Kelly McSweeney

Jan 8th 2021

What Do Our Dreams Mean? AI Could Have the Answer


We spend a third of our lives asleep, and during part of that time, our minds conjure up stories in our dreams. So, what do our dreams mean? Psychologists comb through their patients’ dream journals and use coding systems to interpret those dreams — a time-consuming process. However, a new report published in the Royal Society of Open Science describes an automated tool that can analyze thousands of dreams to find meaning in the strange scenarios and colorful characters that come to life while we sleep.

Understanding Dream Analysis

It may be fun to flip through a book of dream symbols, but true dream analysis is much more complicated. Interpreting our dreams depends on what’s going on in an individual’s life. A teapot in one person’s dream could have a deep underlying meaning, while a teapot in a barista’s dream could be a simple part of their everyday life. Our understanding of dreams has changed throughout history. According to Science:

  • Ancient Babylonians believed dreams were prophecies.
  • Ancient Egyptians thought dreams were messages from the gods.
  • Freud and his contemporaries gave dreams symbolic meanings, with an emphasis on sex and aggression.
  • A popular school of thought in modern psychology follows a theory called the continuity hypothesis, which suggests that dreams are a continuation of regular life.

Today, many psychologists use a popular dream analysis scale to break dreams into components and search for themes and patterns. This method takes time and can’t be done on a large scale. That’s why computer scientists at Nokia Bell Labs developed an algorithm to do the heavy lifting. Just like robots handle repetitive tasks in a factory, artificial intelligence (AI) software can take over the tedious aspects of dream interpretation.

“If we can understand our dreams better at scale, then maybe we can also tailor technologies that improve our waking life,” Luca Maria Aiello, co-author of the study, told Science.

How AI Interprets Dreams

The algorithm uses natural language processing, which is the branch of AI that gives machines the ability to understand language. First, it breaks down dream reports into smaller segments. Next, it put words into different categories and then diagrams how the individual words relate to each other. It links the words to positive or negative emotions and categorizes interactions in the dreams as aggressive, friendly or sexual. Finally, the algorithm uses the same popular dream analysis scale that human psychologists use to score dreams.

Results and Consequences of the Study

The automated tool analyzed 24,000 dream reports from a public database of dreams from verified research studies. Then, the researchers compared the algorithm’s dream scores with psychologists’ scores and found that they matched each other 76% of the time.

This technique could become a tool to help psychologists compare their patient’s dreams with a large database to quickly identify outliers that are very different from average dreams. These unusual dreams could indicate sources of stress or potential mental health issues with their patients.

Individuals may want to use a tool such as this to analyze their own dreams to help gain a deeper understanding of themselves.

“Dreams tell us not only about what we have done today, but also about who we are,” Aiello says.

What Do Our Dreams Mean?

The tool could also be used to find trends among larger groups of dreamers. For example, researchers could use the algorithm to analyze how dreams differ for different demographics or how they vary for people with different psychiatric conditions. Plus, it could be used to capture and interpret the zeitgeist — the spirit of the times.

“What you could see is how people psychologically react to global events,” Aiello told Vice. “Today it can be the COVID-19 pandemic, tomorrow it could be a financial crisis, the day after it could be global warming.”

The bottom line is that this is another example of using technology to do the tedious and time-consuming work so that humans are free to put their time and effort into digging deeper to understand the nuances of how our minds work.