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. 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 of those theories, or simply reply that dreams don’t have any meaning, they are just a random firing of neurons that go off while we sleep.
I know 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 practicing 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 or claim some special knowledge about how dreams ‘should’ be interpreted. I have my way of bringing dreams into consciousness for people that I believe in, but I know there are as many ways as there are people who have the desire to carry and share dream medicine. 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 tendency 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.
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. If you humbly and gently seek wisdom in your dreams, it will not be difficult to find it. What I love about dreams is that they are a fundamentally magical thing whose universality and existence cannot be denied.