Ten Reasons to Study Your Dreams

In Book 19 of The Odyssey, Penelope recounts to a disguised Odysseus her dream of a great eagle swooping out of the sky and killing twenty geese she tends to, which leaves her brokenhearted. The eagle tells her to be happy since he symbolizes the husband who will wreak vengeance on her suitors. Whether Homer intended this dream to demonstrate the power of prophecy, a complex psychological statement regarding Penelope’s ambiguous feelings toward the suitors, or something else is anyone’s guess, but the passage lends itself to compelling analysis, due largely to the powerful influence the unconscious world has on the human imagination. Following are ten reasons to study your dreams.

  1. Dreams play a vital role in scientific and technological advances. The application of theories inspired by dreams led to two Nobel Prizes and a few major drugs. The periodic table of elements came to Mendeleev in a dream. Elias Howe invented the most efficient sewing machine of his era after dreaming of being attacked by savages shaking strange spears with holes at their pointed tips. The list is endless.
  2. Dreams reflect our waking concerns. Around 3/4ths of dreams are negative and often tied to relationship issues. When people find themselves overwhelmed by unmanageable factors in the conscious world, their dreams help them search for solutions in safer and more symbolic forms.
  3. As a type of problem solving, dreams help us learn basic skills in our sleep, allowing us to master tasks we confront on a daily basis. Robert Stickgold, a Harvard Medical School professor, had test subjects play a video game focusing on skiing, and then he monitored their dreams. He discovered that the subjects initially recreated the game in their dreams but then moved toward more abstract but related dream imagery, like memories of walking through or around snow banks when they were children. This allowed subjects to better understand how to overcome problems or obstacles. When they awoke, their game performance improved because they studied a problem in a more intuitive and less linear manner.
  4. Dreams improve the way we learn and live through a complex relationship between memory and time. Dwelling on the past can ruin one’s experience of the present, which can then damage future prospects. Dreams infuse old memories with new experience through symbolic imagery. Hence, memory isn’t just being crystallized into a static and false impediment to immediate experience. Instead, we take the dream memory apart and try to figure out why it matters. Then, we reinterpret what happened to us, how this relates to other past memories, and how we might apply this knowledge to future actions.
  5. This means that any given dream can distill space and time—either in the form of a symbol or as a sequence of events—to reshape the waking life. Between dreams and consciousness, we’re dreaming all the time, the major difference being that during wakefulness, the outside world impinges on our consciousness more severely. Gaining a clearer awareness of this relationship helps us better understand what drives our identities and how we might redefine ourselves.
  6. Ironically, dreams often prove more reliable than conscious recollections. Recounting information about a dream means relaying information that isn’t faked. In a certain sense, the conscious mind has no ownership over the dream experience. Dreams tell revealing truths due to their unfiltered nature.
  7. Dreams have inspired countless literary and artistic creations. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, which most scholars consider to be the first great piece of literature, various characters offer dream interpretations ranging from divine prophecies to explanations for sexual desires. More recently, Mary Shelley envisioned Frankenstein in a dream. What we can’t imagine in waking life, we can imagine in dreams. They are the record of humanity’s collective unconscious given depth and dimension. If you want to understand human nature and the human mind, you have to study dreams.
  8. People intuitively know that dreams are meaningful because they are a fascinating extension of our identities, often more compelling than waking life. What could be more interesting than listening to an otherwise taciturn neighbor describe how she dreamed she was an electrical impulse rocketing through her own brain? Or a child describing how, for no apparent reason, he began bouncing like a giant rabbit across an open field until he finally began soaring through the air, only to return to earth at the sound of the alarm clock? Alternative experiences generated during sleep matter because they force us to reconsider who we are in dramatically unexpected ways.
  9. Some can synthesize the waking and dream lives to create an alternate reality. Called “lucid dreaming,” this phenomenon tends to occur only through practice or in otherwise rare instances. Either way, lucid dreaming means that one is aware he or she is dreaming and can thereby control the dream to a greater or lesser extent. Even Aristotle described the phenomenon. Lucid dreaming has yet to be given detailed scrutiny in the scientific community, but a growing number of people experiment with it regularly. Creating this bridge between the conscious and unconscious minds might well lead to stunning discoveries.
  10. Even nightmares serve a useful purpose—to a degree. The bad dreams we suffer through closely resemble those of our ancestors, who lived in an intensely dangerous world. Although many modern humans live in comparatively safe environments, nightmares remind them that dangers lurk ahead. Nightmares are, therefore, a rehearsal for daily survival. Sometimes we learn from them. Unfortunately, at other times, they can consume us and destroy our will to live. As Hamlet says,

O God, I could be bounded in a nut shell and count
myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I
have bad dreams.