Dreams have to be interpreted subjectively. Only you know what the various scenes, signs and symbols mean. There are many books available, more or less in dictionary format, that attempt to tell you what individual elements of dreams might signify. They're useless, although by drawing upon common human experiences, they sometimes sound about right but only if you share the general culture of the author, where you might decide that certain things have agreed-upon meanings. It's still best to count them as speculative waffle, especially in any universal or absolute sense. However fascinating dreams are, they are not magically linked to some universal lexicon of specific meanings that your brain draws upon. Across the world's religions, each interpret dreams in a way that supports local beliefs1; but their contradictory collective conclusions simply most be mostly, or entirely, incorrect. Misunderstandings of the psychology of dreaming has led to many untrue and zany beliefs2; they also cannot predict the future: this is why no dream diary manages to contain actual specific unguessable facts that haven't yet been revealed.
There are many books available, more or less in dictionary format, that attempt to tell you what individual elements of dreams might mean. Massive encyclopedias can inform us, in best Freudian style, the hidden meaning behind objects and occurrences3. They're all useless waffle. The best method of dream interpretation is to work out why certain things are in your dreams and what they mean for you. The largest collection of dreams collected scientifically is by psychology professor Calvin Hall over a forty-year period. Across cultures, the common theme is that people tend to dream of things related to "personal experiences from the previous days or week"3.
The perceptions in dreams come largely from free association. Our brain thinks it is receiving inputs, hearing things, feeling things, seeing things, when in reality they're firings from stray neurones and an over-sensitive nervous system4. Our brain tries to interpret what these false stimuli mean. The interesting part comes in analysing the way in which your brain interprets the incoming data.
Often what occurs in our dreams is what is on our minds during the previous days. The more urgently something presses on our minds, the most affect it has on our dreams. But it's not always simple. Anxiety, or general emotions, will translate into things in your dreams. This is one area where dictionaries of dreams try to help. They will state that, for example, dreaming of ants is to be dreaming about productivity at work. This is simply because as most people associate ants with busy activity, if you have work-related thoughts in your head, your brain might find the association with ants. Once the concept of "ants" is invoked during a dream, some of the interpretive mechanisms in your brain will deduce that the (meaningless) input coming from your senses could be ants.
Because our brains whirl round, sending thoughts around the limbic system, once an idea is there it will stay for a while. Our brains try to make patterns; so once the random sensory input has been associated with ants (sticking to our example), then it will continue to interpret some of the input as ants. Our brain therefore inserts objects and chances into the frames of our mind, and strings them all together with a narrative. Such is the nature of our unregulated consciousness working with free associations.
So, YOU have to figure out why your brain has certain things on its mind, and what the general emotions in your dream are. No-one else knows for sure why you have the associations that you have in your dreams. This is common sense subjectivism! This common sense approach to dream interpretation is not new:
“The most comprehensive work on dreams to come to us from the ancient times are the five books of dream interpretation written by Artemidorus who lived in Italy in the second century. He held a sophisticated view of dream interpretation believing that the same dream could have a different meaning depending on the character and circumstances of the individual dreamer.”
"Origin of Dreams, the" by Joseph Griffin (1997)5
Dream content relates to real-life events over the previous days plus portions of what is on your mind at the time.
“Environmental circumstances influence dream content. Dreams reported after awakenings by investigators in the home have more aggressive, friendly, sexual, or success-and-failure elements than those reported in the laboratory; but in both cases most are duller than would be supposed. Anxiety-provoking films seen prior to sleep can lead to dreams containing related themes. Events occurring around the sleeper during dreams are often incorporated, so that, for example, the words 'Robert, Robert, Robert' spoken to a sleeper led to his reporting a dream about a 'distorted rabbit'.”
He continues to state that "the dreams of one individual are different from those of another: dreams this reflect both day-to-day psychological variations and enduring individual traits".
