Dreams are made of better stuff

It was, according to the New York Times, a breakthrough in the study of dreams.

“(S)ocial scientists now have answers,” about what dreams “mean,” wrote Times science blogger John Tierny, “and really, it’s about time.”

He was referring to a meta-analysis published by the APA showing that “people engage
in motivated interpretation of their dreams and that these interpretations impact their everyday lives.”

In other words, there is a selection bias in the way we interpret dreams:  we’re more likely to act on the basis of dreams that reinforce our existing prejudices, and less likely to believe in dreams that tell us things we don’t want to hear.

Voila! Tierny wrote.  These “suspiciously convenient correlations” mean that your dreams mean “whatever your bias says.”  Problem solved.

Saybrook’s experts in dream studies are not impressed. 

“I find it interesting and not a little amusing that one should do studies to show that our cultures and belief systems influence how we interpret dreams,” says Claire Frederick, a faculty member in Saybrook’s Mind-Body Medicine and Consciousness and Spirituality programs.  “From a strictly neuroscience point of view, this seems obvious.”

People bring bias to EVERYTHING they do in life, Frederick pointed out.  The real news would be if the study had found dreams were any different. 

Just in the way we don’t say that the “meaning” of love is the biases people bring to it, or that the experience of anger means exactly what you’re predisposed to believe, Frederick says it’s ridiculous to think that a phenomenon as complicated as dreams can be reduced to a selection bias:  they don’t “mean” what you say it they do just because you say it.

“The logical premise that voting doesn’t make something true in and of itself is pretty well accepted,” she said. 

Psychology faculty member Ruth Richards, who teaches in Saybrook’s Consciousness and Spirituality program, pointed out that dreams are often multi-determined.  “They can mean many things at once from our own experience, regardless of what any given bias is,” Richards says.  They can also have meanings “beyond our experience – e.g., the collective unconscious.  Dreams are an entrée to some potentially deep issues, wishes, and other material.”

Psychology faculty Stanley Krippner, who is internationally known for his work on dreams, said that there probably is a selection bias involved in interpreting dreams.  And he’s glad that the research acknowledges that people do attribute meaning to dreams, despite the claim of some researchers that dreams are random and without meaning. 

“The negative part of the (Tierny) article,” Krippner says, “is that it neglects so much research on the topic. There are demonstrated gender differences in dreams, cultural differences in dreams, age differences in dreams, and so on – this strongly suggests that more than a waking selection bias is at work.”

The research also suggests that there is a strong therapeutic use to working through dreams in many cases – and Krippner worries that such by not taking that seriously, dream researchers can be demeaning to those who are trying to work through difficult issues. 

“Take a look at PTSD dreams,” says Krippner, who’s also studied the trauma of returning from war.  “They tend to replay the traumatizing event – rape, accidents, combat situations.  How can someone tell a woman who keeps dreaming about her gang rape, ‘That dream can mean whatever you want it to mean’?  That’s absolutely bad advice. The woman is attempting to deal closure on a traumatizing situation and simply can not do it with her own resources. To demean her dream is to trivialize her experience.”


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