Do Dreams Mean Anything?

November 14th, 2021. By Hadrian Barki '23

Dream interpretation has been around for millennia and is widely used in therapy, but is there any scientific backing for it? Do the dreams you have possess meaning?

Dreams have been used and analyzed in therapy ever since Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud called them “the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind”(Schredl), but that idea has been attacked by contemporary neurologists for the past few decades. The scientific community is torn into two factions: one proposing that every part of a dream has a specific meaning, and the other that dreams are random and completely meaningless, especially in a psychological context.

The theory that dreams have meaning originates from Freud. In his book, The Interpretation of Dreams, he claims that dreams are a way for us to express repressed wishes and thoughts, and that the ego alters the nature of a dream to hide its true meaning to keep us asleep. Carl Jung, who collaborated with Freud for many years, expanded upon Freud’s ideas, stating that dreams can be used to reflect the “collective unconscious” and express parts of one’s personality.

Freudian and Jungian dream theories are used to analyze a patient’s dreams in therapy, as dreams are supposedly able to signify psychological issues and conflicts in an individual’s life. In dream therapy, a patient usually relates their dream to their therapist, and both will discuss and analyze the dream(s) before gleaning information from the dream(s). Dream therapy has proven to be effective, with 70.4% of clients who’ve undergone it saying they benefited from it(Schredl). It has also proven useful in dealing with post-traumatic stress and chronic nightmares. However, the validity of this practice is still under attack.

Neuroscientists vehemently disagree with the theories of Freud and Jung. Dr. Francis Crick, co-discoverer of DNA, and Dr. Graeme Mitchson of the University of Cambridge say that the purpose of dreams is to purge the brain of unneeded connections formed during the day as the brain forms more connections than needed for efficient memory and thinking. “We dream in order to forget”(Goleman), they claim. Crick and Mitchson go as far as to say that remembering dreams could be damaging, as it would strengthen neural connections intended to be pruned. This could explain why people can remember dreaming, but not remember what the dreams are about.

The “memory dump” theory has been revised and expanded upon. A 2007 study involving mice saw the neocortex signal the hippocampus to upload its short-term memories to the neocortex, clearing the hippocampus. The neocortex then decides which memories should be put into long-term storage and which ones should be discarded. Dreams not only serve to discard memories, but also to decide which ones to retain for the long-term. Dreams appear from bits and pieces of the memories being processed by your brain. This theory, while having studies to back it up, still is unable to explain the benefits seen from remembering, reflecting, and analyzing one’s dreams in therapy sessions.

Another theory explains the many common dreams people have, such as failing a test, falling, losing teeth, death, and being chased. This theory is regarded as “Threat Simulation Theory.” The brain simulates these situations to keep us prepared for them to a certain degree. A theory from Dr. Eagleman of Stanford University that explains the visual qualities of dreams is “defensive activation theory,” where the visual cortex of the brain displays images to keep it working and prevent it from being rewired by other parts of the brain(“Why Do”). Rewiring of the visual cortex is clearly seen in blind individuals, some of which are known to be able to use echolocation as the auditory cortex repurposes the visual cortex. The brain’s rewiring capabilities also allow new memories, information, and skills to be stored or discarded. Dreams tend to occur during rapid-eye-movement sleep (REM), which occurs mainly in the visual cortex. This theory checks out, as the older people get, the less flexible their brains become so rewiring neurons is more difficult. As brains become less flexible, REM sleep isn’t needed as much to defend the visual cortex, so the amount of time spent in REM sleep decreases as one gets older.

Two researchers at Harvard Medical School, Dr. McCarley and Dr. Hobson, compare dream interpretation to Rorschach Inkblots(see below). Just like the inkblots, dreams are nonsense, and meaning is given to them by the dreamers and the therapist. Each therapist will give you a different interpretation of what your dream means, just as each person who takes the Rorschach Inkblot test will give different interpretations of what they see represented by the inkblot.

The fourth blot of the Rorschach test

The brain is by far the most complex organ in our body, and we still have much to learn about it.Whether or not dreams have meaning is still up to debate, and simple questions such as why we even dream and how we dream are still unclear with many conflicting theories. However, while it is true the psychiatric community doesn’t have solid evidence to back up their claims, dream interpretation does indeed work in therapy sessions. As of now, neuroscientists have yet to fully discover the secrets and full functions of dreams, much less their meanings, but do have many good explanations on how dreams work, what they do, and why they exist. But Dr. Reiser of Yale University sees a compromise: “there is lots of 'noise' in a dream. When you find the signal - that is, the significance - in the dream, it leads you to issues in the person's life. Those parts of the dream we can't make sense of may be the random noise...The therapist's art is finding the signal in the noise.”


Dream Analysis.

Domhoff: Moving Dream Theory Beyond Freud and Jung. 9 Sep 2000,

Goleman, Daniel. “DO DREAMS REALLY CONTAIN IMPORTANT SECRET MEANING?” The New York Times, 10 July 1984.,

Schredl, Michael, et al. “The Use of Dreams in Psychotherapy.” The Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research, vol. 9, no. 2, 2000, pp. 81–87,

“What Your Dreams Actually Mean, According to Science.” Time, 12 Sept. 2017,

“Why Do We Dream? A New Theory on How It Protects Our Brains.” Time, 29 Dec 2020,