The Debate around the Value of Dreams

Human beings have been dreaming for as long as they’ve been speaking, perhaps longer. Our conscious minds – or at least, some part of them – operate within a different world from the waking one every time we are in deep sleep. What we bring back from that journey, even if it’s only a vague recollection, can leave us with an array of lingering feelings: wonder, frustration, dread, sadness, joy.

For as long as we’ve had psychoanalysis, there has been a lot of debate around the value of these nightly excursions. Some have dismissed dreams as the random and chaotic expressions of the mind’s unconscious garbage. On the other side of the controversy, people have claimed that dreams hail from deeply spiritual, even divine, sources. And such variance of opinion around dreams is nothing new. The Old Testament, for example, details a number of dreams that were deemed, at the time, to be prophetic. And many Hebrew Rabbis and, later, Catholic Bishops, closed the doors on the notion of the prophetic dream, claiming that all the sacred messages from God had already been delivered for all time.


That was more or less the final word, concerning the value and import of dreams, until the 20th century. Sigmund Freud was the psychologist generally credited with re-introducing the debate. But Freud’s Unconscious – from which, he claimed, dreams arose – was considered to be little more than a repository of unsavory, repressed memories and impulses.  Swiss psychologist Carl Jung offered a more sympathetic view. Jung considered the Unconscious to be aware, and responsive to the conscious mind. Thus, in his view, dreams offered visions of unexpected wisdom and insight to the dreamer.

The road from Carl Jung to the modern age has been a rocky one for the dream. Jung himself believed that his work had opened the doors to a journey that was potentially perilous. To open oneself to the invitation of dreams and descend into one’s inner world was, he opined, an adventure that modern man was perhaps unready for. Thus, it was not until the relatively recent publication of The Red Book that one could glean the real sources of Carl Jung’s inspiration; for he himself had, throughout much of his life, turned his back on the deeper mystery of the Unconscious – and encouraged others to do the same.

James Hillman built upon Jung’s work, introducing a new branch of belief and study that he referred to as “Archetypal Psychology”. Hillman believed that dreams are the mirrors of man’s soul. Since his time, this conviction has become more prevalent than it was in previous decades, both within the field of psychology and within New Age circles.

The much-maligned dream, which has been with us since the beginning, seems to finally be getting the credit – or at least, the serious consideration – that it’s always deserved.


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