Dreams…what are they good for?

Our dreams can be a gateway to adventure, wisdom, clarity, the sacred, our inner genius. They can lead us past our fears, to our desires, into fantasy worlds and back out again on a path strewn with the self-organizing debris of the imagination. Dreams clearly rock.

But is dreaming a lost art? Some say humanity has finally put its naive faith in the truths and meaningfulness of dreams aside for a more straightlaced, science-based worldview. Others say ‘baloney!’ Humans are dreamers — in a very fundamental sense — and it is folly to condemn our dreams as meaningless hoo-ha when in reality they are among our greatest assets.

Moreover, science isn’t anti-dreaming! To the contrary, recent decades have seen a surge of scientific interest in dream phenomena, and some pretty intriguing findings have emerged. In many ways science has begun to validate what some cultures have known for millennia: Dreams really are powerful tools for discerning not only subjective thoughts and feelings, but objective facts that can transform your life for the better.

Dreaming is not a lost art. Many people still believe in the power of dreams, and their ongoing curiosity about this mysterious dimension of the human experience has kept the spirit of dream inquiry alive. Here are three seemingly magical, yet scientifically validated ways our dreams can add value and help move us down the right paths in life, as elaborated by experts and oneironauts keeping the dreaming faith in the 21st century.

Thinking is hard. Solving problems is even harder. Wouldn’t it be great if your dreams could just handle that stuff for you? Well it so happens they can. You can literally outsource your daytime conundrums and mental challenges to your dreaming brain — and should!

Researchers have lately taken a greater interest in this potentiality, like Harvard psychologist Deirdre Barrett, author of The Committee of Sleep: How Artists, Scientists and Athletes Use Dreams for Creative Problem-Solving (2001). She writes: “Dreams have been responsible for two Nobel prizes, the invention of a couple of major drugs, other scientific discoveries, several important political events, and innumerable novels, films, and works of visual art.”

Logically, you might think the active, conscious mind would dominate when it comes to problem-solving. But it’s those larger, slower theta brain waves — the lumbering waveforms associated with dreaming — that have the flexibility to solve life’s trickiest and most complex problems. While our conscious mind is oriented toward the fast resolution of short-term, circumstantial problems based on simple heuristics, the relaxed, unstructured mind of the dreamer is free to think big and keep an open mind.

So if you find yourself stuck on a particularly knotty problem, consider mining your dreams for those elusive turnkey insights. To get started, read about how to remember your dreams and how to change your dreams, if not also how to become lucid, i.e. a fully self-aware dreamer. These skills will enable you to incubate and then access exactly the information you need to resolve specific problems originating in your waking life.

Did you know you can use your dreams as an instrument of prophecy, divination or, as nerds today call it, “precognition”? It’s true. Just ask the ex-passengers of the Titanic, at least some of whom had classic ‘warning dreams’ ahead of the big sink.

Can dreams really predict the future? The interpretation of (some) dreams as media for paranormal pre-visions of the future-telling variety doesn’t have much currency in the mainstream — even though there’s no shortage of people who swear by their soothsaying dream-powers. Ever-earnest parapsychology notwithstanding, contemporary science continues to follow the footsteps of Aristotle and other party-poopers in rejecting the reality of genuinely prophetic or divinatory dreams, in the strict sense of dreams that draw upon information about the future literally from the future.

On the other hand, scientists do recognize a more modest mode of precognitive dreaming, which is almost as cool. “Prodromal” (literally, ‘forerunning’) dreams are those that anticipate the near future by drawing on a person’s unconscious knowledge and perceptions of forthcoming events.

Prodromal dreams are considered legit because they draw on actually existing data, logically available to the present moment, to infer what is imminent. This is explicable based on the principle that many events effectively ‘pre-announce’ their arrival with suggestive hints of what is to come. Such hints can be extraordinarily prescient, so long as the course of events remains more or less stable and, well, predictable.

It happens in healthcare all the time, like when people dream of a sharp shock or pain to their head as a sort of cruel prelude to a severe migraine. Medical researchers have even found that prodromal dreams can predict the onset of major disease years in advance of any formal diagnosis.

This is possible because severe disease often quietly incubates in the body for a long time before manifesting obvious symptoms. And the dreaming brain excels in matters of the non-obvious. Dreams are really good at picking up on and amplifying subtle changes in the depths of the body. They give voice to the body, their native territory. Your dreams can be the perfect tool for developing a deep and subtle awareness of your health status, often just when such an assist is needed.

It’s not prophecy per se, but prodromal dreamwork can help you get ahead of the curve with your own health and wellness. Psychologists say dreams with recurring and/or highly upsetting content are more likely to indicate illness in the body, so keep alert for potential cues or body-relevant imagery if you notice your dreams taking a dark turn.

Even the simplest human life is like a story, a dream, even, that flows from one scene, act, or setting to another. This stream creates multiple turnkey moments of transition for the individual which challenge him or her to rise to the occasion: The birth of a new baby. School commencement. Career change. The death of a beloved elder… Sometimes, the transition signifies something darker, perhaps trauma. In any case, your dreams will likely play a major, if subtle role in helping you work through the important feels and issues.

How so?

Human dreaming affords a kind of basic emotional ‘respiration.’ Troubled responses like fear and anxiety, hidden insecurities, or unresolved questions related to the terms of transition can surface and play themselves out in your dreams — air their grievances so to speak.

A classic example is the person who must prepare for their own death, whether due to old age or terminal illness. All kinds of unnerving questions occur to those forced to wrap up their mortal affairs: What do I want to have done or accomplished before I die? Have I measured up? Has this important person in my life forgiven me, or do I owe someone forgiveness? Am I ready??? Through their dreams, the dying can actually release stress and work towards resolution of the existential questions they must address in order to make their passage with peace and dignity.

Dreams help you manage transitions whether you’re conscious of it or not. But you can involve yourself in the process by paying close attention to the content and drift off your dreams, for the relevant meanings and revelations lie therein.