Don't be tempted to make things too complex or convoluted whilst looking for meanings. Only take things one step! Only look for deeper meanings that make emotional sense to you: Your brain will not come up with stuff that is alien to you. Sometimes meanings are plainly obvious. If you dream of your partner being dishonest; don't look too far for a potential meaning! It means you're concerned about her being dishonest! It means you have dishonesty on your mind for some reason; it could be your own dishonesty or your mistrust of her. You could, if we want to add one level of complexity, say that you're consciously, or subconsciously, concerned that you don't feel you trust her enough (or vica-versa).
There are problems about the idea that some dreams predict the future. The first problem is what skeptical thinkers call selection bias, where by ignoring masses of data, you mislead yourself into accepting an erroneous theory at the expense of a more mundane explanation:
“We often hear of stories citing examples of dreams that came true. This would seem to suggest a power of the mind that goes beyond known physical capabilities. However, in this case, a strong selection process is taking place whereby all the millions of dreams that do not come true are simply ignored. Unless otherwise demonstrated, a plausible explanation that must first be ruled out is that the reported dream came true by chance selection out of many that had no such dramatic outcome.”
"God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist"
Prof. Victor J. Stenger (2007)7
Secondly, dream diaries. These are used in sleep studies to record all dreams. When sleep diaries are used, none of the dreams that are written down turn out to predict the future. This means that there is something retrospective about the way we interpret dreams. In other words, when something happens during our day, we subconsciously re-interpret a previous dream in a way that makes it seem like it predicted what just happened. This active memory manipulation is simply part of the normal way the human brain works as it engages in pattern-recognition instincts, however, when applied to dreams our inbuilt cognitive methodology leads us to falsely interpret events, leading us to fantastic conclusions. When dreams are tested, by writing all of them down every morning, we soon find that our ability to re-interpret them to fit later events disappears.
The idea that dreams can be a window to prophecy is one that has enjoyed various degrees of popularity at various times in history. It is of course simply another version of the idea that dreams can tell the future, only, it is phrased in more spiritual and religious terms. In classical Greece there were temples dedicated to the art of having a good night of dreaming. The anticipation and expectation of prophecy meant that almost anything in a dream could be given great meaning.
“Sleeping-chambers were added to many temples, and here, after pious ceremonies and fervent prayers, men laid themselves down in full expectation of revelation during their sleep: and no matter how absurd, how incoherent the dream proved to be, the dreamer seemed always able to reconcile it to circumstances... [...] We must not forget that these species of oracles were held in the highest estimation during the most enlightened period of Greece; and of all her nations, none believed in them more devoutly than Sparta.”
What would it mean if dreams can tell the future?
It might mean that there is no free will, and that once a dream has occurred, all free will creases to exist - otherwise, the dream is just a guess about what people might. If the dream correctly cognizes what people will do, then, those people no longer have a free choice.
Information Time Travel. Somehow, information from the future has travelled back in time into the present. Not only that, but, it's done so in a format and language that a human brain can understand. Why would it do this? And why would it manifest in dreams? Information has no willpower of its own, no matter how important the vision is for someone in particular in history.
There are so many ramifications if dreams predicted the future, that more mundane explanations are much more likely. But these complicated implications are simply not on the mind of those who are persuaded that dreams can predict the future, because, they are convinced by simple ideas, and don't pursue the kind of skeptical thinking that is required to understand reality.
Dreams often feel ominous, personal and auspicious. Before we had modern understandings of the neuronal basis of mind, they were often given spiritual and religious significance2,9. But, between cultures and communities, there have been too many contradictory results for dreams to unify religion or provide a useful basis for understanding reality. Native Americans were sure of the meanings of their dreams10, and yet, the Chinese were sure of completely different meanings; likewise Christians and Hindus have dreams that affirm their own outlooks. Instead of religious interpretations, it is the biological 'random' model that has been proven to be correct. The meaning of dreams is personally and culturally subjective, without a specific applicability to religion, and without any real link to supernaturalism.
Dreams are given most attention in historical primal religions and popular religion11 but stable and established doctrinal religions come to disregard dreams because their unpredictability too often contradicts official scripture, causing unregulated outbursts of charismatic leadership and rebellion, that make religion difficult to control. Supernatural interpretations of dreams can still be embraced by smaller supernaturalist groups and new religious movements, who are more adaptable in what direction they take.
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