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I'm doing some casual reading about dream interpretation (meaning I'm reading the wikipedia entry) and the article mentions that there are several ways of thinking about dreams from a psychological standpoint:

In modern times, various schools of psychology have offered theories about the meaning of dreams.

But the text offers no judgement of which of these approaches is currently believed to be most "accurate". It simply lists various scholars and their theories.

What I want to know is: which approach is considered the most "correct" by the scientific community and why? Is there a reason to take one of the listed methods of interpretation more seriously than another as a casual layman?

Note that I'm not asking for your subjective answer. I'm looking for any evidence as to whether a specific method is more successful or more pursued by the profession and community in general.

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I'd love to see the answer to this! Last time I researched this was over 10 years ago and at the time the answer seemed to be a resounding "None" – Josh Gitlin Mar 27 '12 at 15:12
There is certainly a scientific literature on this, although I imagine the research varies substantially in scientific rigour. As a start, check out some of the articles in the journal Dreaming… – Jeromy Anglim Mar 27 '12 at 23:42
I believe, dreaming is related much to your mental condition. if you are mentally healthy with high moral, your dreams would be nice. if unhealthy, you produce nightmares. – user1138 Sep 4 '12 at 11:38
@Rahul has Andy's answer provided sufficient detail to satisfy your question? If so, will you consider accepting it? Or do you want something further in an answer? If you are interested in Jung, consider these: 1, 2, 3, 4 maybe they will stir new follow up questions for you. – Artem Kaznatcheev Sep 14 '12 at 15:00
@ArtemKaznatcheev So far I haven't seen any answers that help me understand dream interpretation any better. Andy's answer is a good long comment, but not really authoritative, and most of it discusses why we sleep, not what the meaning of our dreams is. I'll keep this open until someone is able to provide a more complete answer. Accepting an answer demotivates people from adding new answers. – Rahul Sep 17 '12 at 10:53

As far as I know, there is no accepted science to dream interpretation. In fact, there's no science to it at all. Evidence has shown that indeed, dreaming draws material from people, places, and things in our lives, but there's absolutely no scientific data out there (that I'm familiar with) that links dreams to anything meaningful in our actual daily lives.

If anything, dreaming and sleep is an opportunity to "replay" patterns of neural activation that occurred during the day, leading to consolidation of long-term memories. I wouldn't take anything on that Wikipedia page seriously.

Other arguments for why we sleep and dream:

(1) We may sleep to repair our brain or maintain homeostasis within the system. This would suggest that there's a substance in our body which requires sleep that increases its need over time. This possibility is evidenced by the fact that you can die of sleep deprivation -- but evidence against is that some amount of deprivation doesn't set you back all too far. (Also, why does sleep feel restorative, if it's only maintaining homeostasis?) There's increasing amount of evidence to suggest that improved circulation of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain during sleep serves to clean the brain from toxic metabolic byproducts of daily activity.

(2) It's also possible that sleep and dreaming serves the body's overall safety. This argument stems from value long-ago in sleeping during the dangerous nighttime, when predators and other dangerous animals generally have the upper hand over man. This seems reasonably vestigial in humans, though...

(3) It also may be the case that sleep and dreaming is effective for conserving our neurak energy over the course of the day. Indeed, slow-wave sleep is associated with reduced cortical activity -- but then again, REM sleep features high activity.

(4) An even more powerful possibility is that neural reprogramming is dependent on sleep. This is evidenced by consolidation effects that occur while we rest, and the fact that less interference occurs during the sleeping hours (see Jenkins & Dallenbach, 1924, if you want to read a real classic). There are many minimal sleepers out there, though, that are high functioning, so what does that mean for this theory?

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How does your answer take the theories of Freud, Jung, et al as described by the abovementioned wikipedia page into account? – Rahul Mar 27 '12 at 16:57
Unfortunately, my answer has to disregard theories that are not supported by modern-day empirical research and further scientific replication. – Andy DeSoto Mar 27 '12 at 16:59
(That came off a little snarky, but folks here in the cognitive science area are going to be a little less than convinced by Freudian theories. I bet a psychoanalysis community would be interested in this debate.) – Andy DeSoto Mar 27 '12 at 19:44
Added a few more scientific reasons for why we may sleep and dream. (I may or may not be studying for an exam at the same time.) – Andy DeSoto Mar 29 '12 at 15:43

As far as I know, dreams are meaningless information, strung into a story or series of events and interpretation are therefore highly subjective. The theory that I know best is that dreams are a result of memory consolidation during sleep. Of course, this is still controversial.

Memory consolidation is explained (simple version) as follows:

during waking, your senses bind information from the different senses into a single "experience" in the hippocampus. This is stored as episodic memory. When you sleep at night (and even during the day, stream of consciousness may be associated with this effect) your hippocampus is consolidating the episodic memories into (for instance) semantic memories in the temporal lobe. The hippocampus actually sends signals all over the neocortex, but the semantic memories are the best understood and most easily graspable to laymen. The basic idea is that all your experiences with an apple (episodic memories) get consolidated to some generalization of what an apple is (semantic memory).

