Jason DeBord regrets the demise of an old parlour game once much-loved in the 19th century: What Did I Eat Last Night? It involved a player recounting their dreams – recorded in a journal upon waking – as an audience was challenged to guess what dream-provoking food they had consumed for the previous night’s supper, be it stilton, rarebit or undercooked or cured meats (all understood to be culprits when it came to colourful dreaming).
“Maybe you had eaten rare beef and then you dream about cows, you know, chasing you,” explains DeBord. “It sounds like a blast, doesn’t it? I’d have loved to have played that game.”
DeBord, who, as RadOwl, moderates the 250,000- member Reddit r/dreams community, is one of a growing number of professional “dreamworkers” who use dream analysis as a therapeutic technique. These days he is most likely to be regaled with the blockbuster dream topics: public nakedness, seeming visitations from deceased relatives, falling or flying, sex with an unlikely other, being unable to find an exam room, and giving birth.
The pandemic, during which many westerners have woken later or without the aid of an alarm clock and experienced longer stretches of dream-rich REM sleep, has seen a big growth of participation in online dream-sharing groups. “It’s been a busy time for people both having and remembering strange dreams, and also thinking about these dreams and what they might mean,” DeBord says.
Over on r/dreams, a user called idk is anxious. “I am a girl, but I dreamed I had my own penis and it was detachable and I was very panicked because I couldn’t find it,” she posts. User DrDiaz is the first to interject, directing idk to Freud (who famously theorised penis envy as a stage of female psychosexual development). “Freud would DEFINITELY have something to say on that!”
AlexMilo is next up, offering a similar dream in which he discovered his testicles had been mounted on his work desk as a form of stress ball: “I literally just woke up looking for [somewhere] I could post about my detachable balls,” he writes, before a respondent returns the discussion to idk’s detachable penis by suggesting it could symbolise something in her waking life: power perhaps, and its loss?
All humans dream, and many cultures have a rich tradition of communal interpretation. In ancient Egypt, dreams were recorded in hieroglyphics, while today the Senoi people of Malaysia use collective dream sharing as a way of confronting their anxieties, urging one another to bring a souvenir back from their dreamworld to share: a snippet of a song or a poem. In Māori and Australian Aboriginal traditions, vivid dreams are understood as a means of conveying messages, perhaps the location of a food or water. The Chantal of Mexico and the Kichwa of Ecuador use medicinal plants alongside dream sharing as a community-bonding exercise. Still-thriving Islamic dream-sharing practices draw from the writing of 8th-century dream interpreter Ibn Sirin for whom dreams of holy men and minarets were a window into dreamers’ religious piety.
But, more recently, dream-sharing practices have been pushed to the fringes in the rationalist west, partly due to the marginalisation of dream interpretation in Christian traditions but also because of Freud. Antonio Zadra, professor of psychology at the University of Montreal and co-author of When Brains Dream: Exploring the Science and Mystery of Sleep (2021), believes this marginalisation of dreams and any messages they might convey for our waking life, can be traced to a 20th-century backlash against Freudian psychoanalysis. “For Freud, dreams betrayed our socially unacceptable desires and sexual impulses from infancy,” he says. “In rejecting Freud, society also rejected the notion of paying much attention to our dreams and their content.”
For Professor Mark Blagrove, who researches sleep and dreaming at the University of Swansea, the role that might have once been played by dream sharing has been overtaken by modern mass media: novels and movies have pushed dream sharing to the margins. “It could be that for the ancients dreams were tear-jerkers, or entertained or amused, much in the way that cinema does today,” he says. “Such practices could have had a role in human domestication, as captivating dream storytellers were favoured in an evolutionary sense.”
