And so to dream…

The question of how seriously we can take our dreams and what we should make of their content is posed more cautiously and rationally than ever before, as Joshi Herrmann discovers

The interpretation of dreams is an age-old riddle.

There is evidence that human beings were recording and musing on their night-time “visions” in 5000 BC from clay tablets bearing markings discovered in the Middle East.

Decoding the images of dreams has, over the ages, influenced political decisions, artistic creations and even nations going to war. Today there is a mini industry placing personal meaning on those flashes of memory we retain when we wake.

A bizarre but popular A-Z of dream meanings suggests that seeing an abacus refers to outdated views while a zebra indicates harmony or that you are spending too much time on trivial matters.

Fabled psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud held that dreams were indications of our hidden desires and repressed childhood memories, so it can be a struggle to decide if we should give meaning to our dreams or simply forget and move on.

It is a fascinating realm of personal science and the research into dreams, known broadly as oneirology, is growing by using brain scanning, the laboratory-monitoring of sleepers and dream recording over months and years.

The big question is whether dreams have significant messages for us or are merely a jumble of experiences that have gathered souped-up significance up in a blender of brainwaves.

Senior lecturer in cognitive psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University, Caroline Horton, who specialises in dreams, says they are meaningful only in the sense that “they allow us a methodological tool for understanding memory”.

Dr Horton, who has examined the key question of continuity or discontinuity – how much overlap there is between our waking thoughts and experiences and our dreams – adds: “When we look at the content of dreams, they reflect very well the content of waking of lives. There is more overlap between our waking and sleeping thoughts than difference, both in terms of the content of dreams and also in terms of the way that we think.

“I would say dreams are useful, but not meaningful. They reflect what is going on in the brain during sleep, but they don’t necessarily add very much. I don’t subscribe to this typically Freudian or psychodynamic view that dreams reflect things that aren’t accessible to the conscious mind normally or that they reflect our deepest fears or desires.

“Some therapists do and they would use dreams to unearth people’s desires and wishes. There is absolutely zero evidence to suggest that the mind is structured in that way.”

Despite her and other academic views, dreams still have a huge resonance for many people. They help make sense of, or provide a sanctuary from, a cruel reality. The belief that they contain hidden truths crosses faiths and cultures.

Many of us have woken after dreaming of some catastrophic event with the feeling it was a genuine harbinger of doom, but the reality, according to many psychologists, is that it is a reflection of a person’s mood rather than a forewarning of incidents that will happen.

Dr Horton says: “We are likely to dream about memories from the previous day as well as from about a week before and we imagine that that is a reflection of some process of memory consolidation. We’re trying to link what is happening in dreams to what is happening with memory consolidation in sleep.”

But Dr Josie Malinowski, lecturer in psychology at the University of Bedfordshire, says: “New strands of research are currently looking into the personal insight that can be obtained by looking at dreams, with promising results. Recently there has also been direct evidence to suggest that dreams can highlight things we’re ignoring or suppressing during wakefulness.”