Illustration showing a couple talking while in bed

The Shrink

We are fascinated by our dreams. And it is usually our dreams we’re fascinated by. When another person launches into a lengthy exposition of the dreams that graced their night, our eyes are liable to glaze over quickly. But for many of us, our own dreams provide an endless source of intrigue.

Nowadays we are not likely to believe that dreams predict the future, or regard them as messages from God. But it is probably part of Freud’s lasting legacy that we can’t quite shake off the idea that they somehow hold the key to our most secluded desires. It may need some teasing out, we think, but the meaning of our dream is there, waiting to be interpreted.

There are of course alternative views, including the one that dreams have no meaning whatsoever and result instead from the brain’s attempts to make sense of neural processes that occur during sleep – just froth rising on top of those random impulses.

But adopting a scientific attitude to dreams doesn’t necessarily require overcoming our fascination with them. We could simply relate to them differently. Instead of seeking to decipher the symbols that our unconscious is supposedly messaging to us, we could use them as a starting point for reflection.

Whether or not the stuff of dreams actually reflects our waking concerns, exploring it could be a useful way of gaining insight. As Wittgenstein said, “whenever you are preoccupied with something, with some trouble or with some problem which is a big thing in your life – as sex is, for instance – then no matter what you start from, the association will lead finally and inevitably back to that same theme”. “You could start with any of the objects on this table,” he said. A dream may provide a more colourful beginning.

So while we may be disappointed that we can’t consult a dream dictionary to explain what that tower in the middle of the ocean means, by thinking this way we can claim back our dreams. It’s not a question of what the dream means, but what it means to us.

The Sage

Nearly two and a half millennia ago, the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi awoke from a dream and concluded: “Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man.”

He was the first to pose a question that has occupied philosophers ever since: how do we know that all life is not some kind of dream? Descartes famously concluded that “there exist no certain marks by which the state of waking can ever be distinguished from sleep”. For Plato, the problem was that whether we are awake or sleeping, “the soul contends that the thoughts which are present to our minds at the time are true”. (Rather bizarrely he also claimed “our time is equally divided between sleeping and waking”, which suggests the life of an ancient Athenian free man was even cushier than we thought.)

We cannot and need not decisively prove that we are not in fact dreaming. As the ever-pragmatic Aristotle explained, every argument, every belief, has to start somewhere, and so “the starting point of a demonstration is not a matter of demonstration”. No one seriously believes we are always dreaming anyway. Even Descartes concluded his meditations by saying his doubts were “hyperbolical and ridiculous”, since it’s clear that in waking life, events are linked by memory, and objects do not just pop in and out of existence at random.

The key point is not that the dream world might be real, but that it feels real. In it, we think, feel, see, hear, taste, smell and touch. In that sense we are as alive in our dreams as we are when awake, albeit temporarily inhabiting a realm of fantasy. To be conscious is to exist, whatever we are conscious of.

Life is therefore like a dream, not because it is an unreal nothing, but because it is a very real something which will vanish into nothingness the moment our consciousness ceases. So dream well, dream lucidly, for this one ends not with an awakening, but an endless, deep sleep.


The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, email

Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article