Dreams have whatever significance we choose to attach to them. Freud would have us believe, for example, that flying dreams reflect a desire for sexual activity whereas falling ones reveal a fear of impotence. Sex is always very important in Freudian thought, though flying dreams could merely suggest one likes Superman comics.
Because dreams are filled with images and actions often involving a mixed up story in which familiar people do odd things, those inclined to believe in prophesy will consider them to be predictions. This sounds far more impressive if one uses the more mystical and metaphysical-sounding word, 'prognostications'. Seers and soothsayers and Indians on spirit quests like to see lessons and answers in dreams.
In a computer age, the notion that dreams are a kind of hard drive defragmentation process appeals to me. This is where our sleeping minds make sense of the data we have accumulated so that we see images and scenarios during that process. We seek solutions for problems at night which eluded us in the day.
Am I convinced by these ideas? Do dreams echo our sexual desires, prophesy future events, or are our offline minds organising data? Each idea has merit but, in this article, I shall try to 'dream up' my own.
Thirty years ago, I jotted down some dreams on waking. This, I believe, was something I did based on advice from Freud's 'Interpretation of Dreams'. I seem to recall that he suggested having a pen and paper to hand especially.
What I recall from the notes I made at the time is that my dreams were like films. In one, family and friends marched around my house lit up by candles, chanting. Then I was at school, setting fire to a knight in woollen armour who lay in a coffin in the dining hall. Soon after that I was in a park near a hanged man, explaining in the style of a television detective a brilliantly deduced series of factors that led police to arrest the owner of a nearby shop. On reading this back I had a good laugh and came to a few conclusions.
For example, there had seemed to be an internal logic within the dream. However, the exact opposite was true when reading back my notes. The stories had no real logic or sense when analysed in the cold light of day.
Sexual, prophetic, or internal data-organising functionality could not reasonably be inferred, so something else was probably happening.
This is my best guess: life is about process. Even a sentence must contain a verb and works best with a subject and an object. That is to say, we spend our whole lives doing something to something, e.g. 'a man picks up a book'. We may be witnesses to actions, e.g, 'a tree falls on a wall'. We may think we can break out of this by doing nothing but, ironically, in doing 'nothing' we are actually doing something.
We can lie still but we still lie, so we're still doing something.
This inescapable process is something only death ends for us. In the interim we are on a constant journey of activity. We eat, wake, sleep, love, fall, run and so on. People typically live in social groupings, surrounded by social behaviour to witness.
Not satisfied with this much action people get more through the media. They watch 'Iron Man' or someone else, real or imagined, on their TV. They read adventures in books. They listen to radio plays and imagine yet more things. People are entertained vicariously by endless stories.
Our entire lives are, quite literally, are just one thing after another.
So, my view is this: we can't stop the action even in our sleep. We have to have it. Daydreams and worries from our waking hours may simply be echoed by dreams at night.
Might things we dream relate to sex, predicting the future, or the making sense of our day? Maybe, but, if my suggestion is correct, then it hardly matters. The main thing is simply that we are creatures moving through time and experiences. Until death stops time and our rush and blunder through it, our minds may simply never really stop thinking even when we go to sleep.
One of the strongest and most memorable types of dream must surely be a nightmare. In these we face demons and perils that terrify us. 'Hansel and Gretel' by Hans Christian Anderson has a lot to answer for so far as I am concerned because I had terrible dreams as a child involving a ginger-bread house and a witch trying to do me harm. This was simply an acting out of the story, of course.
The nightmare hits us at a deep emotional level and we react with horror and fear. These are actually defence mechanisms useful to our survival in real life. We are right to run away from enemies sometimes. A nightmare is an acting out of things that can hurt us getting close. This may be seen as quite a good thing that we can reinforce such sensible behaviours even in our sleep.
I think, again, that it hardly matters. Facing fears or flying over the rooftops, marching about with candles, chanting, or whatever we dream, the core principle remains that of action by us or to us. The show must and does go on. We sometimes react calmly to it and sometimes with panic.
My contention is that meaning and story may be irrelevant, as may seeing the future, and even a capacity to organise data. I think it possible that our brains prefer to see and hear things going on. They may not readily sustain blackness and silence.
Dreams may be about a deep-seated need in us: activity for activity's sake in brains at rest.