Since the dawn of time humans have been fascinated by their dreams. Virtually every culture has developed superstitions and beliefs regarding our strange nightly adventures.
More than any other belief, the idea that our dreams can be interpreted is one of the most universally held.
Indeed, if you google the word "dreams" you'll be bombarded with links to websites claiming they are able to help you to interpret the secret messages hidden in your dreams.
It's certainly peculiar that humans throughout history share a belief that dreams hold cryptic messages, but is this fact or fiction?
Is Dream Interpretation Real?
The vast majority of dream interpretation books and websites are absolute hokum, offering little more than fictional explanations based on irrational and superstitious thinking.
The worst offenders are the "dream dictionaries" which offer bite-sized explanations for any dream theme you can imagine; Dream of falling? - You're feeling out of control. Dream of being chased? - You're trying to escape a repressed memory.
Worse still, some dream dictionaries even go as far as to claim your dreams offer a clairvoyant glimpse of the future:
Dream of crows? You'll soon receive bad news.
While these answers may sound appealing, or even occasionally reasonable, they are based on nothing more than the author's imagination. There is zero evidence or reason why such interpretations would have any relation to reality.
The Science of Dream Interpretation
Every now and then you'll stumble across a "dream interpretation expert", often these are scientists or psychologists who offer what seem to be a more reasonable and modern explanation of dream symbolism.
However, the basis for modern dream interpretation shares more in common with ancient superstitious thinking than science.
While entire systems of dream interpretation exist, be they based on the work of Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud or Fritz Perlz, it is important to remember that these too are based on little more than conjecture, assumptions, and a creative use of metaphor.
There is certainly no good reason to assume that any of these explanations have any bearing on reality.
Can Dreams be Interpreted?
A dream uninterpreted is like a letter unopened - The Talmud
The core problem with the belief in dream interpretation is the assumption that dreams hold a hidden message. There is certainly no good reason to think that dreams are "unopened letters from the unconscious".
The simple truth is, that as it currently stands, we do not know why we dream.
One of the most plausible current theories for dreaming is that dreams are involved in memory consolidation. In other words, our dreams are the brain's way of taking new information and incorporating it into our storehouse of memories.
The brain is an incredibly complex piece of computational biology, and consciousness remains one of the most stubborn of riddles. So, it goes without saying that the process in which our brains process and store memories, and how these are incorporated into our conscious experience, will appear very mysterious when observed without an understanding of these processes - and dreams certainly fit that criteria!
Moreover, the idea that every human brain uses an identical set of symbolism undermines our individuality, and the uniqueness of your journey through life. Is it really plausible that an Amazonian tribeswoman's dream symbolism would match that of a Brooklyn hot-dog vendor?
If anything, the concept that "dreams are unopened letters from the unconscious, waiting to be interpreted" has everything backwards. Instead, it is more likely that dreams are like letters being sent from waking reality to our unconscious mind; they are the brain making sense of the strange reality it inhabits.
In simple language, the strangeness of dreams reflects the complex ways in which the human brain processes and makes sense of our world.
How to Interpret Dreams?
When attempting to make sense of dreams, there is one major hurdle - we are always working in retrospect - our dreams are experiences that we recall rather than live.
Wouldn't it be wonderful to stand in the world of dreams and explore the meaning of the dream while it happens?
Fortunately such an ability is possible, and it is known as "lucid dreaming".
Lucid dreaming offers us the chance to be awake and aware within our dreams, and to dream consciously.
Rather than work with fuzzy memories of dreams, lucid dreaming gives you the chance to interact with the dream world as it happens. It's a hands-on field trip into the world of dreams!
While it is unlikely that you'll find hidden messages within your dreams, and even less likely that they will foretell the future, they are certainly a fascinating glimpse into the processes of the mind, your personality, and your unique psychological landscape.
Just because your dreams aren't trying to send cryptic messages, doesn't mean that there is not a lot you can learn from them!
Lucid dreaming offers those interested in dreams a chance to experiment and explore the concept of dream interpretation directly, without being bogged-down by irrational beliefs or dusty old theories steeped in dogma.
Perhaps we've been asking the wrong question all along... Rather than asking "what do my dreams mean?", maybe a better question would be "what does it mean to dream?".