The nadir for many dream enthusiasts was the 1970s, when Harvard psychiatrists John Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley proposed the activation-synthesis hypothesis. Quickly influential, this hypothesis argued that dreams are the brain’s attempt to make sense of random neuron activity that activates the brainstem during REM sleep. This led to the commonly held perception that dreams were scientifically and psychologically meaningless, as DeBord explains: “It was the idea that dreams are just these random responses to electrical activity or, so to speak, ‘brain farts’.”
But the psychoanalytic interest in sharing dreams to analyse the subconscious, initiated by Freud, was continued by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. To Jung the role of dreams was to lead a person to wholeness through “a dialogue between ego and the self”. It’s the Jungian tradition that many of today’s keen dream sharers identify with.
They include a 44-year-old Northern Ireland-based online dream-sharing enthusiast who prefers to be identified by his Reddit moniker OldowanKenobi and spends most of his online dream interpretation time on the sub reddit r/dreaminterpretation for its explicit Jungian approach to symbols in dreams. OldowanKenobi likes posting his own dreams, but also helping to settle forum posters’ anxiety by analysing their dream symbols in relation to their daily lives. “I enjoy trying to understand the images that people write about,” he says. “Often I check their profiles and histories on reddit to see what issues they’re dealing with and combine that into the interpretation. I’m looking for something deeper that the person may not be fully aware of yet.” OldowanKenobi sees these inputs as a form of gifted therapy, unaffordable to many in its traditional one-on-one talking form. “I just hope to initiate a spark or connection in someone’s mind to help their mental health a bit.”
Charlie Sanders, a 22-year-old freelance illustrator and r/dreams Reddit poster from Newcastle, enjoys discussing his dreams online with strangers for their “unbiased, more openminded” views. Sanders has a “dream circle” of six mutually supportive global enthusiasts with whom he regularly shares his nightly dreams.
“I’ve always had really vivid dreams, which I think are partly caused by the fact that I have epilepsy,” he says. Sanders categorises his dreams into those that chew over the themes of his day; “nightmares”, which play out in dramatic visual vignettes, and “message” dreams, which he tends to recall in greater clarity and which he sees as tools to improve his everyday life. “I don’t personally think of dreams as some otherworldly connection with a higher power or aliens or anything like that,” he says. “I see them more as a reflection of our own internal wisdom: kind of our subconscious telling our conscious mind something we’re not understanding about ourselves.”
Sanders credits one dream, and its analysis by his dream circle, with helping him to have the confidence to launch his creative career and institute healthy boundaries in personal relationships. “It was a bit like a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey,” he recalls, “there was this tunnel of lights and colours and I heard a voice telling me I was on a track and nearly there.”
The emergence of online dream-sharing forums are one expression of a renewed interest in dreaming which is also seen in the arrival of dream-sharing apps such as DreamsCloud, DreamBoard and Awoken. Therapists are also offering dream-sharing retreats and group work, including dream guide Tree Carr’s London dream retreats, where the former musician uses South American plant medicinals guayusa and calea zacatechichi to help attendees better access the meaning of their dreams.
The rehabilitation of the importance of dreams follows a similar reappraisal of sleep seen in books such as Matt Walker’s international 2018 bestseller Why We Sleep, or Arianna Huffington’s 2016 The Sleep Revolution, in which she interrogates capitalism’s fetishisation of the sleepless industry and argues for a “great sleep awakening”. It’s an irony not lost on sleep academics that after decades in which sleep analysis was positioned as unscientific, neuroscience is now pointing to the importance of these unconscious hours, as events of the day are played out alongside retrieved associated memories from our past and our brain “renders verdicts” on the day’s events.
Despite the growing consensus that the symbolism in dreams holds meaning for our waking hours, there are voices of dissent. Cognitive neuroscientist Dr Erin Wamsley, who studies dreaming at Furman University in North Carolina, sees no evidence that dream content is more symbolic than our waking cognition. “Dream imagery is a relatively transparent amalgam of our daily thoughts, feelings and experiences,” she notes. Professor Bill Domhoff, a pioneer in dream-content analysis at the University of California (Santa Cruz), argues that the content of dreams is too consistent across the arc of our lives, and human cultures, to make the case for investing symbolic meaning in any one dream.
