I’m currently reading through Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. While I find much of what Freud says implausible, I think he’s right to say that dreams do have a meaning and can therefore be interpreted meaningfully. A few years ago, I would have dismissed Freud as nothing more than a pseudoscientist, and I thought that dream interpretation was bunk. That changed when I started listening to Jordan Peterson’s lectures.
Peterson relies on Jung more than on Freud, but Jung himself drew heavily from Freud’s work. What Peterson has taught me is that there is something (or a collection of things) in your mind that can be reasonably referred to as “the unconscious.” One can phrase this more intuitively as follows: There are components of your personality/mind that are somehow in opposition to one another and to the part of you that you think of as you (i.e. the ego).
How does this relate to dreaming? Dreams seem to be a product, at least in part, of the unconscious mind. My current mental picture of how dreams work is that there is a part of our minds which retrieves random information from the unconscious. We cannot direct this process, as far as I know. We have no control over what comes into our mind. Things just occur to us. This “occurring” happens both when we are awake and when we are asleep, but the presence of other stimuli causes us to mostly disregard these occurrences unless they are directly relevant. There are some exceptions, however. Earlier today, I had the chicken dance song pop into my head. God knows why.
I think our brain is constantly doing this, whether we are awake or asleep. When we are asleep, however, we don’t filter out the noise. Instead, we build on it and construct a world out of it. This is why dreams are often so nonsensical. They are the product of unfiltered thought.
It is hard to say exactly what dreams mean. But what is retained in memory is an indication of what is important. Dreams devoid of significant content are not as likely to be remembered. Likewise, the details which stick with you most are probably the ones that are most meaningful. It’s important to remember, though, that the fact that something sticks doesn’t make it significant. The chicken dance song wasn’t important to me this morning, but it stayed in my head for much longer than I would have liked.
I certainly put a lot less stock in dream interpretation than Freud does. I do not think that what the unconscious dreaming process produces has a lot to say about you on its own. I do, however, think that the nature of the things in your dreams which strike you most can tell you something important about what you value. The same is true of the way that unwarranted thoughts that occur to us affect us. What matters is not the thought itself, but our reaction to it.