We’ve all had dreams where we wake up bothered or confused by their content and often wonder what they could mean.Dreams have long been studied in a variety of cultures and civilizations, and some have connected dream meanings to emotional things that people are working through in their everyday lives. There are many conflicting beliefs about whether or not dreams are directly connected to our emotional states while we are awake or if it is more of a symbolic connection that people make. Either way, dreams can serve as a reminder to check in with our emotional selves to see if there is anything going on that could use some processing or exploring.
A common dream for people to have involves loose teeth or teeth that suddenly fall out of their mouths! It’s so common that there are many different hypotheses people have derived for why they could be happening. There are even websites dedicated to identifying possible reasons or themes for why we have the dreams we have. On one particular website, a large list of meanings has been provided for someone experiencing a dream in which their teeth fall out, some of these reasons include: anxiety about appearance, struggles with communicating with others, feeling embarrassed about a situation, feeling powerlessness, issues with malnutrition or diet-related problems, or that a person is deceiving someone close to them. On the more positive side, there are some people who believe that your teeth falling out symbolizes that money or wealth is coming to you, based on the logic of the tooth fairy.
While it is always interesting to read about the suggestions of what our dreams mean, there is no clear scientific evidence that dreams actually do have any meaning at all. In fact, many people who study the neuroscience behind sleep and dreams suggest that our brains work diligently over night to process and organize our thoughts and what we have learned throughout the day, and dreams may just part of the organization process. When dreams feel disturbing or don’t seem to be based in logic or reality, it could be that the brain is disposing of unnecessary thoughts to make room for what it important to be learned and stored in the brain. Even still, many people feel as though there has to be some kind of connection to our wakeful self, and that dreams cannot possibly just be random data floating in our minds to be disposed of.
Depending on who you ask, you will get different answers about the meaning of dreams and how you should understand them. But, more often than not, people want to have an answer for the odd dreams that they experience that keep them up at night. That is because humans strive to form connections between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors all the time. Because dreams haven’t fully been understood by science and researchers, it has allowed a lot of people to come to their own conclusions about their meaning to help people make sense of what is happening in their minds that is beyond their control. This is connected to a social psychology theory called the Barnum Effect, a long-studied theory that suggests that people will feel incredibly connected to explanations for their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors based on vague or general descriptions. Like horoscopes or personality assessments, the theory suggests that when someone hears something that is meant to provide an explanation for a certain phenomenon, they will make personal connections to it to confirm its relatedness to themselves. Take the teeth dream for example; The above-mentioned website provides a long list of reasons why someone may have a dream that their teeth are falling out. The Barnum effect would suggest that a person would feel personally connected to one of those general dream meanings and then attach themselves to that belief as the “reason” why they had the dream in the first place.
All in all, the Barnum effect seems to help people feel like they
are getting answers to questions that plague them so that they can feel less
disturbed or distressed, which may be a good thing! Also, it can help them try
to take the associations made from these vague descriptions and meanings and
can give them the ability to begin to do the work of processing and exploring
some of their deeper emotional hang-ups, which they may not have been willing
to do without a little push from an illogical or disturbing dream. Whatever the
reason is that we do have dreams, they do make for interesting conversation!
Dr. Shannon McHugh is a Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist in Los Angeles, California. She specializes in assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and adults who have developmental and social delays, behavioral difficulties, and those who have experienced traumatic events