[Originally in Health Beat, Richmond Register, September 2013]

As a counselor, I have been asked multiple times, “Do dreams really mean anything?”  My response is one of psychology’s most tattered, die-hard responses: It depends.

Societies around the world have long historical and cultural associations about dream content.  Some consider dreams to be visitations by spirits, messages from God, psychic predictions of the future, evidence of a past life and the like.  For people looking for confirmation of these types of theories about dreams and dreaming, I can only say that psychology offers no ready answers.  They must seek them in metaphysics, meditation or religion.  The psychological discipline today limits itself to what can be reliably observed and consistently replicated.  Dreams, yes.  Spiritual visitations?  Alas, no.

Sigmund Freud was one of the early thinkers who tried to make ideas about dreams “more scientific,” by fitting them into his theories about an “unconscious mind” and calling them “symbolic content.”  Ultimately, Freud’s symbols proved to be too rigid to be useful, and are considered by mainstream psychology today as antiquated; at least in their original form.

Personally, I think the only way we can speak about dreams is to ask a different question:  “Can dreams be useful?”  And there is evidence that whether dreams have a “real meaning” or are instead just random brain cells shooting off in the skull, people can and have harnessed their dreams for some meaningful purpose in their waking life.  Several song writers have admitted to being inspired by dream content, including Paul McCartney and Billy Joel.  Scientists too can thank their dreaming experiences for influencing their work.  Dmitry Mendeleyev awakened from a particular dream with the form for the periodic table of elements that chemists still use today, while Paul Horowitz had the same experience before finding the successful design for the laser telescope controls.  In the political arena, Mahatma Gandhi drew from a dream his passion for nonviolenet protest against the British in India.

My own life has been far less distinguished, with or without visitations to Dreamland.  But I too have managed to give my dreams purpose, and to therefore, make them “mean” something.  In 2004, for example, I had a dream about a college friend I hadn’t seen in at least a year.  The next day, I decided to give her a call, because the memory was still fresh.  She told me later that my call had come at a time she was making important decisions about her career, and because we had talked, she eventually successfully found a new job!  In a sense, my dream “meant” a new career path for her.

So my advice is to find creative ways to use your dreams.  Of course, 95% of dreams are forgotten, except for the ones that happen in the time right before we wake up.  To preserve them, keep pad and paper next to your bed.  Write some of them down, even if all you get are a few sentences of barely legible scribble.  Then think about them throughout your day.  Even the most hard-core science-minded type will admit that the sleeping brain is chemically different than the waking one.  No matter how weird the stories it generates, or how old the content, you might be surprised at how dreams can make you think in directions different than what you normally would.