Why Dreams Are Important: Decoding the Secrets of Our Subconscious Mind

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“Sleep hath its own world, and a wide realm of wild reality.” - Lord Byron

by Vicki Parker

Dreams are inevitable - they happen whether we wake to remember them or not. And whether remembered or forgotten, they play an important role in the human psyche and in human history. Some of us find dreams fascinating but mostly discount their relevance. Some of us are so intrigued we keep a dream journal but still struggle to understand their meaning. Others may not recall dreaming at all and consider dream psychology hosh posh.

Wherever you fit in the spectrum of dream interpretation, belief or disbelief, your mind is still dreaming. Dreams act as a sort of secret code where the subconscious mind attempts to relay information to the conscious mind. That may be a bit mind-blowing if one believes dreams are actually a by-product of our conscious mind - but in actuality, dreams are merely using subconscious information for another purpose - to communicate something. If this sounds like paranormal activity, perhaps it is. But before we delve into the realm of the subconscious, let's look at a brief history of dreams. If dream research cannot convince you of the credence of dreams, perhaps dream history will. Dreams have been highly regarded throughout history as revelations or prophecies, sources of ingenuity and creativity, or at their minimum, an exploration of our deeper selves – an attempt if-you-will, to connect our subconscious desires, hopes, fears, and beliefs with our conscious self.

The dream of Saint John Damascene - the Virgin attaches his severed right hand. Source: Wikimedia Commons

A History of Important Dreams

Prophecy in Dreams

The Bible has one of the oldest collection of dreams. Joseph was both dreamer and dream interpreter. At the age of 17 he dreamt that he and his brothers were binding sheaves of grain in the field when his sheave suddenly rose and stood while the remaining sheaves bowed down. In a similar dream, Joseph dreamt the sun, moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to him. Of course it was many years later, but Joseph became the ruler of Egypt.

Jacob who fled after stealing his brother's birthright, laid down to rest during his flight and dreamt of a stairway on earth reaching the heavens with angels ascending and descending on the stairway. In that dream, God told Jacob that he would be given the land on which he lay along with land spread to the east, west, north and south. The now colloquial term, Jacob's Ladder, was said to signify the exiles of the Jews during Jacob's life, and also, the beginning of Jacob's relationship with God while giving rise to the twelve tribes of Israel.

Perhaps the most famous biblical dream was Pharaoh's dream of 7 good cows, 7 good heads of grain, 7 ugly cows, and 7 worthless heads of grain. Joseph correctly interpreted this dream to indicate there would be 7 years of abundance followed by 7 years of famine. Because the Pharaoh heeded the warning of his unconscious, he was prepared for the actual famine.

The entire book of Revelation was given to John in a dream (although the meaning of his dream is still open to interpretation.) In modern terms, prophecy in dreams is very much alive. Many political figures have dreamed of their own assassinations including Abraham Lincoln and John Williams. Likewise, dreamers have dreamt of the death of others. For instance, Barbara Garwell dreamt of Ronald Reagan and Anwar Sadat being shot though she didn't know it at the time. She dreamt it 3 weeks earlier in both cases.

Creativity in Dreams

The dreaming mind invents and illuminates. Numerous performers, inventors, artists, sculptors, and other artisans dreamt their artistry into existence. Many of Salvador Dali’s paintings were revealed to him in his dreams. The great director, Orson Welles, created scenes in his movies based on dreams he had. Mary Shelley's novel, Frankenstein, was inspired by her imagination, but details were the product of her dreams. Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was inspired after a dream. Paul McCartney composed the entire melody for the song "Yesterday" from the memory of a dream. A famous acrobat, Tito Gaona, dreamt some of the acrobatics he performed when they had never been performed before. The list goes on and on.

Problem Solving in Dreams

And dreams are not isolated to the prophetic or artistic. Mathematicians, physicists, and doctors have recounted discoveries or dreams that led them to discoveries. Neils Bohr who is considered the father of quantum mechanics, dreamt about the atom he later discovered. He dreamt the nucleus of an atom had electrons spinning around it and from that vision he set out to prove it and did. Albert Einstein once dreamed he was sledding down a mountain so fast that he approached the speed of light. Once he did, the stars changed their appearance. This dream helped him formulate the theory of relativity.

Otto Loewi, a German pharmacologist, won the noble prize for discovering acetylcholine which is a neurotransmitter which promotes - would you guess - dreaming! He also proved the transmission of nerve impulses was chemical, not electrical. But how did he make this grand discovery? He dreamt it and later recounted that the following day was the longest day of his life as he tried to recall his dream, failing many times before he did.

This is just the short list of dreamers who have unlocked the power of their dreams. The vivid detail in these dreams and how the dreamer came to recall that detail, is fascinating.

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What's All That Mumbo Jumbo About Ego, Alter Ego & Psyche

By definition, our ego is our conscious mind. Our alter-ego, a term coined by Cicero, is a second side of us (whether known or unknown to our conscious mind). And the psyche is our entire person -- ego, alter-ego, conscious, and subconscious combined. It is important to distinguish these elements of a person because dreams take place within our psyche, not outside of it. The subconscious mind is not some separate entity from our whole being, nor is it a less prominent sub-set of the conscious mind. Our waking mind is not superior to our subconscious mind - in fact, some psychologists refer to it instead as the "unconscious." Freud went even further to define a superego which he considered "the wellspring of morality and guilt." The term "collective unconscious" which was coined by Jung, goes so far as to imply there is an unconscious reality shared by an entire species and demonstrated by universals like the Shadow, the Tree of Life, the Wise Old Man, etc. which may explain why we have similar dream experiences such as falling, being chased, or dying.

