Dreams, Meanings and Causes

Last night I had a dream. It was hard to understand and yet seemed full of significance and I wanted to tell other people about it and try to work out what it meant. This sort of experience raises various questions – the most obvious are: “what caused my dream?” and “what did it mean?”. It is tempting to see these two questions as intimately linked, but in a Wittgenstein-inspired way I will argue that they are very different.

So let’s start with the meaning of dreams. Our dreams certainly strike us as full of meaning, but do they really have a meaning or is that an illusion? One interesting comparison here is with music, since we sometimes listen to a piece of music and feel that it is saying something to us, if only we could understand it. For me, Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major is all about hope and despair and the music seems to be exploring different ways of trying to deal with the difficult things in life. So are those meanings really in the music? Well, I certainly experience the music as deeply meaningful, and those words at least begin to suggest the kind of meaning it has for me.

It is worth considering this experience in a bit more detail. I listen to a piece of music and it strikes me as deep and full of significance. I listen to it again and again and can perhaps begin to say something about the meaning it has for me. It is interesting (and heart-warming) if others find the same or a similar meaning in it, but this is not essential in terms of my experience itself. Furthermore, finding the meaning is not like solving a crossword where the clue is intriguing before I know the answer but once solved loses its interest. On the contrary, once I have some idea of what I think the music means, I want to listen to it more to explore that meaning and to refine (or change) my idea. Relatedly, my attempt to understand the music (to capture the meaning it has for me) does not aim for completion – whatever I manage to say about the music, there will always be more to say. It’s not like a roman a clef where once you have worked it out, it loses all interest. For me, Schubert’s quintet is a meditation on life and for as long as the meaning of my existence is unclear to me(!), listening to the piece will both stir up emotions and give me something to ponder.

I would suggest that our experience with dreams is often similar. They strike us as meaningful and we are often interested in trying to explore that meaning. We typically want to enlist other people in that exploration, but often get fairly protective of our dreams when others try to interpret them for us. Sometimes we make no progress in trying to understand them and just dismiss them; other times we think we can make some sense of them, but the dream probably still retains some degree of mystery. Ultimately, we are still left wondering: what did it mean? What does it say about me that I should have dreamed that particular dream?

Asking what caused the dream comes at things from a rather different perspective. We can certainly try to understand dreams scientifically. Here it is interesting that scientific research can modify (and has modified) our concept of dreams, although we normally don’t pay much attention to this. A hundred years ago if you asked someone whether they had a dream and they said no, that was essentially the end of the matter (unless they subsequently changed their mind and remembered that after all they had had a dream). Today we can monitor brain activity while people sleep and on the basis of what these monitors show we may say that someone dreamed even if they can’t remember their dream or deny that they had one. There is no reason why we should not take the brain activity as the decisive criterion of whether someone dreamed, but we do need to recognise that this is a fundamental change in the concept of dreaming.

Imagine that scientific research in this area continues to make progress and that we could read off the content (or some of the content) of the dream from the brain activity. We will then have two accounts of the dream, and there is no reason why they should always be the same. The dreamer says: “I was in a room with three people” and the lab technician adds: “actually there were four”. The dreamer continues: “One of the people started to shout at me but I could not recognise who it was” and the technician interjects: “yes you could. It was your mother”. This is certainly not the game of dreaming as we have traditionally played it! In fact, in the scenario I have suggested we have two accounts and to that extent two different games. We may say that what the monitors reveal shows objectively what happened, but equally one could argue that, since a dream is an experience, what the dreamer says is authoritative. However, it does not really matter if we call one account “objective” and the other, “subjective” – the point is what we do with these accounts and their interest. The dreamer (and the rest of us) may well be interested in the “subjective” account even if it differs from the “objective” account, and we may also be very interested in thinking about the significance of the divergences between the two accounts. It is certainly not a foregone conclusion that we would say: “there is no point my giving you my confused and distorted account of the dream – you might as well go straight to the real thing and get a clear and accurate account from the lab”.  (Similarly, a machine’s (or a music expert’s) account of the “real” meaning of the Schubert Quintet would not replace (or trump) my attempts to understand what the piece means to me).

