Questioning the meaning of dreams tends to make us think of colourful ‘dream symbolism’ dictionaries, which list reams of everyday items and detail the secrets they conceal about the inner workings of our psyche. Having looked up "birds" as eager eleven-year-olds, we were told that dreams involving these winged creatures "indicate a desire to escape ties by which your unconscious mind feels restricted". By now, though, cynical Oxford students that we are, we’ve probably dumped our wee dream dictionary next to our astrology books and letters to Santa.
It is through the work of Freud that this notion of dream symbolism has become so rooted in our collective consciousness. Freud theorised that in dreams we attempt to fulfil the wishes of our waking life, but, since many of these wishes are really rather naughty, our mind won’t allow us to view them in their naked truth. Therefore, our mind censors our dreams, with the result that our desires are transformed into innocuous objects which can get past this censor. These innocuous objects are the symbols which, when interpreted, reveal the ‘true’ meaning of our dreams.
Freudian theory has left a legacy in which dreams are expected to hold a revelatory psychological power. Yet, as soon as a curious romantic starts to look into contemporary science’s opinion, they’ll quickly see their hopes scythed down. Freud’s idea that our dreams carry a carefully veiled meaning is largely rejected as fanciful nonsense.
More convincing, but less satisfyingly debauched, is the theory that during sleep our mind is busy processing all the information which we’ve acquired whilst we are awake. This procedure involves erasing the unnecessary information and ‘cataloguing’ the rest. Thus, our experience of dreaming is a kind of ‘read-out’ of this mental process.
Yet the mystery hasn’t been entirely removed from dreaming. This latter theory still accepts the possibility that our dreams contain some fragmentary glimpses of subconscious, unarticulated desire. The theory is a mid-way point, since we do retain some of the intrigue of Freud’s view, but we don’t have to worry about the dark and disturbing symbolic value of our dreams.