When I opened my email this morning, I found that a friend had sent me a link to a recent article on dreams in the New York Times. I sighed when I saw her comment that yet again, a major media organ has chosen to ignore the rich everyday experience of dreamers in favor of the kind of reductionist science that holds dreams to be "meaningless". I was reluctant to click on the link. At the precise moment I did so, the lightbulb in the lamp over my desk blew.
Synchronicity strikes again. When I replaced the bulb and read the article, I saw that the Times had indeed chosen to turn out the light on our understanding of dreams. Following a paper by Harvard sleep researcher J. Allan Hobson, the piece promotes the theory that the main function of REM-state sleep, associated with visual dreaming, is physiological. "The brain is warming its circuits, anticipating the sights and sounds and emotions of waking." Forget about any other functions of dreaming, and don't fret if you forget your dreams. All that's going on in dreams is that your brain is getting a nightly tuneup. Beyond this, dreams are "meaningless."
The poverty of this kind of thinking is risible. To try to understand dreaming solely by monitoring the behavior of the sleeping brain is like trying to understand how a TV series is made by poking around in the innards of the television set, ignoring the scriptwriters, the production crew, the actors and the imagination that conceive and make the show, and the technology involved in getting the signal to your home.
Contrary to the New York Times it isn't only a few therapists, New Agers and "ancient mystics" who think dreams matter. The common understanding of most human cultures, across most of our odyssey on this planet, is that dreaming is part of our survival mechanism and a primary source of meaning and course correction in our lives. Dreaming, we scout ahead of ourselves and visit the possible future, rehearsing for challenges and opportunities that lie ahead on our life roads. I speak from first-hand experience when I say that catching dream clues to the future, reading them correctly and taking appropriate action can literally save your life. Most human cultures - and many good physicians - have also understood that dreaming is medicine: our dreams diagnose possible problems in the body, and when we get sick, our dreams are a fecund source of imagery for self-healing and recovery. Most important, our dreams give us a direct line to sources of wisdom far deeper than the daily trivial mind . Without meaning in our lives, we are less than human, and dreaming awakens us to our bigger stories and helps to restore our inner compass.
In my book The Secret History of Dreaming I report - with extensive documentation - many cases of how dreams have guided great lives and shaped great events in fields ranging from quantum physics to rock music. But the Times has a tin ear for humanity's dream song. It seems their writer did not even hear Larry Page, the co-founder of Google, when he told a crowd at his alma mater, the University of Michigan, last spring that a dream inspired Google and offered this sage advice to his audience: "If you have a big dream, grab it." Now, that's a comment on dreams worth hearing - and acting on.
The article referred to above is "A Dream Interpretation: Tuneups for the Brain", by Benedict Carey, published in the New York Times on November 9, 2009.