ScienceDaily has really been covering some great dream research studies recently. Earlier this week, SD reported on a group of studies that look into how ordinary people find meaning in their dreams.
The studies cited investigated under which conditions do people find meaning in their dreams. Their results, surveyed from various groups of US commuters and students, indicate that, in the US, people are more likely to find meaning in their dream if the dream reinforces something they already believe.
The lead investigator is Carey Morewedge, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University. She suggests that
“people attribute meaning to dreams when it corresponds with their pre-existing beliefs and desires. This was also the case in another experiment which demonstrated that people who believe in God were likely to consider any dream in which God spoke to them to be meaningful; agnostics, however, considered dreams in which God spoke to be more meaningful when God commanded them to take a pleasant vacation than when God commanded them to engage in self-sacrifice.”
I” m not too surprised by these results. In the US, dreams are not part of polite conversation. This is not a dreaming culture, to put it mildly. While some US sub-cultures engage in regular dream sharing (such as African-American religious communities in the Southeastern US), most Americans who are interested in exploring their dreams must do so alone, relying on hackneyed dream dictionaries that they find in the Astrology section in used book stores.
The studies above suggest that, for the most part, normally neurotic people who grow up in a non-dreaming culture will only attribute meaning to their dreams when it can support a personal mythology they are already entrenched within. This is an important sociological finding. Unfortunately, it does not reveal too much about the nature of dreams themselves: only the way we let ourselves be influenced by dreams in the techno-rational West.
Dream Interpretation in Context
Today’s social pattern is not typical of dream interpretation systems. In fact, solo dream interpretation is mostly an artifact of Western civilization. Dream interpretation, which has a long and storied history, is usually a communicatory event. Anthropologically-speaking, while dreams can reinforce cultural scripts, they are just as likely to upset accepted norms and taboos. Indeed, dreams shared in public can uncover deadly secrets, reveal dangerous ecological behavior, and mediate disputes between family groups.
You don’t have to go to Polynesian islands to see dream cultures like this at work: there are many in the US, including the modern dream sharing movement that arose 30 years ago. In my experience, sharing dreams can break down psychological defenses just as easily as it can reinforce them. Bad dream work might reveal that you are finally reconnecting with the Goddess. Good dreamwork might reveal that your entire matrilineal line has suffered from a fear of men’s infidelity for centuries. Or vice versa.
By the way, another study published by Morewedge and associates indicated that their sample group of 182 Bostonians are more likely to not board an airplane if they have a dream about a mishap — more likely than if a government warning is issued about terrorist activity. Maybe the US is on its way to becoming a dreaming culture after all…
But I already knew this – this study just reinforces my belief in it.
Image cc: Plane Falling out of the Sky by oHoTos