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Dreaming

The Many Functions of Dreaming

A response to the deniers of dream function.

Key points

  • In the study of dreams, linear reasoning lead to fruitless dead-ends.
  • A coherence approach is better, enabling the recognition of several innate functions of dreaming.
  • This approach highlights the autonomous spirit and psychological value of dreams.
Kelly Bulkeley
Kelly Bulkeley

Do dreams have any innate value or purpose? Some leading figures in the field say no, and that’s a problem. At a recent dream studies conference, I heard several talks by researchers who claimed that dreams may have beneficial uses, but no intrinsic meaning or function. My colleagues seemed to think they could balance their rejection of dream function with an acceptance of people using dreams for a variety of waking-life purposes.

A self-defeating model

This approach seems admirably balanced, both resolute and generous, both hard-nosed and open-minded. However, it should be seen as another way of denying the autonomous intentionality of dreaming, of rejecting its non-egoic power, its unconscious intelligence. The claim is that dreams have no meaning in themselves and are valuable only if usefully employed in the service of waking consciousness. Apart from these secondary uses, the primary nature of dreaming is deemed to be essentially random and pointless.

This, I believe, is dream denial with a smile.

What’s at issue isn’t whether dream research should be immune to critical questioning. The problem is assuming that the goal should be an unbroken linear chain of facts and reasoning, leading to an unassailable, unambiguous conclusion. Alas, any faulty link in the chain, or any contradictory fact, is sufficient to refute the conclusion, sending us back to square one. This may seem like a properly scientific attitude, but at least in the study of dreams, it is misleading and unhelpful. Because dreaming expresses itself in so many different forms and discloses so many different dimensions of meaning, such a model only guarantees frustration and failure for researchers who abide by its strictures.

A better approach

Instead of pursuing a single unbroken chain of factual reasoning, those who study dreams will make more progress by developing increasingly cohesive integrations of multiple forms of evidence. In this approach, the results of scientific experiments are brought into dialogue with historical texts, psychotherapy case studies, individual dream journals, anthropological field reports, and many other sources of dream research. If the test for valid theorizing is not non-contradiction but coherence, then numerous functions of dreaming can be identified:

  • Play—rooted in the evolutionary biology of play; a stimulus for flexibility, adaptability, and openness to novel experiences.
  • Healing—promoting recovery from illness and trauma; recognized by caregivers all over the world.
  • Artistic inspiration—artists don’t simply use their dreams; some dreams use their artists.
  • Memory/learning—processing emotional experiences from the day and integrating them into one's ongoing sense of self.
  • Anticipatory—looking ahead to future possibilities, preparing for both dangers and opportunities.
  • Spiritual discovery—prompting heightened existential awareness; stimulating new religious beliefs throughout history.

Each of these functions is supported by multiple sources of evidence. There is contrary evidence against each, too, so it can’t be said that these are universal functions (except, perhaps, play). But that does not rule them out as functions in many dreams, with coherent and mutually supporting sources of research showing them to be widely distributed and deeply rooted in other well-established aspects of human nature.

Crucially, these functions do not require conscious attention for their successful effects. They are all expressions of the essential autonomy of the dreaming imagination. They derive from the instinctive intelligence of the unconscious, and they operate according to the rhythmically dynamic powers of the brain and body during sleep. Personal and cultural practices can enhance these powers, but such practices are enhancing something that has its own intrinsic intentionality, prior to and apart from conscious awareness.

Who denies dreaming?

The dream studies conference I attended also included an Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of the play “Twelfth Night.” It made me think about characters in several of Shakespeare’s plays who eloquently but radically dismiss dreaming. Some of them (Imago in Cymbeline, Mercutio in Romeo & Juliet) give up hope in dreams as part of their anguish at the overwhelming cruelty of life. Other characters, however, who hold an apex position in the social hierarchy (Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Prospero in The Tempest, several kings in the history plays) haughtily reject dreams as nothing but trivial nonsense.

This suggests, to the extent that Shakespeare’s plays have psychological relevance today, that a denial of dreaming can express an ultimate cry of spiritual despair, and/or an arrogant assertion of worldly power. Perhaps a deeper level of self-reflection and critical awareness will be needed (not just more empirical evidence) to help the field of dream research move forward on this issue.

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