DO YOU DREAM of swimming? You must have been a bedwetter.
Dreaming of falling? If you're a woman, that means you're
surrendering to erotic temptation. If you dream of a person dying,
that means you secretly wish - or have wished - for that person to
die. A woman who dreams of having a tooth pulled is going to have a
If this symbolism seems farfetched to those who dream every
night - and that is all of us, whether we remember it or not -
that's because, according to modern-day dream doctors, those
theories are utterly false.
But to the psychologists and philosophers of the late 1800s and
early 1900s, those explanations, by both Sigmund Freud and Carl
Jung, were logical.
Since human life began, we have dreamed and tried to figure out
what our dreams mean. Books on dreams often include the obligatory
"book of dream symbols" that will tell you a snake is always a
penis, water is a spirit or a cat symbolizes death. That simply
offers easy - but false - answers to a very complex subject,
according to psychologist Robert van de Castle.
"If you dream of unzipping your pants and a snake crawls out,
chances are you're thinking of a penis. Otherwise, you're probably
not," says Van de Castle. "You could also be dreaming of a snake as
a symbol for a person who has the qualities of a snake; you could
be dreaming of a python who is strangling you; or a snake meaning a
person with a forked tongue who is gossiping about you. Every
object in a dream has a unique meaning to the person having the
Van de Castle, director emeritus of the Sleep and Dream
Laboratory at the University of Virginia Medical School, has
devoted more than 30 years to the study of dreams and what they
mean. He and his few colleagues in dream research say that much of
what we've been led to believe about dreams is false.
For example, what we eat doesn't affect our dreams. "People
might say, `If you eat pickles, you'll have nightmares,' " says
Rosalind Cartwright, director of the Sleep Disorder Service, or
dream clinic, at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in
Chicago. "You might have a stomach ache, but it won't be the cause
of a nightmare."
Like Van de Castle, Cartwright has studied dreaming since the
'60s, using a sleep lab where volunteers are hooked up to machines
that chart their brain waves during the rapid eye movement stages,
when dreams take place. After a dream, the subject is awakened and
asked to discuss the dream, before returning to sleep and the next
of an average of five nightly dreams.
Although dream clinicians are few, there are a flourishing
number of psychotherapists who work dream therapists, not so much
doing research on dreams but as helping people to understand their
"Therapy is opening people's minds up to ways of learning more
about themselves. In that pursuit, they want to learn about their
dreams," explains Gayle Delaney, the founding president for the
Association for the Study of Dreams and director of the Delaney and
Flowers Center for the Study of Dreams in San Francisco.
"As well, TV has helped promote dreaming and dream books to the
public. I sold 30,000 copies of (my book) `Breakthrough Dreaming'
after one appearance on `Oprah.' People see the book or see the
show and it gives them the excuse they've always wanted to study
their dreams. It's a tidal wave waiting to break."
Indeed, the public does seem more interested in dreaming than
ever. Delaney's fifth book on dreaming, "Sexual Dreams: Why We Have
Them and What They Mean," (Fawcett Columbine) was released in March
and in June, Van de Castle published a comprehensive guide to the
history of dream study, "Our Dreaming Mind" (Ballantine).
"The books have become more popular in the last few years
because dreams are less parochialized now," Delaney notes. "We've
taken dreaming out of the tiny schools of Jung and Freud and have
shown people how dreams relate to their own lives. …