Want to know what’s the worst thing about being a psychologist? For me this is a no brainer (ha ha). THE WORST thing about being a psychologist is, EVERYONE TELLS YOU ABOUT THEIR DREAMS! GOD! People, please—stop already!
If you don’t already know this, I hate to be the bearer of bad news BUT…we pretty much don’t know diddly what the heck your dreams are about. Sure, there are lots of clever ideas out there about them, just like Tolkien had lots of clever ideas about middle earth and its inhabitants. And we’re about as close to verifying the first lot of ideas as we are the second, I’m here to tell you.
Heck, we don’t even fully understand the function of sleep (and no, it’s not for the simple function of rest, though we call it that. Our brains are pretty damn active during sleep). Our best guess is that it plays some role in keeping our memory acute. The idea is, sleep is a period that allows our minds time to sort through all of the informational dreck we absorb each day, during which we aren’t taking on more. During sleep our minds weed through all of that dreck (which can include literally everything you thought about the day before, from where you left your car keys to what the waitress was wearing at lunch to the three things your boss told you to keep in mind about the upcoming sales meeting), keeping the good and important stuff and flushing the rest. Ever wonder why it’s hard to remember what you had for dinner two nights ago, and damn near impossible to do so for a week back? Blame it on your nocturnal memory custodians who deemed such memories nice but disposable (but thank them too, since they allow you to handily remember where you parked your car today, versus walking around and looking for it at each spot in the lot where you parked this week).
Dreams, some suggest, are a side effect of this sort of housekeeping. Just like when you go through your attic to get rid of everything that’s matured to official junk status, and you pause with that old dumb item in hand and think about its origins, that’s more or less where a dream comes from. Only, you’re not doing the memory cleaning with a clearly rational mind like you are when tackling the attic. You’re all sleep drunk and slippery in your imagination. Thus it does seem perfectly natural that you’d find yourself having a conversation with your dog on Christmas morning in the house featured in the sitcom you currently favor, only he’s wearing your sweater and has a terrible habit of spraying spittle as he speaks, but you don’t care because you know the gift of a hand carved canoe from Burma you’re about to give the UPS driver will be SO well received….
No, I don’t know what that means! My graduate degree in clinical psych didn’t come with a Merlin’s Magic Book of Dreams. Or, wait: it means you ate spicy food for dinner last night. ‘Zat help?
Sometimes I’ll do this, just because I can. I’ll field your kooky little dream story and allow a look of growing alarm to show, then when you’re done I’ll quickly recompose myself and say, “Mmm, not good. That’s not good at all.”
So am I saying dreams have no interpretive value? Well, no, I’m not fully saying that. If you go to bed with some issue bumping around in your cranium, it certainly stands to reason that that issue may express itself in whatever fanciful narrative concoction you dream up that night. But don’t make of the fact that you remember the dream so vividly as a sign that the dream holds great importance to you. In a regular night’s sleep you have about 3 to 5 dreams. Do you suppose each and every one of those dreams holds a key to the divine mystery of the meaning of your life? ‘Fraid not. What it means most likely is that for whatever reason you woke up during the dream itself, thus it was sitting there in full Technicolor on the tv screen in your head, and so easily remembered. It’s the timing of your waking up that’s the real story.
That our minds throw out of memory all of the rest of our dreams each night further tells the story of them–just more of that dreck that your mind booted out because they’re unimportant.
People do have recurrent dreams, of course, and these tend to get our attention. Ask anyone that’s ever waited tables if they ever dream about being back in that job and I can almost guarantee you, they have (and it’s of course always about being in the weeds). I myself have had those, not to mention having had countless dreams about running behind in my effort to complete other sorts of tasks. I’ve also had innumerable dreams about being in search of something, trying to find something or someone, or get somewhere. Then there are those dreams in which I’m about to do something—give a presentation, attend a critical meeting, take a test—and I haven’t prepared one bit for the thing (the best was when I found myself walking onstage to do a stand up comedy routine and hadn’t a thought in my head about what I was going to talk about). I could interpret all of these as being indicative that I suffer from feelings of inadequacy, or incompetence, or am somehow incomplete in my life, suffer a missing piece, or I’m self-sabotaging in my ways. I could do that. I could also just acknowledge that I’m caught up in the same human condition of striving as anyone else, with all the ups and downs that entails, and so my dreams go.
But that’s pretty boring, isn’t it? It’s much more interesting to suggest that the dog you spoke to that Christmas morning actually represented your Aunt Sally for whom you clearly have unrequited sexual feelings. Now we’re talking!
But to be able to legitimately say that would require a reliable method for interpreting such arcana. Psychologists have tried to come up with one but so far to little avail.
So dreams can be thematically suggestive, which I think most people get, but I find most people aren’t nearly as interested in that aspect of their dreams as they are dying to know, why was the UPS driver in my dream?? The good news is, there’s a technical term for why that was so. The bad news is, the technical term is brain fart.
Now, there is some real value in the memory consolidation aspect of dreaming, and I turn our students onto this all the time. Research shows that if, right before you go to sleep you review material and information that is important to you for whatever’s going on the next day, such as a test in one of your classes, you show a significant improvement in retaining that information. So take another pass before turning out that light.
Finally, there’s one other noted function of sleep that’s worth mentioning, something I’ve harnessed in my life and career on countless occasions. Our minds hate open problems and seek closure for them all the time. This is the case even when we’re not specifically thinking about the problem, and includes when we sleep. So, if I’m trying to figure some sticky thing out—I did this all the time in designing workshops, when I got stuck in how to construct a program that delivered me to my learning objectives—I’ll often go over the problem or challenge right before I go to bed. Almost every time then, when I wake up the next day and return to the challenge, a new idea or solution just bubbles right up, and I’m off and running in figuring things out. The great irony of the song, (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, by the Rolling Stones is that Keith Richards woke up one night and the basic chord structure of this song was just sitting there in his head, plain as day to him. I get this. A songwriter like Richards probably walked around in life with his brain working constantly on “the problem” of thinking up the next song (what portion of Richards’ brain was still standing in the moment, that is!). And sometimes—Zzzzzz… Hunh? What? Oh!—it was just there.