The science of interpreting common symbols in dreams

Many cultures believe that dreams tell the future, and the messages in our dreams are warnings. Gisela Giardino

Research shows that everyone, even those who claim they never dream, actually do. But few of us can make any sense of our dreams. My colleagues and I have been working on a way to try to make sense of dreams so they can be used as therapy.

Why we dream is still a mystery even though cultures the world over have believed they had the answer. Many believe that dreams tell the future, and the messages in our dreams are warnings.

Depressives are known to experience prolonged periods of rapid eye movement sleep, which is directly linked with unconscious emotional processing and dreaming. So it’s possible that the symbols in dreams will give therapists an understanding and a solution to depression.

Sigmund Freud thought that dreams indicated sexual problems, but since the subconscious mind had our best interest at heart, it disguised the abruptness of the message. Freud believed that if the analyst interpreted the dream for the neurotic patient, the patient’s psychological problem would be resolved.

Carl Jung disputed Freud’s theory and argued that dreams serve a compensatory function – if we are too one-sided in our conscious outlook, the dream warns us of the inherent danger in our thought and behaviour so we may modify them.

Perhaps these great minds were partly right in their theories, with both theorists seeing only part of the problem, so that the theories are only right in certain situations. This state of affairs can have dire consequences for a client receiving psychotherapy if it turns out that she is being misled.

Modern mental health professionals want to work with evidence-based theories. To get psychotherapy to the point where it’s efficient and reliable requires empirical work that allows researchers to accurately gauge true effects from false ones.

Lance Storm

A group of US researchers realised there was a strong subjective component to dream interpretation and, with the aim of establishing a more objective approach to it, they collaborated with a team of academics trained in psychotherapy who also had expert backgrounds in mythology, comparative religion and art history.

Together, they compiled a set of common dream symbols with their corresponding meaning words. These meaning words work as interpretations of dream symbols, and psychotherapists specialising in dream interpretation might find them useful in clinical practice.

Some of the more common symbols were inanimate (non-living) things such as the sun (masculine), the moon (feminine), comet (evil), and stairs (ascent). Included animals were dog (valour), snake (healing), butterfly (soul), dove (spirit), fish (transformation), and bull (power). The set of symbols also entailed concepts such as square (earth), and the numbers seven (completion) and eight (perfection).

The researchers confirmed that very few people were able to assign a symbolic interpretation to dream symbols. More importantly, they found that people were very good at remembering a symbol or meaning-word association but only if the meaning word had a good descriptive similarity to the symbol.

My colleague and I followed up that research using samples of mostly university students. We also made some additions and changes to the original experimental design, which included testing groups of people from different countries, ethnic, and educational backgrounds in order to show that the effects were the same for everyone.

We tested the strength of the symbol and word associations in three different ways, and replicated the US findings in each case.

In a simple memory test, where participants were first allowed to see the symbols matched with their correct meaning words, and later had to recall the words when only the symbols were shown, we again replicated the original findings. We found that participants’ average recall rate was an impressive 66%, and in some cases reached into the high 90% range.

We think the recall rates indicate how strong the symbol and meaning-word associations are, and the stronger the recall rate, the more reliable and accurate the associations must be. While the associations may be useful in the clinical setting, more work needs to be done before mental health professionals have a workable system for practical use. That’s because dreaming is a complex experience, and many symbols will need to be tested.

We also need to understand the inter-relationships and interactions that can exist between symbols, and work needs to be done on the narrative structure of dreams. But dream analysis could, in the near future, be useful in the treatment of depression.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner or in Australia, contact Lifeline 13 11 14 for support, beyondblue 1300 22 4636 or SANE Australia for information.

This is the fourth article in our short series on depression. Click on the links below to read the other articles:

Part one – Explainer: what is depression?

Part two – Treating depression ethically requires more than drugs

Part three – Predicting the risk of depressive disorder – promises and pitfalls

Part five – Genetic testing for depression creates an ethical minefield

Part six – Are antidepressants over-prescribed in Australia?

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