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An illustration of a woman with closed eyes and purple hair, surrounded by stars and crescent moons, is on the left. The word "DREAMS" is in all caps in the center-right, highlighting the importance of slumber. The bottom right corner has an icon of almonds with text reading "10 almonds.

How Useful Are Our Dreams

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What’s In A Dream?

We were recently asked:

❝I have a question or a suggestion for coverage in your “Psychology Sunday”. Dreams: their relevance, meanings ( if any) interpretations? I just wondered what the modern psychological opinions are about dreams in general.❞

~ 10almonds subscriber

There are two main schools of thought, and one main effort to reconcile those two. The third one hasn’t quite caught on so far as to be considered a “school of thought” yet though.

The Top-Down Model (Psychoanalysts)

Psychoanalysts broadly follow the theories of Freud, or at least evolved from there. Freud was demonstrably wrong about very many things. Most of his theories have been debunked and ditched—hence the charitable “or at least evolved from there” phrasing when it comes to modern psychoanalytic schools of thought. Perhaps another day, we’ll go into all the ways Freud went wrong. However, for today, one thing he wasn’t bad at…

According to Freud, our dreams reveal our subconscious desires and fears, sometimes directly and sometimes dressed in metaphor.

Examples of literal representations might be:

  • sex dreams (revealing our subconscious desires; perhaps consciously we had not thought about that person that way, or had not considered that sex act desirable)
  • getting killed and dying (revealing our subconscious fear of death, not something most people give a lot of conscious thought to most of the time)

Examples of metaphorical representations might be:

  • dreams of childhood (revealing our subconscious desires to feel safe and nurtured, or perhaps something else depending on the nature of the dream; maybe a return to innocence, or a clean slate)
  • dreams of being pursued (revealing our subconscious fear of bad consequences of our actions/inactions, for example, responsibilities to which we have not attended, debts are a good example for many people; or social contact where the ball was left in our court and we dropped it, that kind of thing)

One can read all kinds of guides to dream symbology, and learn such arcane lore as “if you dream of your teeth crumbling, you have financial worries”, but the truth is that “this thing means that other thing” symbolic equations are not only highly personal, but also incredibly culture-bound.

For example:

  • To one person, bees could be a symbol of feeling plagued by uncountable small threats; to another, they could be a symbol of abundance, or of teamwork
  • One culture’s “crow as an omen of death” is another culture’s “crow as a symbol of wisdom”
    • For that matter, in some cultures, white means purity; in others, it means death.

Even such classically Freudian things as dreaming of one’s mother and/or father (in whatever context) will be strongly informed by one’s own waking-world relationship (or lack thereof) with same. Even in Freud’s own psychoanalysis, the “mother” for the sake of such analysis was the person who nurtured, and the “father” was the person who drew the nurturer’s attention away, so they could be switched gender roles, or even different people entirely than one’s parents.

The only real way to know what, if anything, your dreams are trying to tell you, is to ask yourself. You can do that…

The idea with lucid dreaming is that since any dream character is a facet of your subconscious generated by your own mind, by talking to that character you can ask questions directly of your subconscious (the popular 2010 movie “Inception” was actually quite accurate in this regard, by the way).

To read more about how to do this kind of self-therapy through lucid dreaming, you might want to check out this book we reviewed previously; it is the go-to book of lucid dreaming enthusiasts, and will honestly give you everything you need in one go:

Lucid Dreaming: A Concise Guide to Awakening in Your Dreams and in Your Life – by Dr. Stephen LaBerge

The Bottom-Up Model (Neuroscientists)

This will take a lot less writing, because it’s practically a null hypothesis (i.e., the simplest default assumption before considering any additional evidence that might support or refute it; usually some variant of “nothing unusual going on here”).

The Bottom-Up model holds that our brains run regular maintenance cycles during REM sleep (a biological equivalent of defragging a computer), and the brain interprets these pieces of information flying by and, because of the mind’s tendency to look for patterns, fills in the rest (much like how modern generative AI can “expand” a source image to create more of the same and fill in the blanks), resulting in the often narratively wacky, but ultimately random, vivid hallucinations that we call dreams.

The Hybrid Model (per Cartwright, 2012)

This is really just one woman’s vision, but it’s an incredibly compelling one, that takes the Bottom-Up model and asks “what if we did all that bio-stuff, and then our subconscious mind influenced the interpretation of the random patterns, to create dreams that are subjectively meaningful, and thus do indeed represent our subconscious?

It’s best explained in her own words, though, so it’s time for another book recommendation (we’ve reviewed this one before, too):

The Twenty-four Hour Mind: The Role of Sleep and Dreaming in Our Emotional Lives – by Dr. Rosalind Cartwright


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