Last week, I dreamt my own death. As my car careened in a long, slow arc over the freeway divide, I found myself strangely at peace with the imminent impact of certain death—and then awoke. It puzzled and disturbed me for days.
Years ago, I awoke refreshed and awestruck by the aqueous fingers of light cut by surfers swimming above me through a kelp forest. The image remains an inspiration.
Whole days can be flavored by the chatter of a dream receding into the depths of the subconscious. But how can something so easy to forget carry enough weight to define an entire day, or inspire a victorious outlook for the week to come? And what purpose do dreams serve in our mental well-being?
I took these questions to G. William Domhoff, a psychology professor at UC Santa Cruz since 1962, and author of Finding Meaning in Dreams (1996) and The Scientific Study of Dreams (2003).
The short answer may leave a sour taste: if there is any connection between well-being and dreams, it’s a negative one, Domhoff says.
“Dreams, in general, for most people are dysphoric. They’re not contributing to well-being. They’re making us wake up grouchy, they’re making us apprehensive,” he says. “Of course, there’s individual differences with that. But the standard is striking.”
According to Domhoff, some 80 percent of the emotions that appear in dreams are negative—anger, embarrassment, confusion or sadness, not to mention the “worst case scenario dreams,” best illustrated by the infamous naked-in-public scene, or a waitress’s “everything is going wrong with my tables” dream.
Domhoff, who has studied many thousands of dreams over the years, acknowledges the exceptions—many people say they find solace in their dreams, or say that their dreams are mostly good.
“However, as a person who started doing research on dreams in the late 1950s, I was among those who thought dreams probably had an important adaptive function because of the new discoveries about REM sleep and the claims by Freud and his followers, who were at their high point in the 1950s,” Domhoff says.
But Domhoff’s 50-year odyssey of dream research took him to the unexpected conclusion that dreams have no adaptive function or evolutionary purpose.
The evidence lies in the fact that people who do not dream still function and sleep normally, such as children under the age of six, who typically dream very little, or people who have lost the ability to dream due to brain damage or antidepressants.
Still, Domhoff points out that about one in 1,000 people undergo “impactful” dreams, which can be life-changing, and even if dreams may not have had evolutionary value, he remains fascinated by their mystery.
“A full theory of mind has to encompass dreams, so dream researchers are maybe contributing to a bigger picture of how the mind works someday,” says Domhoff.
Carl Jung wrote that significant dreams can “prove to be the richest jewel in the treasure-house of psychic experience.”
In the grand scheme of things, it seems that dreams are as significant as we make them.
For my friend, June Smith, a recent dream of her late husband, who died just before Thanksgiving in 2003, was anything but dysphoric, and like many who dream of lost loved ones, it brought her solace.
Smith believes that a visit in a dream is “a true visit.” And while there may be naysayers, there is really no way to prove that she is wrong.