Why News Articles About Dreams Mean Less Than We Think

Today, I’m going to take one of the many news articles about dreams on the internet and show why it’s crap.

The sad thing is that so many of them are, and that they get away with it so easily. Most people don’t know much about dreams, so they’re liable to trust anyone on a reliable news site who claims to know more. And because dreams are such a rare topic of discussion, badly-founded opinions survive for a long time.

And yet, articles on dreams do appear every once in a while. They mostly stay within the bounds of one of two popular opinions: that certain types of dreams have certain predictable meanings, and that dreams are complete nonsense. The article I’ll be examining here is one of the latter: an article from the health section of Time Magazine entitled “Why Dreams Mean Less Than We Think”.

This title is provocative, a bid for readers’ attention based either on indignation at having their views contradicted or self-satisfaction at having them echoed. It leads us to expect something authoritative—say, evidence to support the statement. For an article like this one, which contains no evidence, it instead leaves the reader with the impression that they have read something authoritative, instead of the opinions of someone who doesn’t know much more than they do.

The article begins:

“Most people dream enthusiastically at night, their dreams seemingly occupying hours, even though most last only a few minutes. Most people also read great meaning into their nocturnal visions. In fact, according to a new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the vast majority of people in three very different countries — India, South Korea and the United States — believe that their dreams reveal meaningful hidden truths.”

Claim #1: “Most people dream enthusiastically at night.” Fair enough. Given that the vast majority of dreams are negative in tone, “enthusiastically” is perhaps not the best adjective to use, but it does make for an engaging beginning.

Claim #2: “…their dreams seemingly occupying hours, even though most last only a few minutes.” The jury is out on this one. My own opinion is that dreams do not require time in the way waking life experience does, and many experiments support this—but there are also experiments that seem to throw it into doubt. It’s even possible that this is something that varies among dreams and dreamers. So I’ll let this one slide.

Claim #3: “The vast majority of people in three very different countries believe that their dreams reveal meaningful hidden truths.” This is a claim made by the study this article is reporting on—a paper entitled “When Dreaming is Believing: The (Motivated) Interpretation of Dreams”. I checked, and it is indeed what the study claims—but I still have some reservations, which will become apparent in the next paragraph.

Paragraph 2

“According to the study, 74% of Indians, 65% of South Koreans and 56% of Americans hold an old-fashioned Freudian view of dreams: that they are portals into the unconscious.”

First of all: since when was 56% a vast majority? It’s barely a majority at all.

I don’t even know where to begin with the rest of the problems with this. To identify belief in an unconscious mind with Freudian psychology is just plain wrong. Almost every variety of dream interpretation holds that there is some sort of unconscious, although not all of them call it by that name. And to identify the view that dreams convey “hidden truths about the self” exclusively with Freud is worse yet: this could describe everything from orthodox Freudianism to mystical theology. But this is a problem with the original study as well as the article.

In a survey, participants had to rate four theories of dreams on their plausibility: psychoanalytic theory, reverse-learning theory, Activation-Synthesis, and the problem-solving theory of dreams. Even though I’m not a Freudian, I’d have to say that the psychoanalytic option is the best option there too, especially because of the way they phrased it: “dreams reveal hidden truths when emotions buried in the unconscious surface in disguised form”. There is a lot of leeway for interpretation there, as well as with the phrasing of the other options. It was irresponsible of the researchers to conclude that because that answer was most frequently chosen, most people endorse the Freudian view of dreams.*

And on that note: I wonder how many Freudians there are in India? I’d wager it’s somewhat less than 74% of the population.

Paragraph 3

“But after so many years of brain research showing that most of our everyday cognitions result from a complex but observable interaction of proteins and neurons and other mostly uncontrolled cellular activity, how can so many otherwise rational people think dreams should be taken seriously? After all, brain activity isn’t mystical but — for the most part — highly predictable.”

I usually don’t try to fight neurological claims—especially claims as vague as this one. Suffice it to say that the use of “otherwise” here contradicts all of paragraphs 5 and 6, which claim that most people aren’t rational.

Paragraph 4

“The authors of the study — psychologists Carey Morewedge of Carnegie Mellon University and Michael Norton of Harvard — offer a few theories. For one, dreams often feature familiar people and locations, which means we are less willing to dismiss them outright. Also, because we can’t trace the content of dreams to an external source — because that content seems to arise spontaneously and from within — we can’t explain it the way we can explain random thoughts that occur to us during waking hours. If you find yourself sitting at your desk and thinking about a bomb exploding in your office, you might say to yourself, “Oh, I watched 24 last night, so I’m just remembering that episode.” But people have a harder time making sense of dreams. Maybe 24 caused the dream, we think — or maybe we’re having a premonition of an attack. We love to interpret dreams widely, and those acts of interpretation give dreams meaning.”

