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'Throughline': The history of understanding our dreams


During the pandemic, many people have reported that they're dreaming more frequently and that their dreams have become more intense. What effect does dreaming have on our waking lives? Do dreams carry meaning? Today, scientists are actively studying these questions, but this wasn't always the case. Throughline's Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei take us on a trip back in time to when the study of dreams started in the West.


RUND ABDELFATAH, BYLINE: For much of human history, dreams were considered messages from the deep. They were a source of inspiration of ideas and even guided the way many people lived their lives. But beginning in the 16th century in Europe, dreams lost much of their power. The Christian church saw dreams as a possible source of sin. Some philosophers regarded dream interpretation as nonsense. One writer thought they were merely the result of indigestion.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, BYLINE: But then, in the late 1800s in Austria, a man came along who questioned that approach.

CASEY HERMAN, BYLINE: (Reading) I started my professional activity as a neurologist trying to bring relief to my neurotic patients.

ARABLOUEI: Sigmund Freud was one of the first scientists who thought deeply about dreams and attempted to better understand the science behind them and the emotions and behaviors they conjured.

SIDARTA RIBEIRO: When Freud was a young doctor, he was a scientist. He saw himself as a scientist.

ARABLOUEI: This is Sidarta Ribeiro. He's a neuroscientist and author of the book "The Oracle Of Night: The History And Science Of Dreams."

RIBEIRO: And he was trying himself in different fields of science, of neuroscience.

ARABLOUEI: At this time, scientists were trying to understand the connection between the brain and the mind, the body and consciousness. One of the most common diagnoses of the time was hysteria. It was often a kind of catchall diagnosis for people, especially women, who might have been suffering from symptoms like depression, anxiety, shortness of breath, insomnia and even something called sexual forwardness. When Sigmund Freud was a medical student studying hysteria, he came to believe that it was a psychiatric disorder. And after graduating, he opened his own private practice to treat patients and further study the condition.

RIBEIRO: And until the very end of the 19th century, he was pursuing a clinical work that was very strongly rooted in the neuroscience and psychiatry of his time.

ARABLOUEI: But then...

RIBEIRO: His father died. He entered a crisis and had these major dreams.


RIBEIRO: And this is when he undergoes the big change, when he produces his seminal book, "The Interpretation Of Dreams," and creates a new field of knowledge that we call psychoanalysis.

ABDELFATAH: Psychoanalysis is the idea that investigating the unconscious, often through dreams, can possibly treat the psychological symptoms patients are suffering, conditions that people still experience today, like depression, anxiety, obsessive behavior and so on. Using his own dreams and his patients as evidence, Freud put forth an idea in a book called "The Interpretation Of Dreams" that would become his lasting legacy.

RIBEIRO: What Freud did that was so important is that he reclaims dreams as something meaningful.

ABDELFATAH: But even after Freud published his book, it's not like everything instantly changed. Dreams were still mostly dismissed in the scientific community.

RIBEIRO: Why? Because in the 19th century, science was completely sure that dreams were nonsense, that nobody should pay attention to dreams, that they reflected at most bad digestion.

HERMAN: (Reading) What is common in all these dreams is obvious. They completely satisfy wishes excited during the day, which remain unrealized. They are simply and undisguisedly realizations of wishes.

RIBEIRO: He would say dreams have a meaning. They are related to people's lives. They are not something that can be dismissed, but they also cannot be predetermined. If you want to make sense of somebody's dream, you need to understand that person. You need to listen to that person. You need to share the context of that person. And this is what is done in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy in general. So Freud was able to say, yes, dreams have a meaning, but this meaning is centered in the dreamer.

ABDELFATAH: This idea that people dream for a reason, that it's a way to cope with problems the conscious mind can't do while it's awake, was radical, that by reflecting on your dreams, you were confronting something deep inside of you that followed like a shadow you didn't know was there.

RIBEIRO: Dreams are meaningful if we pay attention to them. So it's a relationship that we built, not just with ourselves but with those mental creatures that inhabit ourselves.

ARABLOUEI: Most of Freud's ideas about psychology have been debunked. But still, his ideas about the relationship between mental health and dreams sparked an area of scientific research that has been refined over time. In almost 125 years after he published "The Interpretation Of Dreams," there is now research that supports the idea that dreams can have a significant impact on our waking lives.

RIBEIRO: We had to wait until 2010 for the first paper that showed that when you dream about a task, you become better at completing that task. They showed that when people navigate a virtual maze and they dream about it, they become much better at navigating. And that does not happen if they stay awake thinking about the maze or if they sleep without dreaming about the maze. To dream about something has a lot to do with succeeding in doing that. And this is something that many, many people believed for ages, but there was no empirical demonstration of that until quite recently.


MARTIN: That was Sidarta Ribeiro talking with Throughline hosts Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei. You can listen to the whole episode wherever you get your podcasts.

[POST BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story, we incorrectly say most of Sigmund Freud’s ideas about psychology have been debunked.]


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: January 29, 2022 at 12:00 AM EST
In this story, we incorrectly say most of Sigmund Freud's ideas about psychology have been debunked.
Ramtin Arablouei is co-host and co-producer of NPR's podcast Throughline, a show that explores history through creative, immersive storytelling designed to reintroduce history to new audiences.
Rund Abdelfatah is the co-host and producer of Throughline, a podcast that explores the history of current events. In that role, she's responsible for all aspects of the podcast's production, including development of episode concepts, interviewing guests, and sound design.