The History of Interpreting Dreams


Micole Abdelhak, Staff Writer

Dreams. Since the dawn of time, people have been trying to make sense of these bizarre visions that fill our heads every night. This fantasy world consumes almost half of our lives, but even today we still don’t have a definite reason for why we dream. 

Most dreams occur during REM sleep, and during this time we are most likely to remember our dreams. Currently, it is believed that the most prominent reasonings behind why we dream are to consolidate memories, process emotions, express our deepest desires, and practice confronting potential dangers. 

If one were to ask Freud, the creator of psychoanalysis, he would define dreams as manifestations of our innermost suppressed thoughts and feelings. In his “The Interpretation of Dreams,” Freud defined dreams as “disguised fulfillments of repressed wishes.” However, this definition does not account for dreams about our biggest fears. Everyone has woken up from a petrifying dream, thankful to actually be in the comforts of reality where it is highly unlikely to fall out of a plane or be in a sinking ship. Freud also coined the idea that there are two components of dreams: manifest and latent. The manifest content of dreams, according to Freud, are the actual images, events, and symbols that are portrayed in dreams. The latent content of dreams are the hidden meaning of these images that can be interpreted. Freud was not only one of the first to analyze dreams, but also to popularize the idea of interpreting one’s dreams. 

Since Freud’s analysis on dreams, more theories have been formed to try to understand the complex reasoning behind dreaming. The continuity hypothesis states that dreams reflect the reality of one’s life; therefore, dreams are composed of experiences transitioning into long term memories and the thoughts, ideas, and concerns of a person. This hypothesis is one of the most widely studied and accepted interpretations of dreams.

Unlike Freud’s theories, the threat simulation theory provides reason for nightmares. It states that dreams allow us to realize some of our greatest fears as well as face threats that we must encounter on a daily basis. Through dreaming we are able to strengthen our mentality to handle threatening situations in addition to practicing our fight or flight instincts. This theory takes the common dreams of fears like falling, being naked, forgetting to study, and running away from a threat, into account. 

Compared to how dreams have been interpreted throughout history, modern interpretations of dreams only graze the surface. In fact, the most common historical interpretations of dreams have some sort of divine association. The Babylonians and the Assyrians, for example, put all dreams into the categories of good and bad. They believed that all dreams put into the “good” category were messages sent by gods and alternatively all dreams put into the “bad” category were evil omens sent by demons. 

Ancient Egyptians rested much importance on their dreams and recorded them on papyrus. They considered those who had extra graphic, clear, or significant dreams to be divinely blessed and special. 

Judaism believes that dreams solely come from the voice of God and they contain special messages that teach life lessons that must be interpreted and followed.

In ancient China, people believed in two facets of the soul. The first was believed to remain in the body at all times. The second is released from the physical bounds of the body to enter the dream world. Similarly, Hinduism believes that a dream is one of three states that a soul can experience during its time on Earth. The other states are the awake state and the dreamless sleeping state.

Today, there is less divine importance rested on the interpretation of dreams. However, learning to interpret dreams has greatly increased in popularity. I myself have taken an active part in this trend by recently purchasing a book titled, The Dreamers Dictionary by Lady Stearn Robinson and Tom Corbett. This book has the format of a dictionary, allowing a person to look up a word to sum up the events of their dream. An interpretation of the dream is then given based on this word. The word “tangerine,” for example, will lead to this description:  “Convivial good times are indicated in a dream of eating tangerines.”

Pop culture has also taken an active role in dreams. Sometimes, it will be revealed at the end of a movie that it was a dream all along. An example of this is The Wizard of Oz. In her adventure to Oz, the protagonist Dorothy encounters a Tinman who wants a heart, a Scarecrow who wants a brain, and a Lion who wants courage. Dorothy, however, just wants to go home, or in this case, the dream to end.

Through generations, dreams have stumped the minds of many civilizations, religions, and psychoanalysts. While they might just be our brain making sense of neurons firing while we sleep, they might also represent something much deeper.