Scientists still have yet to reach a definitive conclusion on why we become itchy or why our fingertips prune when we immerse them in water for too long.
The same goes for dreams. Many theories have been espoused as to why we dream, a lot of them concerning activities in the brain. Some say dreams help the brain make room for tomorrow by cycling through the day’s events to store things in long term memory or get rid of them. Others say they are evolutionarily advantageous because they provide us with the opportunity to practice our response to emotionally disturbing events. Sometimes when I tell people I work with dreams they’ll reference one or another theory, or simply reply that dreams don’t have any meaning, they are just a random firing of neurons that go off while we sleep.
After over four years of careful study of my own dreams, I know that for myself there is no study or experiment that could ever prove to me that my dreams don’t have any meaning. Like many purely subjective experiences, I think dreams will always be somewhat elusive to scientific study. I believe that my dreams, and thus dreams in general, have meaning because through Archetypal Dreamwork I have discovered a way of understanding dreams that is extremely compelling to me. By the same token, I would never try to convince someone that dreams have meaning if they are sure that they don’t, or try to persuade anyone to believe that the way they interpret their dreams is wrong compared to my method. This is because dreams only have meaning to the extent that individuals find meaning in them. If someone doesn’t think their dreams have any meaning, then they don’t.
At the same time, the notion that dreams have some meaning is hardly controversial. Why is it that so many people wake up after a particularly intense dream and have the thought, what did that mean? Why do people often wonder, what is my dream trying to tell me? Why is dream interpretation one of the oldest and most universal methods humans have used to understand themselves and draw conclusions about their future? All of this seems to point to some collective, albeit non-scientific, understanding that dreams are not simply meaningless and random.
Perhaps the biggest indication of this tendancy to believe dreams mean something is the dual meaning of the word dream in English. To have a dream means the nighttime experience of images and emotion and a strongly desired goal. We seem to have an implicit understanding built into our language that there is some connection between our nightly visions and our daytime aspirations. It’s mysterious why this word has come to mean both the dynamic experiences that visit us each night and our deepest and wildest desires.
I don’t think any of these questions can be appropriately answered by science. No experiment could be designed to explain precisely why so many individuals find meaning in the Mona Lisa. Theories could be developed, but could just as easily be disproven by one individual’s experience that differs from the theory. Yet, we would not then conclude that the painting has no meaning at all. To me the process of finding meaning in your life through paintings, music, poetry, or other arts is the same process of finding meaning in your dreams. Even if the process of Archetypal Dreamwork does not resonate with you, I would encourage anyone to study their own dreams the same way I would encourage individuals to appreciate art. To limit oneself to finding meaning only in those things that can be scientifically proven is boring at best. As my teacher Marc recently said, “dreams are good-intentioned art that we create just for ourselves.” Why believe dreams have personal meaning? I think the better question is, why not?