen King to Edgar Allen Poe and John Lennon -- have always drawn inspiration from their dreams. Dreams are keys to many movie and TV show plots—even when they’re overused clichés—from Don Draper to Tony Soprano to Buffy to Louie.
There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, about how, days before his assassination, Abraham Lincoln told his wife, Mary Todd, and his friend and bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon, about a dream in which he came across a covered, guarded corpse in the White House. When he asked who had died, a soldier replied, “The president. He was killed by an assassin.”
Though Lincoln was a dream-believer, whether or not he predicted his own death is up for historical debate. He’d received many death threats, so it’s more likely he incorporated worries from his daily life into his dream world. As we all do.