The science – and benefits – of dream interpretation

Sigmund Freud once wrote the following: “The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind.” For scientists like Freud, Carl Jung and Fritz Perls, dream interpretation was an important part of psychotherapy. In fact, all three believed that dreams could reveal unconscious desires and issues.

For a therapist, dream interpretation can have many benefits during a session. If a patient is new to therapy – or a particular therapist – the person may be less likely to immediately open up and talk about what’s going on. But if a therapist asks patients about their dreams, they’re more likely to talk about one. This avenue not only establishes rapport. It can also draw out what the unconscious issues might be.

Dreams have had a role in the human story throughout history. Some of the first stories ever written were about dreams. Dreams have played a part in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, among others. In the Talmud, there are over 200 references to dreams.

In Christianity, the beginning and the ending of Jesus’ story involved dreams. According to the New Testament, the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Joseph in a dream, telling him that the child Mary was carrying was the son of God. And the end of Jesus’ life, Pontius Pilate washed his hands when he gave Jesus to the crowd, indicating that he was “washing his hands” of the situation. He did this because his wife had a ‘troubled’ dream about Jesus.

“Dreams have been historically interesting to people,” said Frederick L. Coolidge, professor of psychology. “They have their place in religion, and they are part of our earliest stories.”

Yet, over the years, dream interpretation has been taught far less frequently, if at all, in master’s and PhD programs. Coolidge attributes this to the many specious and unscientific “dream interpretation” books on the market.

“There have been so many ridiculous, silly dream books,” he said. He’s referring to the books that tell you what different elements in your dream mean – as if all meanings of a particular thing in a dream can mean the same thing.

“There is no glossary of meaning, but dreams have meaning,” he said.

In his book, “The Science of Dream Interpretation,” Coolidge talks about the importance of dream interpretation in psychotherapy and how it may be used to draw out hidden issues.

“I think it’s a shame that we no longer teach the art and science of dream interpretations,” said Coolidge. “What’s really made it unpopular and made it flaky are these ridiculous books. They’ve made it so unscientific that programs shy away from it.”

Yet, going back to the roots of psychology with dream interpretation – and training future therapists to interpret dreams – has its benefits. They can develop rapport with their patients by asking about their dreams, and they can also freely associate to figure out what issues might be pushing their way out of the unconscious and into dreams.

“Because in general, people spend a lot of time being unhappy,” said Coolidge.

And this is where therapy can help – in both chronic and acute situations.

“Since people spend a portion of their lives unhappy, dream therapy is, maybe, a useful way to get to the roots of their unhappiness,” he said. “Psychotherapy generally operates on the premise that awareness, per se, is curative. Dreams are a way to make us aware of our problems.”

Professor Frederick L. Coolidge has received three teaching awards, including the lifetime designation, the University of Colorado Presidential Teaching Scholar and the UCCS Letters, Arts and Sciences Annual Outstanding Research and Creative Words Award. He is also a three-time Fulbright Fellowship Award recipient. He is the author of 14 books and his latest, “The Science of Dream Interpretation,” can be found wherever books are sold.