Is Looking for Meaning in Dreams, Well, …Silly?
There are many people, psychologically trained and not, who will tell you that they know the truth of meaning in dreams: “They’re absolute rubbish!”
“They’re just meaningless drivel”, they confidently assure us, “…pay them no heed.”
Well, are these people correct? Are /a-midlife-transitions who strive to identify the meaning of dreams the psychological equivalent of the members of some misguided cult of extraterrestial worshipers, who stand, staring hopefully (pathetically) into the heavens, waiting for the saucers to land, but alas, –They just aren’t coming!
The Materialistic, Brain-as-Computer Model
There are some in modern psychology who, right up to the present day, would understand dreams as some sort of byproduct of an essentially physiological function in the brain.
In 1977, the famous Harvard dream researcher J. Allan Hobson proposed a completely neurophysiological theory of dreams in which a “dream state generator” in the brain stem bombards the forebrain with random nonsensical misinformation, of which the forebrain (vainly) ties to make sense. Similarly, British psychologist/computer scientist Christopher Evans proposed that dreams were simply the brain’s “off-line time”, analogous to that of a computer. In much the same vein, Crick and Mitchison held that dreams were simply the brain dumping redundant information. None of this would suggest that dreams are much use to /a-midlife-transition.
The Age of Neuroscience & More Holistic Understandings of Dreams
However, as time has gone by, neuroscience methodologies have supplied new tools and perspectives to psychology, and evolutionary psychology has created new conceptual frameworks, as has a more holistic understanding of the human psyche.
By 1988, formerly hardcore materialist researcher J. Allen Hobson had changed his view of meaning in dreams:
I differ from Freud in that I think that most dreams are [not] obscure… but rather are transparent and unedited. They reveal clearly meaningful, undisguised and often highly conflictual themes worthy of note by the dreamer…. My position echoes Jung’s notion of dreams as transparently meaningful…
Or, as prominent Stanford dream researcher, William Dement, put it,
Only the dream can allow us to experience a future alternative as if it were real, and thereby to provide a supremely enlightened motivation to act upon this knowledge.
What We Know Now About Meaning in Dreams
Long before CT scans and fNMRs, pioneer case studies Sandor Ferenczi told us “Dreaming itself is the workshop of evolution”. But modern neuroscience techniques now confirm that dreaming enables us to enter into and share the phylogenetic programming of both the human and the mammalian past. Anthony Stevens marshals an array of evidence in support of this conclusion, including:
+ The emergence of dream sleep 130 million years ago, and its persistence across a wide range of species demonstrates that it is a neuropsychic activity of the greatest biological significance.
+ The findings that EEG theta rhythm, originating from a specific part of the paleo-mammalian brain, namely the hippocampus, is associated with the performance of crucial survival behaviours and memory storage, as well as with REM sleep lends weight to the additional hypothesis that in dreaming sleep… the human animal is updating strategies for survival in the light of its own experience and in the light of all the potential for experience specific to the species [italics mine].
In other words, there’s meaning in dreams, and both connection to the human past and to resources for dealing with the human present. As such, dreams have a meaningful place in /a-midlife-transition.
Brian Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Analyst