As I have written before, I do actually believe that interpretation can give dreams meaning, although not in the way this article is assuming. For that matter, a study of how dreams themselves demonstrate heuristic thinking could be fascinating—if it were done better than this one was.

Paragraphs 5 & 6
“Human beings are irrational about dreams the same way they are irrational about a lot of things. We make dumb choices all the time on the basis of silly information like racial bias or a misunderstanding of statistics — or dreams. Morewedge and Norton quote one of the most famous modern studies to demonstrate our collective folly, from a paper written by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman that was published in Science in 1974. In that paper, Tversky and Kahneman discuss an experiment in which subjects were asked to estimate the percentage of African countries represented in the U.N. Before they guessed, a researcher spun a wheel of fortune in front of them that landed on a random number between 0 and 100. People tended to pick an answer that wasn’t far from the number on the wheel, even though the wheel had nothing to do with African countries.”

“Countless experiments over the ensuing decades have confirmed that most of us make this so-called anchoring mistake — that is, making a decision based largely on an unrelated piece of information, like a random number that appears on a wheel. Anchoring occurs all the time, like when you’re asked to look at your Social Security number before answering a question (you’re more likely to pick an answer close to the digits in your SSN). A team of researchers even showed in a 2003 paper in the Quarterly Journal of Economics that people will endure more physical discomfort (exposure to an unpleasant noise) for less monetary compensation in a lab setting when they are anchored prior to the experiments to smaller monetary amounts. As I said, we all make dumb choices based on silly information. That’s why we invest meaning in dreams.”

There is no connection between the experiments cited and the claim that dreams do not mean anything. We have a term for that in logic: Non Sequitur. Ironically, if a reader were to think that the cited studies provide evidence that dreams are meaningless, they would be guilty of a  type of reasoning very similar to the one described above. This part is also borrowed from the study, and so we are once again looking at bad science as well as bad journalism.

Paragraph 7

“That being said, dumb choices aren’t necessarily bad ones. A final finding from the study: When people have dreams about good things happening to their good friends, they are more likely to say those dreams are meaningful than when they have dreams about bad things happening to their friends. Similarly, we invest more meaning in dreams in which our enemies are punished and less meaning in dreams in which our enemies emerge victorious. In short, our interpretation of dreams may say a lot less about some quixotic search for hidden truth than it does about another enduring human quality: optimistic thinking.”

It is true that people are prone to optimistic thinking, and those of us who are deeply involved with dreams tend to be more optimistic than most. Except for Freudians. And except for me. I’m quixotic minus the optimism—i.e., just plain obsessive.

But I do wish dream interpreters were a little more open to the possibility that dream-interpretation may involve self-deception. If you interpret your dreams night after night with an open mind, the process seems to be self-correcting, so perhaps there isn’t too much cause for worry. I just wish everyone wasn’t so damn certain. But unjustified certainty seems to be even more enduring than optimism is.

And for the final stroke: the study being reported does not actually attempt to prove that dreams mean less than we think, as the article’s title implies. The study takes it as a given that dreams are only meaningful as personal reactions to external events. What is being investigated—as the study’s title indicates— is how people’s beliefs affect their interpretations of dreams. From paragraph 3 onward, this news article is not actually reporting the study’s results, but borrowing from it to support a view of dreams that was assumed by the study to begin with, making the whole article nothing but a giant case of circular reasoning! It is not only misleading but fallacious from beginning to end.

When I decided to critique “Why Dreams Mean Less Than We Think,” I believed that what I would mostly have to correct were errors in the article itself. It wasn’t until I read the study it is reporting that I realized how many of the errors had simply been elaborated on. This, it seems, is how misinformation about dreams and dream-theories is spread.

I’ll have to return to the study sometime, and give it a going-over in its own right. But in the meantime, I can offer a resource for readers who actually want to learn about dreams: Dreamresearch.net. All of the studies reported there are extraordinarily conservative in the conclusions they draw about dreams, and even then I disagree with some of them, but it was my introduction to dream studies, and I would still recommend it to others who are looking for a place to begin. Or else you could read consciousness researcher Ryan Hurd’s thoughtful perspective on the study’s implications.


* The last time I checked, this study’s complete identification of Freud with the idea of dreams containing hidden meaning was also being parroted on Wikipedia’s dream page.


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