Before we get too far out in dream space, the point here was to establish a backdrop for understanding our dreams. Dreams about our own self are representative of our ego. Dreams about other persons or events may be an attempt to communicate something to our ego about our alter-ego. Jung postulated that alter-egos, which he called the "Shadow," tend to be represented by members of the same sex in dreams. Since the alter-ego is a part of us we are often in conflict with - the timid seeking to be confident, for example - we may dream about a confident or aggressive person.

And as we learned from a brief history of dreams, if we listen carefully and take note, we can explore, discover, explain, and create from the information dreams convey to us. The unconscious mind is not our enemy - it is attempting to reveal things or events to us that relate to parts of our personality that we haven't discovered yet or we have repressed.

The starting place for dream interpretation is to realize and believe our dreams seek to tell us something. They cannot speak to us "audibly" so they take on the form of pictures, metaphors, symbols, acts of drama, or even mythical content.

The Types of Dreams We Have

From the simple comes the complicated - rote memory to dream interpretation. While dream interpretation can be obvious, it is more frequently challenging. Before we can interpret them, it helps to understand what type of dream we have had. Edward deBono, author of The Mechanism of Mind, suggests there are three types of problems that bear themselves out in dreams:

One type is that which requires the processing or gathering of information, like the dreams of Salvador Dali or Tito Gaona.

The second type is that which is solved by reordering or restructuring information such as the prophetic dreams of Joseph or those leaders who dreamed of their demise.

The third is the type are those in which the existence of a problem is denied altogether. These are the dreams that plague and haunt our memories, often recurrent and rarely forgotten until they are understood.

The first type requires only logic to interpret and a memory to execute. The second and third types, however, require keen insight into a labyrinth of sometimes disguised feelings. In this case, interpretation becomes a great deal more than connecting obvious dots and requires soul searching. Along with the search, comes the realization or admission of things about ourselves that we may prefer not to know or events that we may not wish to remember.

The best dream interpreter is the actual dreamer. The starting place is to realize and believe dreams seek to tell us something. They cannot speak to us "audibly" so they take on the form of pictures, metaphors, symbols, acts of drama, or even mythical content. In order to find their meaning, we must then decode the message or decipher the riddle. This can be both enlightening and frightening, but ultimately very rewarding and potentially life altering.

A Quick Start to Dream Interpretation

  1. Place a journal or tape recorder beside your bed. When you wake from a dream, record the date and details immediately. Even small details can have significant meaning if they stand out to you.
  2. Evaluate persons, places, and things in your dream and analyze them in the context of current events in your life. Apply the basic principles found in the section on Dream Interpretation to determine if it is a Shadow or Anima/Animus dream. If not, in literal terms, explore what might be in your past, present, or future that warrants hopes or fears of realization.
  3. Utilize a dream encyclopedia or dream manual to help you unlock obscure meanings. If dreams are persistently negative and threatening, seek professional help with them. If they are positive and harbor revelations in their content, congratulations!


Dream Interpretation 101

While dreams are far too varied and complex to explain in a single article or book, there are various types of dreams which have come to be associated with certain meanings.

Dreams of being pursued are common or often we dream of someone trying to kill us. If the pursuer is the same sex, the enemy may be none other than ourselves, i.e., our alter ego trying to make us realize something about ourselves. According to dream scholar John Sanford, if we deny our own evil or inferior nature, we merely drive it further into our subconscious where it can actually become dangerous. When dreams attempt to show us our "shadow," both psychological and spiritual meaning is involved. It means looking for something you don’t want to admit exists. Dreams of ourselves dying are less common because we most often awake before we die, but the symbolism here is either extinction or transformation. Changing ourselves requires that we leave old behaviors or beliefs behind and forge new ones. As human beings, we usually resist change, so dreams of death or near death are often dramatic and contain the elements of a nightmare.

Dreams about the opposite sex can be interpreted as anima (feminine) or animus (masculine). Like the Shadow, they can reveal characteristics you wish incorporated into your ego, but in a more harmonious way. At the basic level, anima/animus dreams reflect a man's capacity for emotions, vulnerability, and other traits stereo typically associated with a woman, and a woman's capacity for independence, courage, power, and other traits stereo typically associated with men.

While most dreams reflect usual life events, they also reflect cognitive activity and intelligence. The same principles will apply toward interpreting them: intuition, reason, logic, and insight. Dreams often use symbols as a sort of "artistic license" to convey a point and pre-sleep thoughts, feelings, or events can influence the content. Symbols used in dreams can vary from vague inferences to colors, places, things or a "sense" of well being or danger to distinct events or actions. Neither should be ignored and all should be considered relevant in context. Likewise, interpretation can vary from the most literal to the obscure. For example, a dream about flying pigs could be literally interpreted to explain a successful b-b-q business or the fear of failure in a b-b-q business. Whatever the content and context, the dream's meaning depends upon the dreamer's belief in his/her dreams and the desire to unlock their meaning.


Sources:

Sanford, John A. Dreams: God’s Forgotten Language. San Francisco: Harper, 1989.

Taylor, Jeremy. Where People Fly and Water Runs Uphill: Using Dreams to Tap the Wisdom of the Unconscious. New York: Time Warner, 1992.

Krippner, Stanley and Joseph Dillard. Dreamworking: How to Use Your Dreams for Creative Problem Solving. Bearly Limited: New York, 1988.

Lewis, James R. The Dream Encyclopedia. Visible Ink Press, 1995.

Van de Castle, Robert L. Our Dreaming Mind. Random House: New York, 1994.

Signell, Karen. Wisdom of the Heart: Working with Women's Dreams. Bantum Books, 1990.

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