Dreams have been interpreted in hundreds of ways from the beginning of history (and probably before that). I have a friend named Brian who leads a Meetup group on Dream Interpretation. I can’t join them because I don’t like online meetings, and it’s out of reach from my current location.
A dream might be interpreted as a message from God, such as Jacob’s dream of a ladder to heaven, with Angels ascending and descending, Gen 10:28, or later his wrestling with an angel, Gen 32:22. It might be Joseph interpreting the Egyptian Pharaoh’s several dreams which his viziers failed to do, Gen 41: 1-36, or effectively, the whole book of Daniel, with which the following Wikipedia articles deal. Ch 2 gives Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a Giant made with 4 metals and feet of metal and clay. In Ch 3 Daniel’s friends are cast into a fiery furnace for refusing to worship Nebuchadnezzar. In Ch 4 Nebuchadnezzar is made to live like a beast. In Ch. 5, Nebuchadnezzar’s son Belshazzar sees the writing on the wall, and Persia conquers Babylon – around 520 BCE.
Visions could be dismissed as something one ate, which Scrooge attempted in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol from which the following exchange with Scrooge’s deceased partner Marley is taken: “You don’t believe in me,” observed the Ghost. “I don’t,” said Scrooge. “What evidence would you have of my reality beyond that of your senses?” “I don’t know,” said Scrooge. “Why do you doubt your senses?”. “Because,” said Scrooge, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”
Visions like Scrooge’s are generally dismissed by modern psychology as illusions, as this Aeon discussion points out, but science hasn’t and won’t eliminate them. I think that’s because visions and science deal with totally different kinds of reality. Modern era psychology deals a lot with dreams however, and their meaning. Carl Jung talked a lot about them – at times saying they give objective (if covered) descriptions of the dreamer; and at times saying they are purely symbolic. An article in the British Institute for Applied Psychology discusses Jung. I find Jung interesting personally, as he was greatly influenced by Emanuel Swedenborg, whose theology I follow. Jung took from Swedenborg his belief in the dual (masculine and feminine) aspects of our spiritual selves.
Freud in his early years used dream interpretation as well. At age 30 he spent a year in Paris and learned hypnotherapy from Jean-Martin Charcot, but left him to join with his Viennese mentor and friend Josef Breuer. He broke with the latter as well to develop his own ‘Psychoanalysis’. Even so, in 1900, at age 33, he published Traumdeutung (The Interpretation of Dreams) which was ‘his favorite’. This very short article from Dr. Jay Gordon shows the close connection between Hypnotherapy and Dream Analysis.
Freud borrowed hypnotherapy techniques from his famous Viennese friend and tutor Josef Breuer, discussed in another article from the Australian Institute of Applied Psychology. However, his take on dreams differed. He thought they revealed what patients had suppressed from fear of their own forbidden and painful thoughts. He could use talk therapy and suggestion to bring these to the surface, and be treated. Freud’s life stages, publications and changing views are described thoroughly in this Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article.
Dreams, Sleep, and Sleep Disorders are discussed in this long article from the Cleveland Clinic. I recommend the sections on REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and Non REM stages of sleep. Much is still to be learned about brain chemistry, neural actions, body movements, and ‘Happiness Hormones’ – Serotonin, Dopamine, Endorphins and Oxytocin. Needless to say, none of this science is concerned with religious beliefs.
The title of this post – What Can I Learn From Dreams? – is ambiguous. That’s because ‘learning’ is a multi-faceted term, running the gamut from a child’s repetition of word sounds all the way to the direct perception of truth as ‘the way things are’. I had a dream 2 weeks ago that was so strange and vivid I had to wake up and write down a couple words, though I was exhausted. In the dream, as usual, I was much younger – talking to some people younger than I (students perhaps). I said “The bit was hardly in his mouth when he took off!” Someone asked “What does that mean?” I couldn’t answer. I did not know that expression. I had to look it up in the dictionary the next day. Although many readers will be skeptical, I believe I learned something true – a fact – that I had never known before.