This post is part of a series of guest posts on GPS by the undergraduate and graduate students in my Science vs. Pseudoscience course. As part of their work for the course, each student had to demonstrate mastery of the skill of “Educating the Public about Pseudoscience.” To that end, each student has to prepare a 1,000ish word post on a particular pseudoscience topic, as well as run a booth on-campus to help reach people physically about the topic.
The Mystery of Dreams: A Mormon Example by J. Kyle Haws
Humans spend on average 33% of their lives sleeping, and it is in this state of consciousness that dreams occur. People ave been perplexed by the content and meaning of their dreams since time immemorial. One of the earliest recorded dreams comes from the story of Gilgamesh. The dream that Gilgamesh narrates to his mother is about a star that fell from the heavens and he is unable to move the star. Everyone in the land of Uruk has gathered around the star to see it and worship, even Gilgamesh is infatuated with the star. When Gilgamesh recounts his dream to his mother it suggests that he is seeking answers about the content and symbols of his dream, he is looking for an interpretation. Many people have sought answers to the meaning of their dreams, like Gilgamesh, through the process of dream analysis or dream interpretation.
Dream interpretation assumes that our dreams have meaning and the meaning of our dreams can be revealed through investigation of the content of the dream and its symbols. Dream interpretation has been practiced from ancient societies to our technologically advanced civilization, around the entire world. Whole sections in the bookstore are devoted to help you analyze your dreams. The problem with these different dream interpretations is that they are unreliable and often contradict each other. There are many theories that attempt to explain the reason why humans dream. According to Sigmund Freud, dreams are the gateway to our unconscious. Our unconscious contains our wishes, desires, and passions that are hidden from our conscious cognitive processes. These desires and wishes are forbidden and they are repressed to our unconscious. Dreams are a way for our desires and wishes to be fulfilled.
But according to Carl Jung, a disaffected follower of Freud, dreams revealed something about the dreamer, their relationships with others, and their relationship with the environment. Jung believed that the manifest content of the dream was as important as the latent content, unlike Freud. Jung believed that there was not one right way to interpret dreams and whatever interpretation felt right to you was the correct interpretation. Jung believed there were universal dream symbols that possess the same meaning for every one, he called these universal symbols archetypes.
Revonsuo and Stevens instead argue that dreams simulate threats. In dreams we can practice primary self-defense instincts that are essential to human survival. Dreams are deliberate constructions of the brain to train and exercise our emotions and prepare for conscious awareness. Thus dream interpretation is a futile endeavor and a complete waste of time, according to these theorists.
Dream interpretation has played an essential piece in history and especially the Biblical narrative. For example, Joseph of Egypt was known for his ability to interpret dreams, it is because of this talent that he was set free from prison and became the second most powerful person in Egypt. Another example in the biblical narrative is about Daniel, who gained favor in the eyes of Nebuchadnezzar because of his “understanding in all visions and dreams.” Daniel successfully interpreted the dreams of the anxious King and was given many gifts and prestige for his ability to interpret dreams.
Scriptural passages from the Bible suggest that dreams played an intricate part in the communication of the Lord with his prophets, who in turn communicated with his chosen people. In Joel 2:28 the Lord says that he will pour out his spirit on the people of the earth and they will be blessed with dreams and visions. Through this verse the Abrahamic God pronounces that he will communicate with mankind through visions and dreams. This concept is also mentioned earlier in the Bible when God is communicating with Miriam and Aaron, in the Book of Numbers 12:6, he says that he will reveal himself to the prophet through dreams. According to the these biblical verses God communicates through dreams or visions with his prophets.
Interestingly, this theme of divine communication through dreams can be found in Mormon scriptures and theology. The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ is considered by some as a scriptural text written by ancient prophets living in the Americas from 600 BCE to 400 CE. This scriptural text begins with a family leaving Jerusalem lead by their father Lehi a prophet, around 600 BCE, having been commanded by God to do so in a dream. While they are traveling through the wilderness Lehi has a dream or a vision about the tree of life, which was later recounted by his son Nephi. In the first Book of Nephi 8:2 it says, “And it came to pass that while my father tarried in the wilderness he spake unto us, saying: Behold, I have dreamed a dream; or, in other words, I have seen a vision.” The scriptural evidence suggests that dreams should be considered as visions and vice versa.
This information and background is important for analyzing the visions and spiritual experiences of the Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith is considered the translator or author (depends on who you ask) of The Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith professed having a vision in which he saw God and Jesus. Joseph’s vision is known as the First Vision in Mormon theology and is accepted as doctrine.
However, multiple versions of the First Vision have surfaced, causing people to be skeptical of Joseph Smith’s claims of divine communication and visitations. There are discrepancies between the texts and the details of each account. It appears that, as time passed, the First Vision narrative became more complex and the message from the divine beings changed. The authenticity of Joseph Smith’s claims has been widely disputed and analyzed due to the multiple versions of the First Vision. Some scholars claim that Joseph Smith fabricated the story, while others believe he suffered from a mental disorder and his visions were the result of psychopathology. Some scholars believe that Joseph’s vision was in fact a dream, and different dream interpretations have been used to understand the content of the First Vision.
Interestingly, researchers have studied the concept of dream interpretation and how it could potentially lead to false memories, this study provides additional insight and information about the multiple versions of the First Vision and subsequent embellishments and additions to the story. The inconsistencies in the First Vision narrative could be attributed to Joseph developing a false memory about his experience. It is through this lens that we can better understand the dreams or visions of Joseph Smith and other prophetic dreams through out history.
Through the history of the human species finding patterns in the environment has been adaptive for their survival. The organisms that were able to discern patterns among randomness were more likely to survive. The search for meaning in randomness has influenced individuals to seek meaning in dreams. Dream interpretation is akin to astrology in that attempts to add meaning to randomness and entangle individuals in its pseudoscientific claims. It’s also similar in that, while many people believe in it, the evidence says otherwise.