For a long time, since the time of Freud, and even before then in fact, people have looked for meaning in our dreams. In particular whether they have any use to us at all. The honest answer is we don’t know for sure. But I would probably say there is some usefulness. There’s certainly some usefulness in examining our dreams.
One theory is that dreams are a by-product of all the activity that happens during sleep; that there is no use to it. It’s just an epiphenomenon of the brain activity. More recently, people have been going further than this though. Recent studies tend to focus on the idea that there is some usefulness. There’s certainly an idea that dreams can provide insight into emotions like stress or if you’re feeling anxious about something.
Reoccurring dreams are useful here – they can be indicative of something that you’re worried about, even if you’re not consciously worried about it all the time. Or maybe you’ve got some big event looming in the future. Nightmares have also been suggested as a scenario-testing exercise. So I certainly think dreams are useful when they’re used as a testing ground.
Our dreams don’t always replicate our thoughts or worries precisely – they’re not always realistic – but they can reflect underlying emotions. They’re certainly a good ‘What if’ exercise. What if this happens? The thinking is that you can rule out some explanations in a dream, so in reality something normal is more likely to happen.
In short, whether dreams can tell us anything about ourselves – or whether we’d be naïve to ignore them – tends to be more of a philosophical question than a psychological one, because what are we looking for? What are we looking to learn about ourselves?
There are individual differences in dreaming. Some people do dream much more vividly and some people can control their dreams a lot more, a kind of lucid dreaming where they control the narrative – which may be correlated to other personality characteristics. But whether you can look at your dreams and infer things about yourself, it’s still a grey area. I would say they’re certainly worth examining.