This leads us back to the question of what things we think are meaningful and how they get that way. One way of viewing this problem-of-meaning is through story-contexts. For some scientists, science is not about meaning and value at all, its about quantity and statistics. From this story or context, science can’t give an answer to the question of whether or not dreams are meaningful. One can’t start with a measure that has no meaning in itself and jump to any conclusions one way or the other about meaning from a statistic or measure. But science is guided by other stories and contexts besides statistics.
In biological sciences, the story-context that gives things meaning is evolution. If something fits into this context, it is considered meaningful and if it doesn’t involve evolution, its not considered meaningful. Are dreams advantageous to evolution, or are they an epiphenomena and functionless appendage like the appendix or tonsils? Are they essential to the well-being and continuation of the species and individual, or just something like poop that we excrete and don’t need to attend to for survival and passing on of genes?
Here are a few areas that science has investigated as to the functioning of dreams:
Memory consolidation – moving memories from short to long term memory.
Learning consolidation – organizing things we have learned during the day
Emotional contextualization – giving context to new emotions.
Clearing networks – cleaning up loaded neural networks.
Protecting Sleep – allowing imagination to spin stories instead of waking us up each disturbance.
Self Maintenance – to maintain our sense of self through sleep.
Problem solving – to resolve conflicts during the day and find creative solutions.
Hard-wiring during fetal development, soft wiring of neurons after birth.
There are scientists who point out that these are theories not proven facts which are clear as saying the heart pumps blood and the lungs process air and carbon dioxide. And so the debates and investigations and research continue. However, like the meaning of dream-content, the meaning of the dreaming process seems to be evolving in some ways to the same theoretical acceptance. That is, the dreaming process has many functions and meanings. Like most of our organs, dreaming seems to do more than one job. Sometimes the word “polyvocal” is used to express the notion of the dream having many voices, or “heterogeneous” to express the notion that dream come from many sources, are many things and have many parts and functions, many goals and desires.
But are we getting too far away from the original question of the meaning of dreams? Usually when this question is asked, it’s about a specific dream, such as “I was waking down an empty hall and saw an open window,” or “I married a woman who turned out to be my mother,” or “I started flying across a vast ocean of alien creatures.” Do these dream images have any meaning? Here the story-context is different than that of science. Here the question of meaning is more like “Is there a personal significance to me that is held in these dream images or story?” Or, “Is something or someone trying to tell me something through this dream?”
Hard science has yet to adequately address this issue as there is now a kind of brain-mind split in research. Hard science studies the brain and its observable effects. At this time we can’t directly observe the imagination and other subtle forces. Thus the hard-core dream sciences are left studying only the effects, impacts and changes that can be observed at this time with our tools for measuring objectively. However, we also have the humanities, which can go beyond the brain and objective behavior to study the mind and its productions.
In Clara Hill’s research for example 8, she uses statistics to compare different non-statistical feelings of meaning. In one experiment she had three conditions of therapy where people got to discuss their lives through different story-contexts. One used their own dream stories and another used their own life-event, and another used dreams, but they were someone else’s dreams. The clients were encouraged to use these various stories to explore the meaning and value of their lives, and then rate the satisfaction they felt in doing this. It was found that exploring one’s life through the lens of one’s own personal dreams was far more satisfying than using someone else’s dreams or using a life-event (usually a problem in one’s life).
Critics have noted that it’s too big a jump here to say that the study proves that dreams are meaningful. We can only say that upon waking, people can make meaning and give them value, but this doesn’t prove they are intrinsically meaningful. Like a rock on the ground, they say, it doesn’t become meaningful until it’s used.
This seems like a rather strict use of the application of meaning that almost creates a tautology. That is, if something weren’t meaningful unless a person uses it in a meaningful way, then by definition, that letter I got yesterday from my mom wouldn’t be meaningful unless I opened it. It is “Conscious use or function” that seems to be the lurking story-context that is in that kind of science. However, most scientists are willing to admit that life has many story-contexts that give life and its parts (like dreams) meaning and value. One scientist in dream science, Milton Kramer, MD, has stated that “Anything with structure has meaning,” and that “dreams clearly have structure.” 9 Here the story-context is more inclusive, but perhaps too inclusive. In Kramer’s definition of meaning, a loose rock in a rock pile is meaningful. It doesn’t necessarily get at the question most people want to know about when they ask if a dream is meaningful or not.
For the greater part of our century, the problem was usually expressed in the mind/body problem. The body was seen as material, the mind as non-material. Given this definition, science had little or nothing to say about how the mind and body might connect. If the mind was not material, how could it then act on material bodies? If the body was material, how could it influence and act on the mind? Therefore science decided to ignore the mind and study only the body. Some associationalism was admitted. That is, chains of actions and reactions were observed and assumed to somehow cross the body-mind barrier. The final result of this in psychology was Behaviorism, which attempts to look at all behavior without reference to the mind. However, many 19th and 20th Century scientists and researchers were not happy with the neglect of the mind and simply side-stepped the philosophical problem and looked at ways the mind and brain were influenced by the world and in turn, influenced the material world.
Please continue to Meaning of Dreams Pt 3