It is thought that as these streams of information travel from hippocampus to the rest of the brain, bits of its randomly interact with parts of our brain that are semi-conscious, but probably not in any significant way. In other words, the meaning and episodes experienced in dreams probably has no direct resemblence to the declarative memories they are encoding.

sleep and memory consolidation in general:

Nature 437, 1272-1278 (27 October 2005) | doi:10.1038/nature04286

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This is my favourite answer so far because it cites numerous references and adds new information. Yet, it still appears to be just one (more) theory... – Rahul Sep 17 '12 at 10:55
I believe that's the nature of the beast. There are so many degeneracies in brain sciences (many different ways to get to the same functionality, sometimes more than one are actually valid, so different brains can arrive at different network architectures that produce the same result). Eve Marder has published some work on this. – Keegan Keplinger Sep 17 '12 at 23:20

We could have scientific clinical study of the reports of dreams. Given that the dreams don't relate to specific real world events and often have very bizarre properties there's no reason to believe the report has much to do with what really happened. Therefore, from a clinicians standpoint they're useful in that you're in a relaxed state when they occur and you're interpreting things according to your current psychological condition. I'm sure any study of them from the clinical end that did occur would reflect some correlations of general features to chronic anxiety or clinical depression because of your interpretation of what happens. That's sort of a gimme.

Then again, it's still hard to interpret because depression and anxiety cause more sleep events (Kimura, Müller-Preuss, Wiesner, Flachskamm, Wurst, Holsboer & JM Deussing, 2009). Perhaps that alone changes reporting.

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I wouldn't say dreams never relate to specific real world events...Some non-trivial subset certainly do! – Nick Stauner Jan 27 '14 at 7:00

I was influenced by this lecture. I will jump ahead to the pertinent part:

My interpretation is that there are two general areas in the brain responsible for memory formation: 1) hippocampus and 2) basal ganglia. According to the speaker, a study shows a direct correlation between the amount of hipocampal learning done during the day and the amount of REM sleep that occurs the following night. I.e., a sort of encoding happens through dreams. No correlation exists for learning done with the basal ganglia.

My rough interpretation of the differences between the two types of learning are the hipocampal is higher thoughts and logic like math concepts where the basal ganlia records more basic cause and effect type correlations. I'll appreciate being corrected where I'm wrong; especially if you site your source. Thanks.

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I believe that the current view is that when asleep, the mind processes the events of the day, the issues of note, and classifies them, storing the relevant events in memories linking these to others.

Dreams are then the process of replaying and connecting events to others, making links to other memories, which is why sometimes solutions can come when asleep, because conenctions re made. Also, this is where nightmares come from, as links are made to other negative or disturbing experiences.

In my experience, this makes sense, which holds no scientific basis whatsoever, but I find it a comfort.

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Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

I want to upvote this, but there's no references provided... – Josh Gitlin Mar 29 '12 at 12:46

I don't know if you want this type of answer, but I would like to focus on conceptual issues as well that I thought as necessary. Well, to ask if a certain approach to the meaning of dreams is better or more accurate, one has first to ask if dreams have meaning and this also requires a definition of meaning.

As for the first question, there is an approach by Allan Hobson that says dreams have no meaning. Dreams come to be when neural impulses from the brainstem are received by the cortex which reacts producing images thoughts and feelings relating to what lies in the memory storage. So dreams may be personal but there is not any meaning to them. The other approach is by Anttio Revonsuo who supports the meaning of dreams in the sense that they have evolutionary value. Dreams in this case, enrich our experiences relating to dangerous events and allow us to be more careful in a consequent dangerous situation. And of course psychodynamic theories of which you are aware, support the meaning of dreams but the interpretations differ depending on the psychoanalyst which makes the whole thing seem suspicious.(for an overview of the above check Kolb and Whishaw's "An introduction to Brain and Behaviour", it has a chapter about sleep and dreams)

But what do we mean by meaning is not all that clear.The concept of meaning has been a waste basket of evaluative and aesthetic judgements, as well as used in divergent trends and in different contexts. Also, meaning is a concept that cannot be discussed without intentionality, that is meaning has to be meaning to someone that only he/she can feel directly. You can have meaning in the level of society or civilization but again it reduces to personal experience. Because meaning is subjective, I don't know if it can be studied scientifically. Qualitative research that studies meaning is quite informative and interesting to do but it can hardly be viewed as scientific. That is what dream interpretation is. A qualitative analysis of experiences. So when a psychoanalyst claims he can uncover the meaning that my dreams have to me, what he does is fit the reported experiences in a set of theoretical constructs. In other words, he constructs a meaning of my dreams imposing a psychodynamic frame of reference which is no different from a common man's frame of reference in terms of validity. After all, if one gives their own meaning to their dreams, isn't that a meaning also?

I hope that this makes clear that no approach of dream interpretation can be considered better or worse because the act of interpretation is subjective and although we can study (through psychological research methods) what mechanisms and resources are used by people to construct meaning, there is no evidence that could be used to support a kind of meaning over another. It is like asking what literary approach is more accurate or more accepted to interpret a surrealistic poem. Literature theorists can develop different trends the acceptance of which depends on sociological factors and not on empirical validation.Thus, anyone can interpret the poem as he wants and his meaning will be accurate for him.

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There can't be an objective, scientific answer to 'the meaning of dreams' because the effects are purely subjective. I've found by experience, however, that a dream is something like a 'meaning' without a stimulus event to cause it, like a semantic without a word. Usually or very often next day a waking event does occur and the dream meaning then becomes very clear by that event's occurrance. Neurologically, as the scientists suggest, the past days' events are incorporated into memory and in a relatively stable social environment will be recalled with the appropriate stimulus as might be expected. Subjectively, I think it is otherwise known as deju vu or very like it. In this sense a dream is predictive but, to avoid misunderstanding, only in this sense. For a 'scientific' enquiry into dream interpretation I recommend the theories of the psychologist C G Jung but it is no way a simple subject.

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The most useful works by C G Jung are: Symbols of Transformation (1967), Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (1969); Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self (1969); Psychology and Alchemy (1968); Alchemical Studies (1968); Mysterium ~Coniunctionis (1970); Spirit in Man, Art and Literature (1966). An informative introduction is Man and His Symbols (in paperback 1978). – Navy Davey Aug 21 '15 at 22:41

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