Do Dreams Have Meaning?

Henry Reed


(This brief essay appeared in the Association for the Study of Dreams Newsletter.)

Do dreams have meaning? Do they really mean anything? The question seems to go to the heart of our interest in dreams. I also appreciate his addressing some of the issues involved in that question, such as pointing out what we mean by "meaning."

Does life have meaning? That is perhaps a question that science can not answer, does not choose to attempt to answer. Perhaps that is a question better left to the humanities. I donít know. Speaking empirically, I can point to what people have done with their lives, how they have used their opportunities. I can point to the patterns of their behaviors, the patterns in their verbalizations, in their productions. I can point to patterns in history, I can see patterns repeated, and I can find analogous, or corresponding patterns, such as noting the correspondence between the rise, decline and fall of the Roman Empire, the rise, decline and fall of Drexel, the birth, flowering and death of a person.

An approach to meaning that most people ignore is that of pattern recognition and the correspondence between patterns. The correspondence may be direct and exact, analogous, or formal, as in mathematics. One understanding of meaning is that when we say that one thing means something we are saying that the patterns we see in it correspond to the patterns we see in something else. We may correlate the patterns we see in a personís life to patterns we perceive in the wisdom literature, or in history.

Does the sport of basketball mean anything? Throwing a basketball through a hoop, the rules of the game--do they mean anything? Was meaning intended by the designer of the game? Why do people get so excited by the game? We intuitively and emotionally respond to the correspondences between the patterns in the sport of basketball and patterns of effort, competition, risk taking and skill in our own lives.

I believe it is perhaps to miss the point to ask if dreams have meaning. Nothing can have meaning without reference to a corresponding pool of patterns with which to make the connection. Rather I would say, can you find patterns in dreams that correspond to patterns in peopleís lives? Are the correspondences of any interest?

Clearly the answer is yes. Dreams are a wealth of metaphors and analogies that pertain to important issues in peopleís lives. The clinical literature of dream interpretation is full of such data. It canít be denied.

One psychologist, Morton  Schatzman, declares that we can only be sure that a dream means something when it solves a problem. I believe he is stumbling onto a correlated hypothesis, partially related to a larger pattern of understanding the meaning of dreams suggest. When a dream solves a problem, it does so because someone can recognize that the patterns in a dream correspond to patterns in life, corresponds in such a way that a new set of relationships in that life situation (the problem) are now seen or revealed. To say that the "dream solved" (as if intended, purposeful, etc.) seems to throw him into the realm of having to deal with intentionality, or teleology, where here he succeeds in finding a positive answer, but remains neutral or negative in the remaining cases of dreams. Dreams that solve problems are merely cases where the observer can clearly recognize that there are patterns in the dream that are relevant and applicable to patterns in life for which the observer has a known, keen interest. Very likely other dreams also contain patterns relevant to other, unstated problems.

What Carl Jung, for example, tried to show through his extensive empirical study of the symbolic patterns in the worldís cultural output (mythology, literature, political activity, etc.) was that there are universal motifs, or patterns, of perceiving, responding and organizing life issues. Very often dreams present patterns that correspond to the universals in a concrete situation a person is confronting in their individual life. Many problems that confront us in life are basically unsolvable. They have to be lived with, dealt with as best we can. What is so special about dreams, Jung found, and many of us have been verifying his finding for ourselves, is that they often present patterns that when applied analogously to lifeís unsolvable problems, show us ways of living with those problems more satisfyingly--in ways that open us up to more meaning in our lives, finding more interconnections between the pattern of that problem and other areas of life.

The question of the interpretation of dreams should be reformulated to be the empirical one of, "what method of hunting for and revealing patterns in dreams yields the most numerous and most applicable, important, or practical, correspondences to patterns in a personís life?" Montague Ullmanís work with dreams, where he has people brainstorm the metaphors in a dream, demonstrates just how fruitful it can be to look for patterns in dreams and how they correspond with life issues. Ullmanís work is one answer, therefore, to the empirical question of how to interpret dreams.

Dreams are no different from other outputs of human life. They have meaning no more, no less, than other areas. That is, their meaning comes from the same activity of human perception that other areas get their meaning. From the pattern recognition activity of human beings. What you can not deny is that historically speaking, empirically speaking, it is a fact that dreams have contained patterns that people have recognized as corresponding to previously unrecognized patterns in their lives, patterns which when recognized, are responded to with emotional reactions of profound significance.

Here is where dreams "have special meaning." In this sense: Suppose I challenge you to find a source of patterns that will be used to draw analogies upon your life. I want the analogies to strike you emotionally, that is, to elicit involuntary responses in the sympathetic nervous system, and to influence, whether you "decide" or not, how you see your life in the future and respond to events. Where would you go for such a pool of patterns? To the encyclopedia? To the newspaper? I would direct you to your dreams. There you will find a pool of such patterns. If you look for them, you will be profoundly affected by how they affect how you organize and see patterns in your life.

Whether pattern recognition is a matter of discovery or invention is a question that is like a beautifully patterned thorny bush. Organs of perception seem mated to the type of sensory data they perceive. Our organ of pattern recognition, and the aspect of nature that gives it patterns to recognize, seem ideally mated. Some people wax religious when contemplating that fact. Historically, dreams have been a prime area for people to affirm that patterns do exist that enable people to see profound connections between themselves and life.