This is Part 2 in the series “The Psychology of Dreams”. Read Part 1 here.
Many people, including many Psychologists and the so-called dream experts, believe that dreams can and should be interpreted because they have meaning that the dreamer must decode to increase self-understanding, work on personal growth, and improve quality of life. There is a plethora of books, guides, manuals, handbooks and dictionaries on dream interpretation written by psychics, scientists, psychologists and dream experts.
Although I have studied Psychology for six years, I believe dream interpretation is almost entirely speculation, highly subjective, and unscientific. So I don’t believe that dreams can or should be interpreted.
Let me explain.
Most dreams are illogical and make no sense at all. Dreams are “imagination run wild”, as a prominent dream researcher William Domhoff puts it. Some interpretations do make sense but are so obvious that you don’t need an expert or a book to tell you what your dream means.
Let’s say you dream about your crush. The obvious meaning that even a child could interpret is that you’ve been thinking of your crush in your waking hours, and even if you are not consciously thinking of your crush, it’s obviously at the back of your mind somewhere in your subconscious because you are aware that you have a crush on this person. So there’s no need to dig deeper to interpret the hidden meaning of this dream.
Now, suppose you have dreams about having a romantic relationship with someone you could never even think of having such relationship with in your real life. E.g. parent, sibling, teacher, boss, etc.
Why would you want to interpret this preposterous dream? What useful information do you think could come out of it? You will only complicate your life if you try to interpret such dreams.
We are hardwired to look for patterns, which is an important skill from an evolutionary perspective because it helps us in making decisions and judgements and knowledge acquisition. But this tendency to see patterns everywhere and in everything can make us see things that just do not exist.
For example, the fans and followers of Benazir Bhutto seeing her face in the sky or moon, gullible Muslims in Pakistan seeing the names of Allah, Muhammad and Ali in the clouds, potatoes and what not, people around the world hearing secret messages encoded in music which they can hear when they listen to the music backwards, seeing faces on Mars, seeing Virgin Mary on a piece of toast, etc.
That’s why dream interpretation is as pointless as opening a random book to a random page number, reading the first line you see and thinking it’s a message from God or spirits or whatever.
When we try to interpret dreams, we complicate our lives unnecessarily by seeing patterns that are not there.
One major problem with dream interpretation (and horoscopes, fortune-telling, palmistry) is that the language used is extremely vague and the things they talk about are so common that they could apply to every single person on this planet.
My dreams of being chased by dinosaurs and King Kong, like all other dreams, can be interpreted in at least 3 different ways. According to Dreammoods.com,
To see a dinosaur in your dream symbolizes an outdated attitude. You may need to discard your old ways of thinking and habits.
To dream that you are being chased by a dinosaur, indicates your fears of no longer being needed or useful.
Alternatively, being chased by a dinosaur, may reflect old issues that are still coming back to haunt you.
Now, how do I decide which of these three interpretations is true for me? All three interpretations could apply to everyone who has had this dream.
Who doesn’t have outdated attitudes about certain things in their life?
Who hasn’t been afraid of being unwanted and being abandoned in their life?
Who doesn’t have old issues that haunt them for the rest of their lives?
That’s why I think, at least for me, the dinosaur dreams are most likely the result of watching too many Jurassic Park and King Kong movies, and not because some old issues are coming back to haunt me because there’s no way I could ever prove that.
Google any dream and you will find hundreds of websites with many different interpretations for the same dream. For example, dreams of falling teeth are universal and Internet is chock-full of interpretations of this dream. This article alone gives so many different interpretations for the same dream.
Let’s take the first three interpretations:
How are you going to figure out which of these interpretations fits your dream? Even if you think one of these interpretations fits your dream, how can you be sure it is correct? What if all three interpretations match your situation?
To me, the first interpretation is a very reasonable one. The part about research is very common sense if you think about it. Menopausal women are women around 45 or 50 years of age. It’s understandable they must be worried about getting old, the natural process of aging and the health problems that come with it. Loss of teeth is a common sign of aging so we can safely assume that menopausal women must be thinking about losing teeth more often than younger women. That’s why they dream about their teeth more frequently than younger women, since dreams are directly connected to our thoughts and our mental and emotional states. According to William Domhoff,
“More than 70 percent of dreams are personal—typically dramatized enactments of significant personal concerns about the past, present, and future. The frequency of a given topic reflects the intensity of that concern in the dreamer's life.”
But….I was curious so decided to dig a little deeper and could not find even a single study about menopausal women and teeth dreams. One sign of credibility for any credible source of information is that they cite their sources. But none of the so-called dream interpretation handbooks had either cited the research they mentioned, or provided any reference to the study. I saw this interpretation worded exactly the same in at least 3 different dream interpretation handbooks with no mention of their sources. Apparently, every dream interpretation handbook borrows its content from previous dream interpretation books and none of them has any idea what they are talking about.
Confirmation bias is a cognitive bias that refers to our tendency to selectively look for information that confirms our existing beliefs, while, at the same time, ignoring or undervaluing the information that contradicts our existing beliefs.