So far, we have looked at dreams in terms of meaning and then from a scientific perspective. What about the Freudian account? There are many different issues one might explore here from a Wittgensteinian perspective, but one central issue is the question of what constitutes the correct interpretation of my dream. There are three obvious possibilities:

  1. The account I accept as best helping me to understand my dream;
  2. The one my analyst believes is the more accurate reflection of what is going on inside me;
  3. The one that has the greatest therapeutic impact on me.

From what we have said earlier and from what Wittgensteinians typically write in relation to Freud, one might assume that the first answer has to be the preferred choice. But this is wrong. Each of the answers is possible – the point is that they each define a rather different game. In fact, there is at least one further possibility, for one could give up the whole idea of talking about the correct interpretation of a dream and just talk about good/interesting interpretations and poor/uninteresting ones. Just as there is no correct interpretation of Hamlet only interpretations that bring the play to life (and others that don’t), so too perhaps what matters most in dream interpretation is the extent to which the interpretation gives the dreamer food for thought and different indeed conflicting interpretations may each bring something interesting and important to the table.


  1. First, I like the analogy between dreams and music – that’s a fruitful way of looking at, I think.

    The issue of cause and meaning also interests me. “Cause” is always a tricky word and that’s especially true in this kind of case. For example, we might ask “What caused my dream?” and mean by that “Why did I have it – what events or problems in my life prompted those images and feelings?” And that way of putting it seems tied up with the idea that there’s some kind of message in the dream. We want to know who sent it and why (so the desire for a cause here is really a desire for reasons).

    Of course, that’s a problem in itself since (messages from the gods notwithstanding) if anyone sent the message it’s us – or, at least, a “subconscious” part of ourselves. But there’s a further problem: is the dream a message at all? Does it have genuine significance or are we just projecting significance onto a random series of sensations?

    We might say it doesn’t really matter so long as the significance we extract is helpful in some way, but it’s hard to be completely satisfied by that. Imagine you heard a piece of music (to borrow your analogy) and read such-and-such feelings into it, but then discovered it had no composer – it had been generated by a computer program (such things already exist apparently). That might not completely ruin your enjoyment of the piece but I think it would substantially effect it.

    How are we to prove anything here? I don’t think Freud’s idea of a compartmentalised consciousness can be reduced to physical events. What on earth would count as the discovery of the id? Or disproof of its existence? So Freud’s hypothetical structure is a kind of picture that we must accept (or something like it) if we are to accept the idea of dreams as messages. The two hang together and “justification” comes from results. And yet…

    Of course it’s possible to retain the idea that dreams are significant while dropping the notion of messages. On this account, the dream is akin to a pain in your side or a twinge in your knee. It’s a sign that something is wrong. And presumably such a conception is open to scientific analysis and treatment.

    Isn’t what I’m describing here the difference between psychoanalysis and modern psychiatric practice? If so then I’ll simply state that it’s by no means clear to me that the latter is any kind of improvement on the former.