During England’s 2020 coronavirus second wave, infection control doctor Dr Elaine Cloutman-Green, 42 and based in London, tweeted a dream she’d had the night before. “I was trying to get some results about how we were treating Covid patients and to do this I had to peel a series of tiny blue quail eggs that I had to pull out of a hot water bath in which I kept burning my fingers,” she says.
Cloutman-Green’s vivid dream found its way to Mark Blagrove who, in 2016, launched a series of “dream-sharing salons” with artist Dr Julia Lockheart, in which an in- person or online audience responds to dreamers recounting their dreams as Lockheart captures their imagery in an artwork painted on to pages taken from Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. Cloutman-Green, who described herself as “not a therapy person at all, I wouldn’t make time for it,” agreed to be a speaker at the salon.
“At the time I had just lost a family member to Covid and was dealing with the awful trauma of Covid at work and the impact of lockdowns at home,” she said. “Talking about all of this through the imagery of the dream made me realise I had been ignoring my personal anxieties around Covid as I channelled my energy into my work.” Through the questions the community put to Cloutman-Green about the significance of the images, she was able, she says, “to combine those two sides of myself”. She is now an enthusiast for dream sharing as a simple therapeutic method that’s open to all of us, with no barriers to access. “I now see dreams as worth exploring, rather than just waking up and thinking: ‘Wow, that was a bit weird,’ and getting on with my day,” she says.
Cloutman-Green keeps Lockheart’s painting – which has depictions of her at her desk next to stacks of quail eggs and a smaller closeup of her hands handling broken yolks – as a “reminder that self-reflection is not an indulgence”.
Alexandra Moulding, a 45-year-old therapist based in Swindon, used to share dreams with her father as a child. By her teens Moulding was journalling her dreams and looking for repeat symbols in these dreams and trying to interpret them, including a recurring one about a “patched-up crooked house”.
Today she runs an in-person dream-sharing circle in Swindon and is a member of Facebook group Dream Symbols and Interpretation, which has 15,000 members (having doubled its membership during the pandemic), and which she has been a moderator of since 2020.
It was a 2014 dream about a dead baby being boarded up in the walls of a house in which the walls were weeping tears that made Moulding think, “Oh crikey, I have to do some work on myself!” With help from dream listeners online, Moulding came to see the dream as symbolising the “child in myself that had been walled up”. She realised that sadness that she had carried over from events in her childhood needed to be addressed before she moved forward in her adult life.
Moulding thinks, though, that there can be downsides in broadcasting one’s intimate thoughts online. She is careful to intervene on Dream Symbols if she thinks members are trying to diagnose pathologies from others’ recounted dreams or offer reductive interpretations. “There’s no single meaning of others’ dreams, like you’d get with those old-fashioned dream dictionaries, and we should be suspicious of anyone who says otherwise,” she explains. That said, Moulding points out that the impulse to share our dreams with others and try to work out what they might mean is a “forever human thing”. “Einstein’s Theory of Relativity came to him in a dream and Niels Bohr first saw the structure of the nucleus of the atom in a dream. These were clever scientific people who took time to listen to their dreams.”
DeBord thinks that humanity might fare somewhat better if we all took a moment each morning to share our dreams from the night before. Dreams, after all, are ephemeral things, stored in short-term memory and overwritten by new short-term memories when our day, and the first cup of coffee, intervenes. We don’t necessarily need to dwell on the late-night fridge raid on the stilton and jamon.
“Keep a dream journal and ask others about their dreams, trying to relate to them by thinking how you’d feel if you’d had a similar dream yourself,” he advises. The beauty of dreams, DeBord adds, is that they unleash the inner therapist in us all. “You already know what your dream means as it’s been created by you rather than beamed in by an outside force,” he says. “All we need to do is listen.”