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Can We Know What Dreams Mean? Essay Sample

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Can We Know What Dreams Mean? Essay Sample

Contrary to how others viewed him, Viktor Frankl neither practiced psychoanalysis nor accepted psychoanalytic theory.  However, along with psychoanalytic and other psychodynamic theorists, he did share the belief that an unconscious motive or need accounted for human behavior.  Frankl believed this need was for “meaning,” which seems to apply to a search for the meaning of dreams that can be traced back to ancient Greece (Robbins and Tanck 143 – 45). Indeed, the search for the meaning of dreams might be attributed to “the specifically human need to attribute a cause to the things that happen to us,” i.e., the occurrence of a dream initiates a search for its meaning (Marozza 700).

            According to Robbins and Tanck (143 – 145), the earliest theories were that dreams were predictions of the future or messages from the gods, theories still held by today’s supposedly “prescientific” cultures (143).  The researchers apparently missed the irony that in their own study, 17% of their college-student participants agreed that dreams predicted the future (144).  Although the researchers did not interpret reasons for such beliefs, people probably have many dreams about events that haven’t happened – resulting in a high probability that at least one will reflect reality.  That one “predictor” dream probably is what people remember, without considering all of their other dreams.

            Despite the ancient history of searching for the meaning of dreams, those who searched were philosophers and poets, not scientists.  Lewin (119) noted that Shakespeare’s plays, for example, indicated he understood that the emotions aroused by dreams generally were negative, centuries before dreams captured the attention of psychiatry late in the nineteenth century (Rodriguez 396 – 403). Indeed, psychologists and other social scientists generally have not attempted to study the meaning of dreams.

First, at least in America, the dominance of behaviorism during the first half of the twentieth century limited research to the study of observable behaviors (Watson 158 – 77).  By the middle of the last century, cognitive psychologists were studying both conscious and unconscious processes, such as perception, memory, and thinking, but they did so by making inferences based on observable behaviors (Hunt and Ellis 2 – 36).

In other words, cognitive psychologists have only addressed mental processes that can be studied by using the scientific method.  Thus, the scientific method has been used to answer questions such as “What do children’s errors in using language imply about syntactic development?” (Chomsky), but not questions such as “Does God exits?”  This paper is an assessment of whether the theories and studies of the meaning of dreams that began late in the nineteenth century have provided any evidence that the scientific method can be used to study the meaning of dreams.

Interest in Dreams

Why do we have such a special interest in the meaning of dreams, as opposed, for example, to the meaning of having a sandwich for lunch or enjoying Rap or lusting after the voluptuous bodies in Playboy or the “hot” hunks of MTV?  The answer begins with our lack of access to even the content of our dreams, in the sense that what we have are partial memories of out-of-context, often implausible dream fragments (Mageo 151 – 69).

Bartlett demonstrated that people’s memories of a story about a mythical culture (War of the Ghosts) were distorted in a direction consistent with their own culture, and Neisser (43 – 48) demonstrated that “flashbulb” memories were not camera-like representations of experiences, i.e., people could visualize with certainty that they were at home, drinking their morning coffee, when they heard on the news of President Kennedy’s assassination – but their diaries indicated, for example, that they were in another country at the time and they learn that the persons with them can visualize with equal certainty that they learned of the assassination when they saw the headlines in the newspaper.  Indeed, Loftus (83 – 87) has reviewed the robust evidence that people can come to believe they remember an entire experience that never occurred.

So the reconstructive nature of human memory has resulted results in our creating coherent full memories from fragments (Mageo 151 – 69), coherent – but meaningless in terms of our actual experiences or even impossible, e.g., floating on a cloud to enjoy a MacDonald’s quarter-pounder with a heavenly angel.  Because “dreams are only partially remembered – drifting on a shifting border between memory and forgetting…[stimulating] the need to remember…, [we] reconstruct the missing parts” (151).  Since our reconstructions generally do not match our actual experiences, we seem to demonstrate the title of Frankl’s book, “Man’s Search for Meaning.”

Theories of the Meaning of Dreams

            In a free association task, where one is required to respond to words as rapidly as possible, e.g., typically responding to the word “bread” with the word “butter” (Neely 226 – 54), most of us probably would respond to the word “dream” with the name “Freud.”  According to Lacun (Rogdriguez  396 – 403), Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, despite its flaws, was a “radical revolution…[affecting] everything involving not just the human sciences, but the destiny of man, politics, metaphysics, literature, the arts,…” (397).  Freud’s very language has produced household terms, such as “unconscious wishes,” “fixated at the anal stage,” “Oedipus complex,” “penis envy,” “libido,” etc., and despite deliberate efforts to alter language (e.g., “sexual intercourse” should now be described as “penile-vaginal intercourse”, American Psychological Association, 74), and there would be no Woody Allen movies if people were not “neurotic,” but instead suffered from “disorders.”

            Freud considered dreams “the royal road to … the unconscious” (168).  He interpreted dreams as having both manifest and latent contents.  The manifest content of a dream was what a person remembered dreaming, while the latent content was its unconscious repressed meaning.  (It’s noteworthy that Freudian repression foreshadowed the cognitive psychological distinction between forgetting and being unable to retrieve information, Hunt and Ellis 202 – 31).  Latent meaning was a result of needing to repress what is threatening or anxiety-provoking.

