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Fun or Frightening: What do Dreams Mean for Us?

Experts debate on what actually happens when we go to sleep

5 min read
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I do think that there’s a particular personality type that’s more open to working with dreams, people who are more intuitive and less hear-and-now, fact-based.
- Felicity Kelcourse, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology of religion
and pastoral psychotherapy at Christian Theological Seminary

Dreams are here and then gone in a flash. For instance, have you ever woken up in the morning so enthralled by the dream you just had that you’re ready to turn it into a best-selling novel with movie rights sure to follow?

As you’re thinking about how you’ll spend your first million dollars, you get up to use the restroom, pour a cup of coffee, and let the dog out. You turn on the shower and turn back to thinking about that dream. Wait, what was it again? It was so vivid when you woke up.

Looks like you won’t be quitting your day job quite yet.

You are not alone.

“You have about 30 seconds after you wake up to record a dream and after that it will go out of your mind,” said Felicity Kelcourse, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology of religion and pastoral psychotherapy at Christian Theological Seminary.

Catching a Dream

Kelcourse, who has been offering dream interpretation to her counseling clients for 25 years and has been recording her own dreams since childhood, tries to keep pen and paper within close reach of her bed, or she quickly records herself describing her dreams into her phone’s recording app. To improve your odds of “catching a dream” in the morning, Kelcourse recommends telling yourself before you fall asleep that you plan to remember your dreams as vividly as possible when you wake up.

She also recommends, before bedtime, reading a few pages from “Dreams and Spiritual Growth: A Judeo-Christian Way of Dreamwork,” by Louis M. Savary, Patricia H. Berne, and Strephon Kaplan Williams.

In addition, there also are some great apps to help, including Dream Journal Ultimate, Dream Talk Recorder, and Dream Dictionary for iOS or Dream Interpretation for Android.

Freud’s Repressed Pathologies

So once you catch a dream, what, if anything, can you do with it? There are two main schools of thought when it comes to dreams and what they might mean to our waking lives. On one hand are the psychoanalysts, a movement founded in the 1930s by famed Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud, whose devotees think dreams conceal the pathologies we bury within our subconscious. These practitioners believe they can help people gain valuable insights into their problems by leading them through an interpretation of their dreams’ meanings.

Kelcourse falls squarely into this camp.

“I am a psychoanalyst so I use dreams to help me understand what it is that the person is working on, on an unconscious level, that’s maybe not what their conscious mind is aware of,” Kelcourse said. “That can be very fruitful when it’s done in a context where people are really entering into that way of understanding their experiences.”

However, Kelcourse says “dream work” isn’t for everyone, especially in a world she sees as increasingly “data-driven.”

“I do think that there’s a particular personality type that’s more open to working with dreams, people who are more intuitive and less hear-and-now, fact-based,” Kelcourse said, noting such individuals tend to score higher on the intuitive side of the Myers-Briggs personality inventory test. “I do find some people are just not as interested, so it’s not for everyone, basically.”

Random Firings

The other main view, polar opposite of the Freudian school, is the activation-synthesis theory of dreaming, which holds that dreams result from random firings of our brain synapses during heavy neural activity that happens while we sleep.

Harvard University psychiatrists J. Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley pioneered this theory in 1977. Hobson, now retired from academia but still writing daily about dreaming, said many people have mistakenly interpreted his research findings over the years.

“The important thing is to try to help yourself understand that both randomness and meaning are compatible with each other,” Hobson said. “That’s the trouble most people have. They say well Hobson thinks that dreams are meaningless. I never said that. I said that dreams are not designed to conceal meaning. They exist to reveal meaning. In that sense, they don’t need to be interpreted.”

Dreams as Entertainment

Hobson said he often writes down his dreams when he wakes up.

“One, I think they’re enormously entertaining,” he said. “Better than any movie I ever saw. Secondly, it shows me the way I am. That dream is me. I had that dream.”

Nevertheless, Hobson doesn’t think it’s necessary to pay a therapist to interpret dreams, and he calls Freudian dream analysis “pseudoscience.” One could spend much less money by visiting a psychic or tarot card reader, he said.

If you have a recurring dream about racing to arrive on time to take a test, a psychoanalyst likely will diagnose you with some deep-seated anxiety that needs therapy, he said, when the dream is actually a result of your brain’s “disorientation” during the rapid eye movement stage of sleep, and you have associated that with anxiety in the dream.

“Most people have had these dreams,” Hobson said. “The question is, does it mean that you are concerned about something in your current life? I say no, not necessarily, and to go around looking for things in your current life that might be wrong could be a useful exercise … but I don’t think that nightmare is telling you you ought to do that.”

But regardless of whether the dreamer pays for therapy, Kelcourse noted she advises people to form “dream groups” to discuss their dreams, a practice advocated by the late dream expert Jeremy Taylor. Such groups need not be led by a licensed therapist, but the discussion probably will be more productive if at least one member has undergone some dream therapy.

“My experience is when you get the right questions asked, the dreamer will have kind of an ‘aha’ experience of ‘oh, maybe this is what this dream is trying to tell me,’” Kelcourse said. “I think it was Freud who said a dream uninterpreted is like a letter unopened. You’ll never know what it really had to say.”

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Fun or Frightening: What do Dreams Mean for Us?