The Drift

We Need to Talk About Our Dreams

Photo by KatarzynaBialasiewicz/Thinkstock, with additional illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker.

Talking about your dreams is the bore by which all other bores are measured. As a matter of conversational good graces, the issue is considered closed. Western cultural tastemakers have reinforced the taboo for more than a century at least. “Tell a dream, lose a reader” is a truism first attributed to Henry James and later boosted repeatedly by Martin Amis. YA king John Green recast the prohibition for a new generation in his 2008 bildungsroman Paper Towns: “Nothing is as boring as other people’s dreams,” his teen protagonist complains when the parents start talking theirs over breakfast. And in a July Inside Amy Schumer sketch, America’s current comedy darling threw her weight behind the cause. Schumer starred in a parody commercial for a faux emergency hotline dubbed “ListenAlert,” where operators are paid to listen to boring people drone on and on—within reason: “We will not listen to your dreams,” Schumer warned. “We are not saints.”

It’s time we dispensed of this tired taboo. We’re all spending two hours a night, on average, dining with the dead, parading pants-less through our high school hallways, and screaming noiselessly until our teeth fall out. We should be allowed to talk about it once in a while.

An array of sunny social science findings support the cause. The psychotherapist Ann Faraday, who attempted to popularize dream interpretation in the 1970s, posited that “the dreaming mind has an uncanny power to pick up feelings, observations, and reactions which have passed us by during the day” and that parsing dreams could help reveal “inner attitudes and prejudices that influence waking behavior below the level of conscious awareness.” People who share their dreams with their partners report higher levels  of relationship intimacy. Old folks asked to join a dream discussion group for a 2009 nursing study rated the experience as “pleasant,” “interesting,” and “meaningful,” especially because it was so rare—never before had they had an outlet for talking about the weird stuff they contemplated in sleep. Dream analysis can help researchers understand how people living near the Gaza Strip process trauma or guide doctors toward a more accurate diagnosis for patients suffering from psychosis: A study published last year in the journal Scientific Reports found that people with schizophrenia use markedly different speech patterns in describing their dreams than patients with bipolar disorder. Or as the researchers put it, “The Freudian notion that ‘dreams are the royal road to the unconscious’ is clinically useful, after all.”

Freud, by the way, is largely to blame for the current anti-dream climate. In a September article for the BBC, University of Leicester historian Shane McCorristine noted that dream discussion declined in Britain just as Freudian psychoanalysis became fashionable. Freud’s 1899 tract The Interpretation of Dreams recast dreams as signs of deep and shameful sexual desires (his theory that everybody secretly wants to kill one parent and boink the other was introduced here). Later, neurological researchers sourced dreams to synapses firing at random in the brain, allowing the scientifically minded to write off dreams as totally and utterly meaningless.

But neuroscience isn’t completely at fault for our dream-phobia—there’s also a cultural component. Deirdre Leigh Barrett, a Harvard University psychology professor and the editor in chief of the peer-reviewed journal Dreaming, told me that dreams are often discounted in cultures where strictly logical perspectives prevail. “I think in our culture, when you talk about personal things, they should be important. When talking about unimportant things, they should be shared, general interest,” she told me. “We consider dreams neither.” Other cultures don’t have the same hang-ups. (The anthropologist Waud Kracke provides a brief primer on dream talk across cultures, from the Barbadian view of dreams as intense “studying” to the Sambia of New Guinea who have different traditions for discussing dreams in political and personal contexts). Accepting dream talk, says Barrett, requires a respect for “a more intuitive mode of thought.”

This goes a long way toward explaining the generalized Western suspicion of “dream talk”—that mode is historically undervalued around here. Perhaps, then, this taboo is self-justifying: We don’t talk about our dreams, so we never get good at talking about our dreams, so we dismiss all dream talk as boring and useless. Researchers have found that people who belittle the importance of dreaming have a harder time recalling their own dreams—the stigma against dream discussion has the effect of erasing the material entirely. It takes practice to remember the most interesting bits of a dream, to determine which dreams are worth discussing out loud (some are more provocative than others), and to learn never to give listeners the full play by play of the night’s events (dreams are not structured like stories, so don’t try to string together a plot). In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud compared a dream to a rebus: “If we attempted to read these characters according to their pictorial value,” he wrote, “we should clearly be led into error.” But tease out the meanings of its symbols, and the dream “may form a poetical phrase of the greatest beauty and significance.”

For a 2013 episode of This American Life, reporter Sarah Koenig set out to challenge her mother’s list of conversational taboos. Koenig’s mom has no patience for idle chatter about diet, sleep, menstruation, traffic, the common cold, or of course, “your dreams—nobody cares about your dreams.” So Koenig took mom and mic to a New York City “dream club” where members assembled bimonthly to parse each other’s subliminal experiences. When the participants began describing the images and scenes they’d dreamed up, “I could not, for the life of me, focus on what people were saying,” Koenig herself admitted. But once the dream club started interpreting the meanings of these things, it “felt like solving a riddle,” she found. Even her mother admitted to perking up when the dream got translated from an idiosyncratic experience to a communal event. As she put it: “It was the analysis that brought them life.”

Only in its retelling can a dream become relevant to the waking world. The ritual is so satisfying, even Henry James couldn’t resist its pull. One night, several years before his death, a sixtysomething James awoke with a jolt. He’d dreamed he’d been transported back to boyhood, where he wandered the great rooms of the Louvre until a spectral monster began pursuing him through its halls. Only upon awakening did James appreciate the formative nature of those childhood museum visits; only then did he realize that his creative mind had evolved in the shape of the very architecture of the Louvre. He wrote a memoir about it, A Small Boy and Others. His retelling of the nightmare is its most-talked-about scene.

Read more from The Drift, Slate’s pop-up blog about sleep.