On March 30, Chareeni Kurukulasuriya ’16 found herself trapped inside a castle. Out the windows, she could see a mountain and a wintry forest. Inside the castle were a flashing orange light and a playful yet threatening dragon that had transformed itself into a human. She was mid-conversation with the dragon-human when she suddenly awoke in her bed at Morse College.
Still half-asleep, she reached her hand out of her covers to type down the main plot points into her iPhone. Chareeni estimates that records of her dreams make up 60 percent of the recent notes on her phone’s Notes app. (The rest, she says, are to-do lists and IOUs.) She’s always been able to remember many of her dreams — maybe one or two a night. But this month, she made a habit of recording as many dreams as she could. She said she started it for use as fodder for dining hall conversations, not self-analysis.
Then came the dragon dream. Chareeni says her dreams are usually mundane “school life” dreams, so the dragon dream stuck out. Hearing about it, a friend suggested Chareeni visit a dream analysis site, “Dreammoods.com,” to see what the dream might mean.
Chareeni was suspicious of the site, which houses a “Dream Dictionary” of symbols ranging from the abacus (“You have an old fashion [sic] perspective on certain issues”) to zoomorphism (“To dream that you are changing into the form of an animal indicates that you are becoming less civilized, less restrained”). The definitions seemed vague. Some, like “Guacamole: To eat or make guacamole in your dream indicates a positive change,” seemed less than scientific.
Some of the entries, however, for “dragon,” “mountain,” and other images in her dream, accurately described feelings she’d been having recently about a personal decision. She says that, to a certain extent, the accuracy was probably a result of the site’s vagueness and of her looking for a way to make sense of the dream. Still, since then, she’s been paying even more attention to her dreams.
“I see [dreams] to be more relevant to my actual life than I did before,” she says. “I’d always just assumed it was random, just random electrical signals.”
People used to be more interested in what dreams had to tell them. In the heyday of psychoanalysis, from the 1920’s post-war period to the 1970s, dream analysis was a mainstream part of psychology, and Sigmund Freud’s 1899 book The Interpretation of Dreams was a huge hit. In it, Freud theorizes that dreams have deeper meanings that can reveal a person’s deepest motivations or desires going back to childhood. The book found its way to America via a 1913 English translation, though it was shocking to many at the time because of its explicit sexual content.
Inspired by Freud’s theories, therapists began putting more emphasis on dream analysis during their sessions. By the 1970s, people around the world were interested in playing therapist and analyzing dreams on their own. Books like British psychologist Ann Faraday’s The Dream Game, which offered step-by-step dream analysis instructions, grew popular.
Like many psychologists at the time, Faraday thought dreams gave us important information and new ways to understand our preoccupations and ourselves, believing that dreams should be interpreted literally and then metaphorically. In The Dream Game, she wrote, “Dreams do not come to tell us what we know already.”
Today, however, emphasis on dream analysis in therapy and pop culture has declined, and many of Freud’s ideas are no longer taken seriously. While still a part of psychotherapy, dream interpretation has been replaced by newer, more proven techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses on helping patients address the thoughts and feelings that might be having a negative influence in their behavior. Today, “dream interpretation” may summon thoughts less of science and psychology than of crazy-sounding theories and psychedelic hippie culture.
Yale professor Paul North, who has taught a Yale Summer Session philosophy course called “The Logic of Dreams” for the past five years, thinks that it’s a problem that our society is paying less and less attention to dreams.
“Psychology has turned away from introspection toward empirical studies, and dreams don’t make good evidence,” North said. He decided to teach the class to help students get in touch with the different type of experience that is dreaming. “A general assumption in a scientific society is that dreams are logical,” he pointed out, “but a lot of people think that there’s just a different logic.”
Deirdre Barrett, a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School, agrees. Barrett, who teaches a class on dreams to Harvard undergraduates, recently published a book called The Committee of Sleep about the benefits of using information from dreams in waking life.
During sleep, Barrett says, the brain shows lowered activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with reasoning and censorship, but higher activity in the secondary visual cortex, which creates visual images. Barrett believes this altered, less-censored state can be useful for problem solving, as it makes us less likely to cast away out-of-the-box ideas.
In one 1986 study of 76 college students, when the students were asked to briefly ponder a personal problem before going to bed for a week and record their dreams, around half of these students believed that by the end of the week, they’d had a dream related to the problem. Of these, a majority said their dream had revealed a solution.
Academics who study dreams disagree on whether most people can really rely on dreams for problem solving. But, Barrett said, the visualization that goes on in dreams can be useful for anyone.
“Our culture puts so much emphasis on logical, linear, verbal reasoning,” she said. “We certainly have something to gain from emphasizing and paying more attention to the kinds of thinking that go on in dreams.”
Every student in Paul North’s “The Logic of Dreams” seminar, to be offered at Yale again this summer, must keep a dream journal. North thinks that keeping records of dream experience is important because of what they can tell us about ourselves. He says students in his class often feel opened up to new aspects of themselves through recording and interpreting their dreams.
For Ed Dong ’17, dream interpretation can come at a cost. Ed said he always enjoyed the escapism of dreams. That is, until he read Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams in his “Introduction to Theory of Literature” course this semester.
