Author: Winnie Mok
Editors: Jaylen Peng and Emily Yu
Artist: Susan Wu
Dating back to the Egyptians, who believed dreams were messages from the gods, dreams have long been a cultural fixation. The ancient Greeks and Romans viewed them similarly, as prophets and hints of the future. Dreams have also been the muses of art and literature, inspiring art movements such as Surrealism and Symbolism. While dreams often vary in subject, nearly all humans have experienced them, making them a universal experience that almost everyone can relate to. Since they have pervaded human lives for thousands of years, it raises a question that psychologists have highly debated: Do our dreams hold any meaning?
To explore this issue, we must first understand why dreams occur. Researchers have come up with multiple theories as to why we dream. Many claim that dreams function to reinforce memories formed during the day, reveal our subconscious desires, or prepare us for potential dangers. Some of these explanations might not come as a surprise if we’ve seen proof of them in some of our dreams. Consider a scenario where an individual is stressed about an upcoming test. Due to their anxiety surrounding the test, it might be counterintuitive for them to dream about failing it. However, this type of dream—worrying about the future—is quite self-explanatory. Still, what about nonsensical dreams—dreams that don’t follow a clear setting or storyline?
This is where the “Activation-synthesis hypothesis” comes into play, arguing that all dreams, not just the seemingly random ones, are meaningless. It states that dreams are little more than arbitrary images and thoughts we conjure from our memories. After we wake up, we construct the dream, trying to connect the images in a way that makes sense. In contrast, psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung believe that dreams are more than mere electrical impulses. Freud argued that dreams were a means of unleashing our repressed wishes. Similarly, Jung interpreted dreams as a way for the unconscious mind to communicate with the conscious.
The bottom line is that there is no clear answer. While dream analysis has become popular in recent years, offering explanations for motifs in our dreams, it is ultimately up to the dreamer to assess their significance. The subjective quality of dreams and the challenges we face make it impossible to apply the same meanings to them.
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