science of us

A Professional Guide to Dream Interpretation

Photo: Martin Harvey/Getty Images/Gallo Images

Dreams are strange, misunderstood things. This week, Science of Us will be exploring the latest research that helps explain what they are, what they might mean, and how they affect our waking lives.

Dreams are weird. One person who has helped make sense of them is Carl Gustav Jung, the Swiss founder of analytical psychology. According to Jung, dreams are like myths — laden with symbolic meaning and full of insights, if you have the skill to tease them out. One person who does this for a living is Maxson McDowell, a former molecular biologist who’s been practicing Jungian analysis in New York for 29 years. He is one of 60-some such certified Jungian analysts practicing in the city and over 700 nationwide. Science of Us recently visited McDowell at his Upper West Side office, and preceded to learn how poetic intelligence, individuality, and the progress of society are all tied together.

At a practical level, how do you interpret a dream? What are the tools?
There’s a whole discipline that’s involved in that, which I learned in the course of my training, and which I teach a lot, which involves looking at the dream and systematically trying to understand each image. It’s finding something about the psychological meaning of that image for that dreamer, asking the dreamer for associations until you get to an association which is connected to distinct affect (an emotion, such as fear, sadness, grief, anger, joy). And once you’ve got an association that has a strong affect, you stop there and assume that that association is a clue as to the meaning of that image and that dream.

If somebody dreams of a shark, whatever their personal association is, you have to consider the fact that the shark is a potentially dangerous animal. It can bite you, right? That’s an objective fact about sharks, so that has to be factored in as well as whatever the personal associations are. Once you’ve got all the associations to all of the images, then try to understand how the sequence may be important. What comes first, in dream logic, is the cause of what comes next. A sequence of images may share a causality. Then you see how the sequence of images may be telling a story. There are other things, but that’s a broad schematic.

It’s a combination of being rigorously analytical, and also being creative and playful and imaginative — you have to do both. It’s not enough to be scientific about it, it’s not enough to just be creative, you have to be both. It’s akin, I would say, to interpreting poetry.

When you interpret a poem and you get it, and you suddenly understand what the poem’s about, the interpretation rings true for you. You can’t prove it, it’s a subjective experience, but if the thing rings true, you know you’ve gotten some truth out of it. It’s not the only truth to be gotten out of the poem, but if it rings true, you know you’re onto it. We’re seeking preferably a reaction from the dreamer, and preferably some visceral reaction, like tears or a flush or a sudden relaxation of tension, something that says, “Oh, yes, that’s right, of course.” Their physiology changes, and that gives you independent evidence that the interpretation is on target.

That seems like a crucial point, that it’s not universally true, like the laws of physics, but it’s personal, as in of the person.
When you’re working as an analyst, a dream comes in the context of a therapeutic process that you’re working together on. When you can see how the dream supports the growth and the change in the person. Dreams tend to be uncannily accurate and timely, in supporting the next thing the patient needs to learn about themselves or can absorb about themselves, the dream provides it if you can analyze it. Because the dream fits the context of growth, and you see the evidence of the growth, it’s another subjective way of confirming the validity of the interpretation.

Before we get too far, let’s define terms. What is a dream?
I experience it as a communication to consciousness of some insights that the wider personality feels is important and necessary. It’s an attempt by the wider personality to get consciousness to expand a little bit, understanding something more about itself.

What I’m getting at there is that it’s uncanny how intelligent and precise and insightful dreams tend to be in contexts that work for the person. You have to say, who wrote that dream, where did it come from? Where’s that intelligence? That can lead to some sort of mystical conclusion, but I think that’s an error of understanding; the problem is the narrowness of consciousness. It’s only the conscious direction to think about things, remember things, explain things in language.

But that’s a narrow sector of our intelligence. We know there are other things besides that, that we don’t have such easy access to. Artistic inspiration comes from somewhere else in the brain, comes into consciousness when it’s written down. In the same way, the wider brain understands more than our narrow consciousness. We observe that dreams are forever compensating for the one-sidedness of consciousness.

That’s similar to the sensation where, as a writer at times, something will come out that I wasn’t aware was going to emerge.
You recognize it when it comes out; you know it came from somewhere. I think a dream is very much like that.

“Dream” is also used to mean a conscious aspiration, personally or collectively. What do you think that link is between these images and narratives and scenes that go through our minds when we’re sleeping, and the “dream” suggested by “follow your dreams” or Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream”?
I suppose the best way to see the link is through the idea of individuality. It’s what really matters, where you could go in your lifetime. Who could you become? What are your potentials, and where are they pointing? That would not be a collective, conventional thing. If you’re informed by a dream that you want to sail around the world or you want to go to Turkey, you want to be a journalist in New York, that’s in some way your self, your personal, unique individuality is seeking to realize itself, it’s talking to you through the means of that dream. It’s not too different from the dream you have at night. Maybe it has less details, it’s a single image. Still, it’s an image that moves you, and that you place value on, and that you treat with reverence. You think about it a lot, you keep coming back to it, you read books about it. You do something about it, you journey there. You put that image on your wall, so to speak, and meditate on it, that’s because it’s some sort of archetypal image that is meaningful to you.

The culture is constantly in need of renewal and development. It has to be renewed so that the rules and the teachings are fresh for each person, and each person has to find an individual way of relating to it. So the unconscious is throwing out energies to try to inform the individual about different ways that the person could understand the cultural teachings, or modify the cultural teachings, or make them relevant to him or her. The unconscious is always trying to help the person evolve his or her own personality, guided by the cultural wisdom, but the individual is always in some tension with the cultural wisdom, because the individual is innovating something new, and thereby modifying and criticizing what has come before. The culture opposes the individual, the individual opposes the culture, and the individual, in a sense, leads the culture in slightly different direction, pushes the envelope. The dreams, you could say, are always trying to push the envelope of the culture, by the means of the individual.

If someone wanted to better engage with their dreams, what’s a first step?
I would say, record your dreams. Write them down carefully. Type them out, not just scribbles on a paper — something you can keep. If there are particular images in the dream that are striking or bizarre, you might want to try to paint them or draw them or sketch them in some way, tape them to the wall so you can look at that image. Reflect upon the dream, reflect upon the images. Take them seriously, give them time to speak to you.

If you are not working with someone else who can help you interpret them, then you can work with them by working with the images, you may need to draw an image repeatedly to understand the emotional impact of it — if that’s your medium. Some people would use music, some people would use dance as a way of representing the image. Then meditating on it, trying to ask the image to speak to you. Don’t be too quick to impose an intellectual interpretation. The temptation is to impose upon the dream that which we already know, so that it won’t threaten our current adjustment. The dream is always threatening our current adjustment, and we always resist it. Often we resist it by too quickly using our intellect to interpret it. Rather than trying to impose the meaning, bring the image up, and let the image speak to you.

Check out what it means to dream about your teeth falling out and to dream about your ex.

A Professional Guide to Dream Interpretation