Dream Interpretation: Wisdom or Waffle?
Dream interpretation has been practiced throughout recorded history, but does it have a place in modern mental health treatment?
The earliest recorded dream interpretation dates back to Mesopotamia. In ancient Greece, the sick would sleep among non-venomous snakes in temples honoring Asclepius. In the morning, they would report their dreams to priests, who would then prescribe a cure. And dreams and their interpretation play an important role in the Old Testament.
In 1900, Freud renewed interest in the healing function of dreams with the publication of The Interpretation of Dreams. The use of dream interpretation in therapy and psychoanalysis became commonplace during the 20th century, and modern science probed the secrets of sleep and the dreaming mind.
Although science has not uncovered evidence that dreams contain meaningful messages, many clients come to therapy hoping to discuss dreams, and many therapists work with them. This is especially true of Jungian analysts, who receive extensive training in dream interpretation. If there is no scientific consensus on the meaning of dreams – or even if they have meaning – what are we doing when we interpret dreams in therapy?
Uses of Dreams
Most clinicians experienced in dream interpretation are aware of its helpfulness in diagnosis. I once had a young person bring me unusual dreams. They were disjointed and full of unsettling images, such as cats with seven eyes. Her dreams also featured frequent images of dismemberment.
I asked my supervisor whether there might be cause for concern that this young woman had psychotic tendencies. “Yes,” my supervisor responded simply. Though I never would have given this young person a diagnosis based on her dream imagery, when she did have a full psychotic break a few months later, I was prepared for it. Her dreams had warned me.
Regular dream work in therapy can turn up the heat on the process of self-change, as it serves as a kind of conversation with our unconscious. Our dreams will tell us honestly where our conscious attitude might be out of balance or inappropriate.
One woman with whom I worked came to treatment feeling vaguely depressed and dissatisfied, though she couldn’t say why. In her waking life, she was very committed to her job in finance. Her sense of identity was wrapped up in her career success and the status it conferred.
Her dreams frequently involved someone stealing her briefcase or her company ID. Together, we began to understand that some part of her knew that she had outgrown her job and the narrow identity it imposed. She would need to give these up so that she could grow into a larger version of herself.
Dream Interpretation: What to Avoid
Engaged with sensitivity and care, dreams can help us explore our inner life. However, if dreams are not approached with skill, their helpful messages may be misinterpreted. This can even lead to harm. Dream interpretation has been implicated as a technique that can result in the creation of false memories.
Interpretations that rely on fixed symbols such as “snake = fear” are overly simplistic and don’t consider the specific snake that turned up in the dream, or the dreamer’s unique feelings about snakes. Dream meanings are layered and complex, and context is vitally important.
I recall discussing a dream with a group of analysts that involved bees. Several of us immediately jumped to images of golden honey before the person who brought the dream had a chance to inform us that the dreamer was allergic to bee stings. Obviously, this changed the meaning of the image.
Dreams are deeply mysterious and can likely never be fully understood. Anyone who professes otherwise is guilty of hubris. Therapists who are ready to tell you what your dream means should be avoided. You alone are the expert on your dreams. While a seasoned practitioner may be able to spark new ways of understanding dreams by asking questions or sharing reflections, the dreamer is the final arbiter of whether a given interpretation is accurate.
Poetry of the Soul
There may be no empirical evidence in support of the theory that dreams are meaningful. Jung himself stated that this was an assumption he needed to make “in order to find courage to deal with dreams at all” (Vol 16, para 318). This absence of a scientific rationale for working with dreams shouldn’t stop us from being curious about them, wondering at them, or interpreting them.
We don’t need science to tell us that poetry has meaning. We know instinctively that a beautiful poem conveys something of deep significance and that it is worth our time to ponder it.
Dreams are the poetry of our soul, our unconscious mind speaking to us in the only language it has – that of symbols and images.
When we approach our dreams with reverence and curiosity, we communicate to our unconscious that we value it, and that we are interested in hearing what it has to say, even if we don’t always understand. Our interest in our dreams can deepen our engagement with our inner world, and this is turn can contribute to a sense of meaningfulness and purpose in life.