If you believe black cat is bad omen or a sign of bad luck, and you dream of a black cat, you would interpret the dream as a negative dream and believe that you’re probably going to receive some bad news or something is going to go terribly wrong for you. You will then selectively notice everything that goes wrong in your life (which confirms your existing belief of black cat being a bad omen) while ignoring all the good things happening in your life (which contradicts your existing belief of black cat being a bad omen). You will then jump to the conclusion, thanks to your confirmation bias, that black cats are, indeed, a sign of bad luck.
Now, this doesn’t end here. If you interpret the dream of a black cat as a sign of bad luck, you will most likely spend your days obsessing over what could go wrong, which could lead you to make wrong decisions or avoid taking a decision that could potentially change your life for the better. Ultimately, something bad would happen, or something good that was going to happen but wouldn’t, BECAUSE you were obsessing over it and behaved differently than you would have if you had not had the dream, NOT because you dreamed of the black cat. This will also confirm your belief that black cats bring bad luck. This is called Self-Fulfilling prophecy.
Ironically, Confirmation Bias and Self-Fulfilling Prophecy are two phenomena that explain how superstitions work.
Since I am not superstitious, a black cat to me means just that: a cat that happens to be black. And I can remember having at least one dream of black cat and I also remember that nothing wrong or bad happened after I had that dream. Or, may be, something did go wrong, but I didn’t connect it to the black cat dream simply because I don’t believe in black cat being a bad omen.
I have also had a black cat cross my path a couple of times when I was on my way to work. It didn’t bring any bad luck to me, because superstitions are ill-grounded and are a manifestation of our flawed cognition.
The point I am trying to make here is that our irrational beliefs and dream interpretations can potentially have a negative impact on our lives, only if we let them.
A lot of research has been conducted on dreams, its process and content, but dream interpretation (also called dream analysis or dream symbolism) as a field of study is NOT science because there is no body of scientific research that conclusively shows what certain dream symbols or metaphors mean. Dream interpretation also lacks the ability to be falsified and replicated, which are two of the key criteria that separate science from non-science.
Yes, there is a lot of literature available on dream interpretation. There are dream dictionaries that are meant to be used for interpretation of different objects, symbols or metaphors that you see in dreams. But existence of literature and dictionaries is not the proof of the veracity of dream interpretation as a legitimate and scientific field of study. Most of the interpretations in these books or dictionaries are based entirely on anecdotal evidence, speculation, or you can say hearsay, as well as religious texts, and cannot be verified using the scientific method. There is no scientific research to back up these interpretations.
That’s why, at this point in time, most of dream interpretation is unscientific.
Mind you, opinions of Psychologists and dream experts are just that, opinions, or expert opinions, which is the weakest form of scientific evidence, so just because your psychologist said your dream means xyz, it doesn’t make it true, unless he has enough evidence from empirical research to back up his claims.
This, however, doesn’t mean that all interpretations are wrong; some are spot-on, for e.g. I dream that I need to pee but I am unable to find a toilet: The simplest, most obvious and common sense interpretation is that my bladder might be full and this dream is just a way my brain is telling me to wake up and go to the toilet. But no book, dictionary or an expert is required to decode such dreams; they are that simple and obvious.
Authority bias is another cognitive bias that refers to our tendency to blindly accept, believe, follow and be influenced by the opinions of authority figures.
You will even find neuroscientists and psychologists, as well as self-proclaimed ‘Dream Experts’ interpreting dreams, and as I mentioned earlier, there are so many books and dictionaries for dream interpretation that are written by scientists, psychologists and dream experts.
You’ll be tempted to think that because these are scientists, psychologists and experts, therefore whatever they say must be true.
But you’ll be grossly mistaken because that’s not how science works.
Scientific theories and research have less to do with what the scientists think or say, and more to do with what they are able to find evidence for, or against.
So, a book on dream interpretation written by a scientist is not scientific, unless he can back his interpretations up with strong evidence from empirical research.
Patrick McNamara, a neuroscientist, emphasizes (and I second) that such scientists “do a dis-service to both their readers and to the study of dreams as they know full well that there are no data to support any particular interpretative scheme over another”.
Dreams can carry different meanings to different people. That’s why dream interpretations are highly subjective, highly speculative and unfounded and we have more reasons NOT to believe in dream interpretation, as discussed in this article.
You can interpret your dreams all you want, see things that aren’t there, notice patterns that are random and infer whatever you want. But know that dreams are NOT revelations or secret or hidden messages from God or spirits or your dead relatives. Because if God or spirits or your dead relatives want to say something to you, the best way to do so would be to show you simple and clear dreams that are not open to interpretation, instead of garbled up nonsense that you have to pay someone to decode.
If you still want to interpret your dreams, keep the following in mind:
Until science gives us some scientific basis to base these interpretations on, I suggest we do what William Domhoff recommends, that:
"...unless you find your dreams fun, intellectually interesting, or artistically inspiring, then feel free to forget your dreams."
If you ask me, I don’t take my dreams seriously and don’t interpret them. For me, they are no more than fiction novels or movies created by my brain to keep itself entertained while my body catches up on sleep.
Besides, I love watching all sorts of horror, disastrous and apocalyptic movies. So I don't really mind having such dreams because they are better than movies, in the sense that in movies I am just a third-person, silent spectator, but in my dreams, I am the protagonist, experiencing everything first-hand as if it was happening in real.
And that’s the beauty of dreams.