The dreamers' dream: what does it mean?

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Carey Morewedge of Carnegie Mellon University and Michael Norton of Harvard conducted a series of studies of more than 1,000 people from three countries — India, South Korea and the United States - to see how people relate to their dreams (NY TIMES). Some findings:

  • the majority in all three countries believed that dreams reveal important unconscious emotions
  • these people considered dreams to be valuable omens: if they dreamed of a crash on the eve of a plane flight, they were more likely to cancel the trip than if they saw news of an actual plane crash on their route.
  • when asked to recall their own dreams, people tend to attach more significance to a negative dream if it was about someone they disliked, and they gave correspondingly more weight to a positive dream if it was about a friend.

These findings hardly surprised, especially in light of modern theories about dreaming. You may find deep, spiritual meaning to your dreams just as Carl Jung did many years ago, and they may very well reveal important universal secrets, or at the very least, our collective unconscious knowledge.

But if you ask a dream researcher, or a neuroscientist/psychologist, you may find their responses a bit more wishy washy. "What do YOU think?" may frustrate you to no end. Our modern understanding of dreams is that it is our brain's attempt to make meanings of random firings while we sleep, some of which may be a rehearsal/review/reinterpretation of what we've pondered during the day. Since meaning making is being made, some psychologists argue that the figures in our dreams are more likely symbolic of parts of our self or what we're going through in our life. If we consider what a friend represents to us, his/her action in our dream may carry meanings devoid of actual interactions with the friend - that is, just because the friend is killing us in our dream with a blunted knife, it does not necessarily mean the friend is a reluctant backstabber; it may not even have anything to do with the friend at all. We are, after all, the director of our dreams, not our friend. Possible interpretations of such a dream may be that we feel our friend has betrayed us/is more likely to betray us, or if it's a close friend, we may feel like we have shot our self in the foot or sabotaged our self.

Dr. Morewedge and Dr. Norton note that dreams can be indicators of people’s emotional state, as evidenced by other researchers’ findings of a correlation between stress and nightmares.

In light of our understanding that dreaming is the brain's attempt at making sense of bodily firings, the other factor that comes into play is our emotional state. The follow up questions to the clarification of what each symbol in the dream means to the dreamer are "what did you feel while dreaming" and "how do you feel about it now?" While symbols can have different interpretations, emotions are more direct in their expression in dreams. Our reaction to what the dream means to us now, after an interpretation or two, is indicative of what we feel about such possibilities. If, rather than being angry, we feel sad about the friend backstabbing us, there may be a desire of reconciliation / better connection (with self or with said friend) instead of a vengeful need to disconnect.

So while there may be a host of possibilities for dream interpretations, there are ways in which you can make them more useful for you. If you were to defer to someone else to do your dream interpretation, just make sure that this person is not in the driver's seat - that's the equivalent of a critic telling a director what kind of a picture he's trying to make. Though glimpses of the overall picture and the path to this end can be facilitated by someone else, just like many other life's subjective endeavours, as the captain of your own ship, it will go where you steer it.

There's an important caveat to all this dream interpretations though:
Dreams can also become self-fulfilling prophecies simply because people take them so seriously, Dr. Morewedge and Dr. Norton say. Dreams of spousal infidelity may lead to accusations and acrimony that ultimately lead to real infidelity.
“When friends and loved ones have disturbing dreams,” Dr. Morewedge suggested, “one may need to do more than say, ‘It was just a dream.’ It may also be a good idea not to tell people about their undesirable behavior in your dreams, as they may infer that your dreams reveal your true feelings about them.”



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