Free-associating to a dream’s manifest content was the “royal road” to its latent content, which Freud initially believed represented a true event, but came to believe represented fantasized wish-fulfillments .  (Not only did Freud foreshadow work cited above on memory distortions, but he also has been the subject of current personal attacks for altering his theory by those who believe that the young women in the 1990s scandal were reporting “recovered,” i.e., true, memories, Bowers and Farvolden 355 – 80.)

Although sex in the manifest content of the dreams of Freud’s clinical samples, mainly women, was rare, true also of non-clinical samples of men and women (Hall, Dornhoff, Blick, and Weeser, 188 – 94), the “royal road” led to sex, reflecting the Freudian theory of libido (or sexual energy). Kreege (171) made an interesting observation that Alice’s dream of “Wonderland” had the sexually innocent latent content of Lewis Carroll’s manifest sexual interest in little girls.

            Thus, for Freud, the meaning of a dream was an unconscious sexual wish or fantasy.  Though there has been no evidence confirming (or disconfirming) Freudian theory, it would be interesting to hear Freud’s interpretation of findings that though our (manifest) dreams are not about sex, men, women, and other mammals are sexually aroused when they dream, i.e., during the rapid-eye-movement (REM) or dream stages of sleep (e.g., Fisher 97 – 122; Hirshkowitz and Schmidt 311 – 29)!

            There are other theories that also are based on finding the unconscious meaning underlying our dreams.  These theories share with Freudian theory the belief that our dreams are manifestations of our unconscious needs (e.g., Hermans 163-75; Mageo 151 – 69).  Hermans proposed our unconscious needs were for “self-enhancement” and for close relationships with others (164).  “Self-enhancement” is a theory that has been used to account for distorting memories of ourselves in a positive direction (Wilson and Ross 572 – 84).

However, there has been consistent evidence that these positive biases also result when we remember others (Ross 341 – 352), even hypothetical others (Klar and Giladi 885 – 901) and instead are attributable to using scripts of culturally shared expectations to form and retrieve memories (e.g., Rubin and Bernsten 116 – 25).  Also, there is no empirical evidence of a need for close relationships.   Mageo (151 – 69) has proposed that the unconscious needs underlying our dreams are based on shared needs within cultures at varying times.  Based only on observations of popular themes in movies and television, Mageo proposed that in contemporary American culture, these underlying needs were for family and romantic relationships (159).

Theories Unrelated to Meaning

            There is the theory that while dreams do not reflect unconscious needs, they do serve a purpose.  There have been findings of brain signals, termed “theta rhythm,” in the hippocampus of the brain during REM sleep (Winson 54 – 61).  Since this area of the brain is active during activities involving memory, Winson has proposed that the purpose of dreams was to help preserve the memories we need for survival, and, more generally, since the same patterns have been found in other mammals, to preserve information needed for survival.

Consistent with this theory,  Winson noted that there was evidence that after learning a pattern identification task, memory for the task improved after an undisturbed night of sleep, but not after a night of being deprived of REM sleep.  Such findings should not be interpreted as support for the once popular notion that we could learn, for example, a foreign language by running a tape while we are asleep, i.e., Eich has provided evidence that people do not remember the content of tapes running while they were asleep.  There also is a theory that dreams are efforts to make sense of random neural activation during sleep (Antrobus 96 – 121).

What do dreams mean?

            Based on the research reported above, thus far, the meaning of dreams has been a question that the scientific method has not been able to answer.  But the persistent interest in dream interpretation does support Frankl’s theory that we do need to find meaning, whether in dreams or in any other events that defy understanding.  Frankl himself developed this theory when he was in a concentration camp during the Holocaust, a unique period in world history that could not be explained by theories of human behavior in civilized societies.  But his theory is rooted in an existential, as well as religious, assumption that life does have meaning.

            Thus, we may very well have a need to find meaning, but having a need does not mean it can be fulfilled.  We, of course, are free to use faith-based assumptions to fulfill any need, for example, creating Santa Claus to fulfill our children’s need for joy (or for whatever advertisers have convinced them they “need”) or assuming that ESP and communicating with spirits of the dead are realities in order to fulfill our own needs for control or for escaping the pain of losing a person we love.  So, perhaps dreams mean whatever we would like them to mean.  Why not believe that happy dreams predict the future or that dreams are messages from loved ones who have died?  Empirical support for such beliefs has been no weaker than empirical support for any of the theories that have been proposed to explain the meaning of dreams.

Works Cited

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Bartlett, F. C.  Remembering:  A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology.  1932. London:

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Bowers, K. S., and P. Farvolden.  “Revisiting a Century-old Slip:  From Suggestion Disavowed

            to the Truth Repressed.”  Psychological Bulletin 119 (1996):  355 – 380.

Chomsky, Noam.  Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, 1965.  Cambridge, MA:  MIT Press.

Eich, E.  Learning during Sleep, 1990.  Washington, DC:  American Psychological Association.

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Frankl, Viktor.  Man’s Search for Meaning, 1975.  New York:  Pocket Books.

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            Positive but Not Highly Negative Events.”  Memory & Cognition 49 (2003):

            116 – 125.

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Wilson, A., and Michael Ross.  “From Champ to Chump:  People’s Appraisals of Their

            Past and Current Selves.”  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 80

            (2001):  572 – 584.

Winson, Jonathan.  “The Meaning of Dreams.”  Scientific American 12 (2002):  54 – 61.

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