Dream interpretation is the process of assigning meaning to dreams. In many ancient societies, such as those of Egypt and Greece, dreaming was considered a supernatural communication or a means of divine intervention, whose message could be unravelled by people with certain powers. In modern times, various schools of psychology have offered theories about the meaning of dreams.
One of the earliest written examples of dream interpretation comes from the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh.
In ancient Egypt, priests acted as dream interpreters. Hieroglyphics depicting dreams and their interpretations are evident. Dreams have been held in considerable importance through history by most cultures.
The ancient Greeks constructed temples they called Asclepieions, where sick people were sent to be cured. It was believed that cures would be effected through divine grace by incubating dreams within the confines of the temple. Dreams were also considered prophetic or omens of particular significance.
In medieval Islamic psychology, certain hadiths indicate that dreams consist of three parts, and early Muslim scholars recognized three kinds of dreams: false, patho-genetic, and true.
A standard traditional Chinese book on dream-interpretation is the Lofty Principles of Dream Interpretation compiled in the 16th century by Chen Shiyuan (particularly the "Inner Chapters" of that opus). Chinese thinkers also raised profound ideas about dream interpretation, such as the question of how we know we are dreaming and how we know we are awake.
Chuang-Tzu, an influential Chinese philosopher from 4th Century, who had a unique interpretation and realization about his own dream:
"Once Chuang Chou dreamed that he was a butterfly. He fluttered about happily, quite pleased with the state that he was in, and knew nothing about Chuang Chou. Presently he awoke and found that he was very much Chuang Chou again. Now, did Chou dream that he was a butterfly or was the butterfly now dreaming that he was Chou?"
This raises the question of reality monitoring in dreams, a topic of intense interest in modern cognitive neuroscience.
In the 17th century the English physician Sir Thomas Browne wrote a short tract upon the interpretation of dreams. Dream interpretation was taken up as part of psychoanalysis at the end of the 19th century; the perceived, manifest content of a Dream is Analyzed to reveal its latent meaning to the psyche of the dreamer. One of the seminal works on the subject is The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud.
Although not dismissing Freud's model of dream interpretation, Carl Jung believed Freud's notion of dreams as representations of unfulfilled wishes to be simplistic and limited. Jung was convinced that the scope of dream interpretation was larger, reflecting the richness and complexity of the entire unconscious, both on a personal and collective level. Jung believed that archetypes such as the animus, the anima, the shadow and others manifested themselves in dreams, as dream symbols or figures.
Jung believed that material repressed by the conscious mind, postulated by Freud to comprise the unconscious, was similar to his own concept of the shadow, which in itself is only a small part of the unconscious. Jung cautioned against blindly ascribing meaning to Dream Symbols without a clear understanding of the client's personal situation.
Although Jung acknowledged the universality of archetypal symbols, he contrasted this with the concept of a sign—images having a one to one connotation with their meaning. His approach was to recognize the dynamism and fluidity that existed between symbols and their ascribed meaning. Symbols must be explored for their personal significance to the patient, instead of having the dream conform to some predetermined idea.
Jung believed that dreams may contain ineluctable truths, philosophical pronouncements, illusions, wild fantasies, memories, plans, irrational experiences and even telepathic visions. Just as the psyche has a diurnal side which we experience as conscious life, it has an unconscious nocturnal side which we apprehend as dreamlike fantasy. Jung would argue that just as we do not doubt the importance of our conscious experience, then we ought not to second guess the value of our unconscious lives.
Some researchers have postulated that dreams have a biological function, where the content requires no analysis or interpretation, that content providing an automatic stimulation of the body's physiological functions underpinning the human instinctive behavior. So dreams are part of the human, and animal, survival and development strategy. Other dreams stimulate the determination to explore and inquire, through the extremes of exhilarating dream achievements (positive physiology) or frustrating obstructions and barriers. The latter stimulates a determination not to give up in a quest, so that, in life, the individual and the species move forward.