For a month during the class, Ed obsessively psychoanalyzed his dreams, to the point that he stopped enjoying them. He did say, however, that the over-analysis did make him discover things about himself. Sometimes, people he knew in real life would appear in his dreams with some gross deformity, like “a goat’s head” or “weird fins.” Upon waking from these dreams, Ed realized that something about the people who had appeared in the dreams hda been making him uncomfortable. He just hadn’t been able to admit to himself before.
Peter Morgan, an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine who studies lucid dreaming, thinks that considering how “well-defended” people are in daily life, dreams do provide a crucial reality check.
“People who are dreaming are reflecting on something in their life,” he said. “People benefit from being able to look into themselves and see what’s affecting them.”
The trouble, Morgan finds, is that students aren’t sleeping enough to even dream much in the first place.
Caroline Kanner ’17 always remembers her dreams first thing in the morning. Since she usually doesn’t write them down, she often forgets them later. But, every other day, a dream sticks. Her favorite dream from last week involved her driving her car past a golf course covered with flamingoes, enough that the grass was no longer visible.
Caroline gets between nine and ten hours of sleep a night (she’s found she “can’t function on eight”). So even though Caroline doesn’t always remember her dreams, she’s probably dreaming a lot more than her peers are.
Dreaming, along with a lot of memory retention, mainly happens during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. REM sleep, occurring starting 70 minutes after falling asleep, comes in spurts every 90 minutes that grow longer and longer as you sleep from a few minutes in the first REM period to more than 20 minutes by the end of the night.
That means that if you sleep four hours instead of eight, you aren’t losing half of your potential dreaming time — you’re losing three-fourths of it. Even with six hours of sleep, you’re losing at least half of your REM sleep, and with it a lot of dreaming time.
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommends seven to eight hours of sleep each night for adults. One Stanford University sleep researcher suggests most college students should get “well over eight hours.” Yet 70 percent of college students get under eight hours a night; most average only around six-and-a-half to seven hours of sleep a night.
The college student sleep deficit has gotten worse over the years. One 1992 study found a nearly 10 percent decrease in consistent sleep schedules among students between 1978 and 1992. Now, under a page of “Common College Health Issues” on Brown University’s website, a section about sleep begins: “College students are among the most sleep-deprived people in the country.”
Morgan finds this upsetting. He calls voluntary sleep deprivation an “epidemic.”
“Our bodies haven’t evolved to get as little sleep as we do on average,” he said. “We have to make a commitment to being in bed for eight hours a night, and as we get older that commitment is harder to make. People don’t value sleep as much as they should.”
Maybe if students became more aware of dreams, Morgan said, they would appreciate sleep more. That, he thought, would be a “major success.”
At Harvard, Deirdre Barrett teaches a 15-person undergraduate seminar on dreams, in which students keep a dream journal and learn about theories of interpretation. Every year, she says, around 200 students try to sign up.
Barrett hears the same thing from colleagues who study dreams: when you suggest dreams as an idea for a class, other psychologists think it shouldn’t receive high priority in the department, and doubt that there will be much demand. She says she can understand the first thought. Neuroscience is making huge advances, and she gets why it might take precedent over the murkier realm of dream psychology. The second thought, she says, is “absolutely dead wrong.”
“Students are extremely interested in [dreams],” she told me. “And if you give a talk in a bookstore on dreams, it will be one of the best attended talks.”
Paul North’s “The Logic of Dreams” seminar is taught only during the summer. He tried the class during the school year, but found it was less successful because students signed up thinking it was a place to discuss their own dreams rather than learn about philosophical theories on dreaming.
When I asked Peter Morgan, who has worked at Yale for years and went here as an undergraduate, if he’d heard of dream classes being taught at Yale, he responded that he wasn’t aware of any strong history. Dreams, he said, tend to be an offbeat topic — “not because people think they’re not important. But, with psychotic states, the problem is people haven’t understood how to study them or how to apply knowledge into something meaningful.”
Recently, an explosion of new scanning technologies in the field of neuroscience has sparked new findings about the dreaming brain. In 2013, Japanese scientists in Kyoto used MRI technology, an electroencephalography machine, brain scans and a computer algorithm to predict the images seen by dreamers with 60 percent accuracy. The machine, which considers data and analyzes the neurological patterns of its subjects, could translate contents of dreams into objective data. And from dream recording apps like DreamCloud and Dreamborad, Barrett said scientists today have hundreds of thousands of dreams to use as data points in their studies.
Chareeni said she would like to be able to take a class on dreams at Yale, especially one that discusses contemporary science research. She’s found that since her dragon dream, she’s been more confident in the decision she’d been contemplating. And while she hasn’t analyzed any more of her own dreams, she’s gone on Dreammoods.com again to analyze a friend’s dream.
“I think it’s mostly an entertainment thing,” she said of the site. “I don’t think I’m going to base life decisions on that, but at least it makes what you dream about less random and more of a way to think about what things you’re fixated on or self-conscious about.”
Chareeni doesn’t know what Yale would be like if students decided to focus more on their dreams. She said she thought most people would enjoy it, and maybe it would incite people to take more chances and be “a little more brave” if they were inspired by what they could do in their dreams.
One thing she’s sure of: “Dreams are fun stories, and they’re worth having to remember.”