The Nightshirt Sightings, Portents, Forebodings, Suspicions

What Dreams Really Are

[edit 1/10/09 — The original post is now clarified and expanded in my article “Dreams and the Art of Memory: A New Hypothesis About Dream Bizarreness“]

Every few months a psychologist—or now, more often, it is a neuroscientist—aggressively promotes their new theory of why we dream, and it gets picked up in the press as the latest scientific explanation, the final answer. The New York Times this week is reporting on the latest theory by J. Allen Hobson, that dreams prepare us for emotional experiences during the day, like a kind of early-morning workout.

Usually the journalist gets lots of facts wrong—in this case, he misleadingly summarizes Freud’s now-supposedly-discredited “wish fulfillment” theory as the notion that dreaming was “a playground for the unconscious mind.” Actually, Freud thought dreams were more like a totalitarian regime than a playground: Repressed wishes, like revolutionary communiqués, had to be smuggled to the outside world in code. But I’ve recorded and studied thousands of my own dreams and I know from experience that Freud was, at the very least, on the right track. Hobson isn’t.

Of all modern views of dreaming, the soundest hypothesis is that dreams have to do with memory-building. It is well-known that during REM sleep new neural connections are formed, and it is known that recently learned stuff is remembered better after being “slept on.” Yet researchers like Hobson refuse to admit the possibility that dream images are memories, simply because dream content is absurd—on their surface, dreams don’t look anything like an accurate representation of our waking experiences. The Nobel laureate Francis Crick argued that dreams are just the discharging of mental static, random and meaningless associations, essentially the brain farting. Hobson’s view, although slightly more nuanced, is just as dismissive of the notion that dream content might be interpretable. Hobson has devoted his career, in fact, to debunking any notion that dream content might be meaningful in any interesting way.

I call the latter the “literalist” view–if it ain’t literal, it ain’t meaningful. “Hard” scientists, true to the stereotype, often do lack imagination and feel uncomfortable with things that are nonliteral or irrational (like symbolism). But if they would step outside of their laboratories and stroll through the humanities stacks in their library, they might detect that there is method in dream madness. They might find ample circumstantial evidence for the real essence and function of dreaming in other fields like art and history and philosophy. I’ve come to believe that the very “absurdity” that causes scientists to often regard dreams as meaningless is precisely the clue to their very sensible, even rational, function.

To understand what dreams really are (he says oh-so-confidently, certain that future research will vindicate him), it’s useful to approach the problem of dreams from the side of memory, specifically the method used by people in nonliterate societies and in the pre-Gutenberg world to remember things they have learned: Use free association, puns, and vivid, bizarre images and situations to help latch new material onto what we already know–a method that has been called simply the Art of Memory. Dreaming, I suggest, is simply the Art of Memory operating automatically during sleep.

To read the complete argument, see “Dreams and the Art of Memory: A New Hypothesis About Dream Bizarreness.”


I am a science writer and armchair Fortean based in Washington, DC. Write to me at eric.wargo [at]

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