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What’s the Deal with Dreams? Part 3: The Late 20th Century and Today

In our previous entries, we discussed the theories of dreaming and methods of dream interpretation developed by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. In Part 3, we’ll take a look at some theories and approaches of more contemporary origins.

Contemporary Attitudes and Biases

Today, the theories of Freud and Jung continue to be embraced by many in the fields of psychotherapy, philosophy, and others interested in the phenomena of dreams and other workings of the mind. However, some claim that these conceptualizations of the mind have been debunked, and that we should cease entertaining them. Arguably, this is an unfair assessment. It might be more accurate to say that the methods used by early psychodynamic thinkers to build their theories have fallen out of favor with some segments of the psychological community. That said, it is still a matter of debate as to what is the best method of understanding internal experience, and it should be noted that modern neurological findings appear to validate some of the foundational principles put forward by the likes of Freud and Jung.* Nonetheless, in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, attempts to understand what dreams are have primarily been built upon brain imaging and other methods of observation.

What Might Dreams Be?

In the 1970s, an explanation of dream phenomena was posited that subverted the popular assumption that dreams were meaningful. Researchers, Allan Hobson and Robert McCarely, suggested that dreams were created by random stimulation of neurons occurring during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.** In this view of dreaming, known as the activation-synthesis hypothesis, the brain attempts to structure mental activity caused by neuronal activation into a coherent perceptual experience—much as it does with the neuronal activation that occurs during waking due to exposure to external stimuli.

Put simply, the activation-synthesis hypothesis frames dreams as an attempt by our sleeping brains to create a story based on electrochemical chaos. This viewpoint suggests that dreams are not psychologically meaningful and that no hidden meaning needs to be read into them, and while over the years the specific neurological mechanisms that Hobson and McCarley posited have been questioned, the stance that dreams are not, in fact, windows into one’s unconscious has been embraced by many.

While some biologically-minded theorists have dismissed dreams, others thinkers attempted to raise the status of our nocturnal experience. For instance post-Jungian psychologist, James Hillman, viewed the experience of dreaming as being on equal footing with that of waking subjectivity. For thinkers like Hillman, dreams are not tools to improve ourselves; they are realms in which we exist for significant portions of our lives, and they should be engaged with as inherently meaningful beyond their application to daytime functioning.

Why Bother with Dreams?

At this point in history, there are several opposing answers to this question. Here are a couple that have been outlined in this series:

  1. Dreams reflect unconscious processes that are helpful to bring into consciousness.

  2. Dreams are random brain nonsense. Don’t bother with them.

  3. Dreams are important events in our lives, just like those we experience in our waking lives. Treat them as such.

What’s clear is that we have not reached a consensus as to what dreams are or what they’re proper place in our lives should be. As it stands, we are a species of individuals who go to sleep each night and experience an altered reality, in which our surroundings and our senses of self are totally novel and often surreal, and we do not have adequate explanation as to what these experiences are or if we should be doing anything with them.

So… Should we Bother with Dreams?

This series of blog posts began by stating that we don’t know what dreams are, and it seems that’s where we’re ending as well. We can’t know for sure if dreams have meaning or what the exact nature of their relationship to our waking lives is. That said, many people have had positive, and in some cases life changing, experiences in earnestly engaging with their dreams. Perhaps, dreams have meaning and can tell us things about ourselves we’d never otherwise know. Perhaps, they are meaningless noise created by our sleeping brains. Maybe both are true, and when we try to decipher meaningless noise, we create meaning. We don’t know, and it may be the case that the appropriate way to approach something we don’t understand is with respect and curiosity.

**Dement, W. C., & Vaughan, C. (2000). The promise of sleep: A pioneer in sleep medicine explores the vital connection between health, happiness, and a good night's sleep. Dell Publishing Co.

**Hobson, J. A. (2002). Dreaming: An introduction to the science of sleep. Oxford University Press.

*Solms M. (2018). The scientific standing of psychoanalysis. BJPsych international, 15(1), 5–8.

Thomas Shooman is a mental health counselor practicing at Resolution Psychotherapy who provides teletherapy to clients across New York State. Thomas’ clients include individuals dealing with anxiety, grief, and obsessive thinking. He enjoys helping people navigate uncomfortable circumstances and find solutions that are in line with their personal style. To inquire about therapy with Thomas, send him an email at

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