This post is part of a series of guest posts on GPS by the undergraduate and graduate students in my Science vs. Pseudoscience course. As part of their work for the course, each student had to demonstrate mastery of the skill of “Educating the Public about Pseudoscience.” To that end, each student has to prepare two 1,000ish word posts on a particular pseudoscience topic, as well as run a booth on-campus to help reach people physically about the topic.
A Brief History & Scientific Look at Dream Analysis & Interpretation by Evelyn Stratmoen
Dream analysis, also referred to as dream interpretation, hinges on the idea that you can attach meaning to your dreams. This process has been used in a wide variety of settings, including ancient civilizations, a variety of religions, including Christianity, and can be noted to today by going to a bookstore and picking up a book that will help you interpret your own dreams.
Ancient civilizations viewed dreaming as a means of communication. Some of these civilizations include the Babylonians and the Egyptians. Ancient Egyptians revered the interpretation of dreams, seeing them as a means of foretelling the future, curing sickness, and communicating with the gods. These civilizations even had a god or goddess of dreams along with some type of literature that aided in the interpreting of dreams. This type of communication was looked at as being supernatural or an intervention of a divine nature. Therefore, only people with supernatural powers could interpret the dream.
Dreams are an integral part of the Christian faith. In fact, the Bible mentions that Joseph was known as a dream interpreter. Dreams were also called visions. There are several stories recited in the Bible (examples include Pharaoh’s dream in Genesis 41 and Paul’s visions in Acts) in the New Testament. There are several scriptures that discuss dreams, including Joel2:28 which states “ … your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions”. There’s even a skeptical side to scripture in regards to dream interpretation, (Zech10:2 “the dreamers tell false dreams, and give empty consolation”). These scriptures provide insight into the idea that dreams are an integral part of divine communication in this particular faith.
Dream interpretation abounds in other cultures as well. Traditional Chinese medicine has its own book of dream interpretations, titled Lofty Principles of Dream Interpretation. During the Dark Ages, dreams were interpreted as the soul traveling through the night, and that they were from the devil. Even in our current culture, dreams are regarded as symbolic and important. We view them as having a deeper meaning, able to divulge deep secrets of soul, tell us what our underlying issues are and what we are unconsciously struggling with. In the early 17th century, a physician, Sir Thomas Brown, wrote about how to interpret dreams. In the 19th century, Sigmund Freud, as a component of his theory of psychoanalysis, wrote the book The Interpretation of Dreams.
According to Freud, dreams are a way to look into our soul, to unlock our unconscious. Our unconscious holds childhood wishes and desires that are deemed undesirable. Dreams are a way for us to fulfill these unconscious desires and wishes. Much of our struggle as humans is between these forbidden desires and trying to repress them. Freud felt that through the analysis of dreams, we could discover the root cause of our problems, through analyzing the symbols and feelings that we experienced during the dreams.
Dreams are instigated by what he called day residue. Day residue is comprised of leftover remnants of the events that occurred the day before. It includes the undesirable thoughts, wishes and desires that we struggle with. These wishes and desires are distorted, causing confusion as to what the dream is representing. Hence dream interpretation. Various things keep us from remembering our latent desires, repressing them into our unconscious. It is through dreaming that the desires are brought back to the surface. Therefore, dreams act as a “fulfillment” of these repressed desires.
The scientific definition of dreams is the mental activity containing thoughts, emotions, and images that occur while a person is asleep. This is normally in conjunction with rapid eye movement (REM). Dreams that occur during REM-sleep normally involve aggressive emotions while dreams that occur during non-REM (NREM) sleep normally involve friendly emotions.
Therefore, dreams are a result of the electrical energy. This energy stimulates stored memories in various regions of the brain. Scientists have yet to determine why the brain does stimulate memories during the dreaming process, but there are various hypotheses. Hypotheses that state paranormal or supernatural phenomenon as possible explanations are not taken as seriously as the ones that use biological and emotional processes of brain activity.
Some of the scientific hypotheses that attempt to explain dreams state that dreaming is a method by which the brain is attempting to disconnect the cortex from any additional sensory input. This would allow the cortex to rest. These hypotheses can also explain the lack of critical thinking skills and poor decisions that people make when they do not get the right amount of sleep.
Another scientific hypothesis indicates that dreaming is a method of memory encoding, particularly emotional memories. This is based on the evidence that the amygdala is active during the dreaming process. The amygdala has been shown to be a key component in the formation of memories during emotional experiences.
One claim of dream interpretation is that they can be prophetic of nature. However, these dreams may be explained coincidence or even out-and-out lying. But since we fall victim to methods of illogical thinking and lack of understanding, we fall prey to these interpretations. Such concepts such as the Law of Large Numbers and Confirmation Bias are enough to see how one can be duped by dream interpretation.
There has even been research done on dreams and false memories. One such study, called the Florence False Interpretation Study, indicate that dream interpretations can have harmful and unintended side effects, such as creating false memories in people. These false memories can include experiencing a traumatic event as a child, when the event did not actually occur. Other false memories were being bullied as a child when this in fact did not occur.
Today’s skeptic considers dream interpretation to be a false science, especially with today’s evidence indicating that dream interpretation is false. Even so, though they are armed with science and data on their side, there are still people out there who believe in this pseudoscience.