Sorry, your dreams just aren’t that interesting

By Greg Stevens on September 30th, 2013

I have some bad news: your dreams are not that interesting.

Well, let me be specific. Of course they are interesting to you. We’ve all had quirky, weird, exciting and exhilarating dreams. Most people have dreams about being frozen, or being chased. Over a third of all people who remember their dreams reportedly have had dreams in which they fly. I once had a dream in which I had two penises. It’s all very odd and entertaining.

But dreams are not particularly meaningful. There are some hardcore Freudian psychologists and some New Age enthusiasts who will disagree; but according to the bulk of scientific data and theory on the subject, dreams are most likely nothing more than a story that your brain comes up with to explain random senses and memories that are triggered by “noise” in your nervous system while you sleep.

The memory fragments that are randomly triggered while you sleep might be very personal ones, or they might be fragments of memories that you have not consciously remembered in a long time. As a result, when your conscious mind struggles to “make sense” out of the activity that it experiences during sleep, the storylines and imagery that emerge can be deeply personal and emotionally charged.

They are not, however, especially profound. There is certainly no scientific reason to believe that they are “symbolic”, or express any underlying truths about your personality, your desires, or you spiritual condition. Dream interpretation texts, which tell you (for example) that dreaming about black snakes symbolizes “threats and challenges in your life”, have as much scientific basis as horoscopes and tea leaf reading.

This should come as a relief to our own Milo Yiannopoulos. Yiannopoulos recently discussed a Kickstarter for a project called Shadow: a dream journal app that will store what people are able to recall from their dreams in the “cloud” so that the information can be extracted and aggregated with the dream data of other users, which can then be analysed for trends and patterns.

Yiannopoulos expressed some discomfort with the idea that the people behind the Shadow project wanted to get their “greedy mitts” on his “most private cognitive states”. While this attitude is consistent with the privacy whinging popular in our culture today, it is rooted in a Victorian-era perception of the symbolic import and psychological depth of dream imagery.

The scientific view of dreams that I have described above is called the “Activation-Synthesis” model of dreaming, and was first proposed by John Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley in 1977. At the time, it was controversial because it contradicted Jungian and Freudian assumptions, from the prior century, that dreams were profoundly symbolic and meaningful, expressing everything from hidden wishes to the state of a person’s soul.

Sigmund Freud very famously associated most objects and events in dreams as symbolising something having to do with sex and repressed desires. Carl Jung, on the other hand, took a more spiritual approach and believed that certain elements that were common across people’s dreams represented a kind of “collective unconscious” that all of humanity had some kind of psychic access to.

“The shadow” was Jung’s nickname for the aspects of our own unconscious mind that we want to suppress or reject. According to his theory, the shadow is a primitive and hidden force in our personality. It is a part of ourselves that we don’t like, and don’t like to admit to. So the startup Shadow, probably on purpose, named their app after the creepiest part of Jung’s philosophy.

At any rate, there have been decades of scientific research and theory on dreams since Freud and Jung, including the activation-synthesis theory of the origin of dreams.

Admittedly, there is still a great deal that we do not know. Science has yet to discover whether dreams serve a mental or physiological purpose, such as the processing of memories or emotional experiences, or the repair of damaged neurological pathways. Scientists are also very interested in researching the details of how the brain functions during dreams, and how that function differs from brain function while awake or during a dreamless sleep.

But while these open questions abound, the status of the symbolic meaning of dreams is fairly solid: There is simply no evidence that dreams provide any kind of privileged, uncensored “window” into a person’s inner self.

The few cases where the imagery in a dream “represents” anything at all present themselves when an actual physical stimulus makes its way into your dream. So if you are looking for the “meaning” of events or objects in your dreams, you might look there. An alarm in your dream might actually be your alarm clock going off. A dream that your teeth are crumbling or falling out might mean that you grind your teeth in your sleep.

You should probably go to the dentist, if that’s the case.

This does not mean that keeping a “dream journal” can’t be personally interesting and fulfilling. People have been doing it for centuries. There is a great deal of evidence that keeping a “dream journal”, and habitually recording your memories of your dreams immediately after you awake, will improve your ability to remember dreams over time.

When I was 13, I read a book that suggested keeping a “dream journal” in order to encourage the triggering of lucid dreams. Lucid dreams are dreams in which you know that you are dreaming, and so can assume some degree of control over your actions. The technique worked, and I primarily used it to try to get dream-laid.

It is difficult, however, to see what an app like Shadow brings to the table. You don’t need an app in order to keep a dream journal. Moreover, numerous resources, such as DreamJournal.net, already exist to encourage people to record their dream data in public or semi-public databases across the internet.

Scientists G. William Domhoff and Adam Schneider at the University of California, Santa Cruz, have even collected public dream record data from DreamBank.net in order to perform semantic analysis on people’s dream recollections, and look for trends and patterns.

Will the Shadow app be able to find patterns, themes, and similarities in data aggregated across thousands of people? Of course it will. But none of it will be sinister, and none of it will be surprising, and none of it will represent any great invasion of privacy. It is doubtful that Shadow will reveal anything more about either individual or collective dream data than what has already been found by existing research.

It will tell us that people think about flying. And that many of them should go to the dentist. But that, I’m afraid, is probably it.