March 10, 2009


What Do Dreams Mean? Whatever Your Bias Says (JOHN TIERNEY, 3/10/09, NY Times)

For thousands of years, dreamers have had little more to go on than the two-gate hypothesis proposed in “The Odyssey.” After Penelope dreams of the return of her lost-long husband, she’s skeptical and says that only some dreams matter.

“There are two gates,” she explains, “through which these unsubstantial fancies proceed; the one is of horn, and the other ivory. Those that come through the gate of ivory are fatuous, but those from the gate of horn mean something to those that see them.”

Her two-gate hypothesis, later endorsed by Virgil and Ovid, was elegant in theory but not terribly useful in practice. How could you tell which gate your dream came from? One woman’s ivory could be another’s horn.

Today, though, we can start making distinctions, thanks to a series of studies of more than 1,000 people by two psychologists, Carey Morewedge of Carnegie Mellon University and Michael Norton of Harvard. (You can report your dreams to these researchers at TierneyLab,

The psychologists began by asking college students in three countries — India, South Korea and the United States — how much significance they attached to dreams. Relatively few students believed in modern theories that dreaming is simply the brain’s response to random impulses, or that it’s a mechanism for sorting and discarding information. Instead, the majority in all three countries believed, along with Freud, that dreams reveal important unconscious emotions.

These instinctive Freudians also considered dreams to be valuable omens, as demonstrated in a study asking them to imagine they were about to take a plane trip. If, on the eve of the flight, they dreamed of the plane’s crashing, they were more likely to cancel the trip than if they saw news of an actual plane crash on their route.

But when the researchers asked people to interpret dreams, some suspiciously convenient correlations turned up. When asked to recall their own dreams, they attached more significance to a negative dream if it was about someone they disliked, and they gave correspondingly more weight to a positive dream if it was about a friend.

A similar bias showed up when people were asked to imagine that they had had various dreams starring a friend or a deity. People rated a dream about a friend protecting them against attackers as being more “meaningful” than a dream about their own romantic partner faithlessly kissing that same friend. People who believed in God were more likely than agnostics to be swayed by divine apparitions.

But even the nonbelievers showed a weakness for certain heavenly dreams, like one in which God commanded them to take a year off to travel the world. Agnostics rated that dream as significantly more meaningful than the dream of God commanding them to spend a year working in a leper colony. (Incidentally, although the preferred term for leprosy is now Hansen’s disease, the deity in the experiment used the old-fashioned term from the Bible.)

Dreamers’ self-serving bias is tactfully defined as a “motivated approach to dream interpretation” by Dr. Morewedge and Dr. Norton in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. When asked if this “motivated approach” might also affect dream researchers, Dr. Morewedge pointed to Freud’s tendency to find what he was looking for — sex — in his “Interpretation of Dreams.”

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Posted by Orrin Judd at March 10, 2009 6:21 AM
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