  2. Paul says:

    Thanks, Philip. Lots of thoughts there. I am glad you like the analogy with music. Maybe it is worth thinking about causes in that context. You could try to find the “causes” of the impact the Schubert Quintet has on me in various ways. A musicologist might test the impact of different pieces of music on me or ask me to give him a running commentary on the quintet in terms of “more despairful/less despairful. Perhaps he will then explain that certain chords or key progressions make me feel that things are looking more hopefully, whereas other musical combinations leave me feeling that there is no hope. Or what is going on in different parts of my brain while I listen to the music could be monitored and the results analysed. Both approaches could certainly generate testable hypotheses and these hypotheses could turn out to be correct. The musicologist plays me a piece of music which he thinks I will find despairful and I agree. The scientist gives me a drug designed to produce similar activity in my brain and discovers that it does do so and that when it does, I complain of hopelessness. So there are lots of things one might investigate and each of investigations would have their interest, but I don’t think any of them would stop me listening to Schubert and thinking about what it means and what the music seems to be saying about life.
    As I see it, any causal or scientific investigation that might be possible operates on a different plane to my experience and my interest in the meaning of my experience and so does not really affect it. Of course, someone might say: “now we can explain your experience, we know that it is not as important or interesting as it seems”, but even before the causal explanation was found, people were perfectly free to reject my talk about the quintet as ridiculous twaddle, so nothing has really changed :-) So I would disagree with your suggestion that if I knew the Quintet was machine-generated I would no longer be interested in it. I would certainly find it hard to believe that it was machine-generated and I might listen to it again to see if I was right in valuing it so highly, but ultimately I don’t think it would change anything. The music means a lot to me and I don’t really care whether it was produced by a man, a woman, a small team or a machine. After all, if Schubert had produced the work in a trance-like state where he seemed unaware of his surroundings or of what he was doing and then regained consciousness with the completed manuscript in front of him wouldn’t this be rather like the work just appearing or being spat out of a machine? It is true that I don’t like the idea that it might have been written by a machine and I don’t really think it is possible, but I don’t see why it should necessarily undermine my interest. (On the other hand, if I knew Hitler composed the piece, I would probably never listen to it again, but only because the association with Hitler would destroy all possibility of enjoyment or engagement with the piece.)

  3. Paul says:

    Are dreams significant? Well, they often strike us as highly significant and sometimes some people do think they have understood what they mean. But are they right? Are dreams really significant? It is not obvious to me that any possible investigation could yield a definite answer to that question. I think there are many very varied ways in which people might continue the sentence: “I think it is worth taking dreams seriously because …” and I might find some of convincing or interesting and others, not. And if someone concluded that there were no good reasons for taking dreams seriously, I don’t think you could turn around to them and say: “but you must take dreams seriously because they really are significant” – all you could do is explain to them again your approach to dreams and see if you can change their mind about whether it is worth taking them seriously.

  4. The example of composed music vrs computer-generated music. I dare say that if the piece was one I’d long loved without knowing its provenance then I’d be (at least) reluctant to “cut it dead” following the revelation that it was computer-generated. My attachment, its importance to me, its place in my history, would simply be too strong. Yet it would still change my appreciation to some degree. And what about a piece I’d only heard once before? That, I suspect, would be a very different matter (btw, that’s happened to me and it was a very disquieting experience).

    Now, what if I knew from the outset that a piece was computer-generated? Would I approach it as if that was of no account? I don’t think I would. That’s not to say, however, that it couldn’t mean anything to me. I might find it uncanny that such randomly produced passages could nonetheless sound soaked with emotion – it might even suggest something deep and unworldly to me (“There is meaning and profundity even where the world tries to avoid such things – it’s a kind of fate”). But that’s hardly the same reaction I have to, say, Beethoven’s late quartets.

    For me it seems important that works of art are produced by intentional agents – human beings. That’s not to say that all I really want to get from them is the artist’s avowed intention, nor that I have to agree with such an intention when and if I have it (artists are notoriously poor when it comes to explaining their own work). But I simply don’t approach a work of art in the same way that I might approach (eg) a beautiful landscape or a pile of leaves that happen to have fallen in a striking pattern.

    • Paul says:

      Yes, I think you have got a point. The fact that something was created by a fellow human being certainly does impact how one sees it. And if I was knew a piece of music was generated by a machine, that thought certainly could eat away at me and prevent me taking the music seriously.

  5. Listen to this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sNAuebTAT7w and tell me it would mean the same if you knew it had been entirely computer-generated.

  6. Mei Jieji says:

    Dear Paul, I’ m a philosophy PH.D candidate at Renmin University of China. I’m reading your book “Wittgenstein:Rethinking the Inner”. It’s a very good book on Wittgenstein’s philosophy of psychology and I’m planning to translate it into Chinese. If you can see this commentary please tell me your Email address so that I can consult you when I have difficulties in understanding your writing.Thanks! My Email address is: jaymei-27@163.com.

  7. Miles Rind says:

    Dreams and music? Here is a song about dreams: Ralph Vaughan Williams, In Dreams (text by Robert Louis Stevenson).


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