Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2019-20/Evidence in Dreams

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"Does the waking description of what happened in a dream accurately and completely represent the person’s feelings, thoughts, and sensations within the dream-as-dreamt?" [1]

Given the natural curiosity of Humans, we have always been fascinated by dreams and their significance. One has permanently struggled to attain the true meaning of Dreams and never fully came to a definite and empirical conclusion. In Antiquity they were considered prophecies and divine callings. Dreams therefore exerted a powerful influence on civilisations. People would try to induce dreams by performing rituals usually based on sacrifices and worships. [2] With the evolution of science during the 20th century, came the advancement of dreams' studies in neurosciences and psychoanalysis. People progressively realised that dreams did not have a divine aspect, and are now mainly viewed as "meaningful hidden truths" of their unconscious desires and thoughts. [3]

In this chapter, we will examine, through an interdisciplinary approach, the use of evidence in the study of Dreams to see whether it allows us to better understand their significance or not. Nevertheless, evidence, which seeks to examine data carefully, support research and arguments, is a complex notion differing in each field of study.[4] Thus, we will also highlight through our research the diverging methods of evidence utilised in the following disciplines.

Different disciplinary perspectives in the study of Dreams[edit]


In Neurosciences, experts have used the positivist method of enquiry to approach dreams. Positivism relies on empirical indicators which attempts to represent truth. It also tends to produce representative results that generalise, compare and summarise human behaviour. Neurosciences drift from the dream itself to focus upon the biological mechanisms initiating them. Experts have discovered that the coherence of the information received by our brain is dealt by the prefrontal lobe which is asleep during our slumber. This underlines the incoherence of our dreams and why we struggle to remember them properly. Michel Jouvet and his colleagues conducted an experiment on cats to locate the probable area from which dreams originated. They discovered that dreams emerge on the bridge linking the spinal marrow and the brain. Furthermore, neurotransmitters play a key role in the control of dreams. Indeed, some moving signals between the brain and the body are inhibited by specific neurotransmitters which paralyse us momentarily to hold us in bed.[5]

Even though this method of enquiry seems to be efficient, it has raised concerns among the scientists' community. In such cases, empirical data is supposed to be free of bias but all the experiments are conducted by humans which - despite their best intent - remain humans. Thus, they are influenced unwittingly by their beliefs and own experiences, and data can be analysed in different ways depending on the purpose. Hence, empirical data is not 100% reliable and possesses a little margin of error which calls into question the authenticity of evidence in Neurosciences and scientific disciplines in general.[6]

Sigmund Freud

Psychoanalysis and Philosophy[edit]

Psychoanalysis and philosophy are closely tied thanks to Austrian philosopher Sigmund Freud, recognised as the founder of psychoanalysis. The latter is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as 'A therapeutic method [...] for treating mental disorders'. [7] Understanding psychoanalysis requires studying the philosophy of the Unconscious through dreams. Freud devised the theory that humans are in constant struggle between their Conscious and their Unconscious. We try to repress the latter as much as possible, but loose this control when we fall asleep. Freud actually refers to dreams as 'The royal road to the unconscious'. [8] Psychoanalysis, thus, uses qualitative evidence shown in our dreams, enabling a new way to understand the human personality. [9] The story played inside a dream is directed by intentions representing the fulfilment of an unconscious desire. Psychoanalysis interprets dreams using a strictly scientific method: to understand repressed desires in his patients, Freud follows a precise systematic approach, thus scientific. However, psychoanalysis in its whole cannot be totally objective as the patient reports its dream. We may therefore suggest that this discipline uses empirical subjective evidence. Nevertheless, according to scientists, subjective evidence is not sufficient to scientifically demonstrate a dream's significance since the information may be biased. The dreamer's testimony subjectivity unveils psychoanalysis' limit to find evidence of a dream's significance.

This limit might be the reason why Freud linked psychoanalysis with philosophy, and that Freud can now be studied in philosophy. Indeed, philosophy aims to find a truth, or evidence for a truth through questioning, which can help with the limit of psychoanalysis, as questioning the results found by a psychoanalyst will allow him to assess which « data » really are reliable and hence find better evidence in the study of dreams.


Law and most of the humanitarian disciplines use the interpretivist method of enquiry to approach dreams' significance. Interpretivism analyses people as individuals and focuses on how different aspects of culture and reality shape people within the chosen society. In this case, the methods of evidence implemented are mostly all subjective: questionnaires, social trends, interviews, personal beliefs and experiences. In justice, one might not believe Dreams could be used as testimonial evidence against someone. However, counter-examples can be found. For instance, a mother tried to prove that her husband was an unfit father and should not be granted visitation since he had made some incestious dreams about his two daughters. She used her husband's dream journal to prove the existence of said dreams. While it can certainly be argued that those dreams are troublesome, some people have advocated against this evidence. Indeed, the man made this type of dream twice, he usually dreamt of women of his age, denying the pedophile thesis.[10]

This highlights the main concern raised about dreams : the lack of certainty over their true value. As Kelly Bulkeley said in Dreaming as inspiration: evidence from religion, philosophy, literature, and film "how do we ever know a dream report has not been edited, revised, embellished, or completely fabricated by the dreamer?".[11] Hence, it is hard to adjudicate in favour or against the use of dreams as evidence because it is an unconscious phenomenon making their us as evidence a controversial matter.


In Antiquity, the lack of scientific tools and rational evidence lead to an equivocal interpretation of dreams. With the evolution of science, disciplines based their studies on more convincing evidence. But as we can see, each of the disciplines above interprets dreams differently. Disciplines such as Neurosciences, Psychoanalysis tend to prioritise quantitative data and experiments whereas Philosophy and Law will justify their studies with literary texts and case studies. This is due to their diverging opinion on what constitutes an accurate definition of evidence in their field of study. Their lack of consideration of other disciplines equally emphasises this confrontation between differing evidences.

The present discordance between contrasting types of evidence applied in scientific and humanitarian disciplines creates a clash within the research of dreams. Thus, disabling us to get an accurate knowledge on how dreams are interpreted when doing this interdisciplinary approach.

Consequently, we believe that there must be an increasing interrelatedness between disciplines to reduce the divergence of their studies. An interdisciplinary approach would legitimise the final conclusion on the knowledge discovered, assembling the study of various disciplines. Thus, allowing us to have a broader and clearer spectrum of the subject studied.


  1. Bulkeley K, Dreaming as inspiration: evidence from religion, philosophy, literature, and film, 2010, II. Quality of evidence (32-33)
  2. Pelham L. The History Of Dreams In Ancient Cultures [Internet]. 2019 [cited 28 November 2019]. Available from:
  3. Morewedge, Carey K.; Norton, Michael I. (2009). "When dreaming is believing: The (motivated) interpretation of dreams". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 96 (2): 249–264.
  4. Evidence | Origin and meaning of evidence by Online Etymology Dictionary [Internet]. 2019 [cited November 2019]. Available from:
  5. Regnault M, Faivre E. Le rêve, moment crucial du sommeil paradoxal [Internet]. FuturaSanté. 2018 [cited 23 November 2019]. Available from:
  6. Bradford A. Empirical Evidence: A Definition [Internet]. Live Science. 2017 [cited 23 November 2019]. Available from:
  7. Oxford English Dictionary [Internet]. 2007 [cited November 2019]. Available from:
  8. Sigmund, F. (1900) Interpretation of dreams. Standard Edition, 5.
  9. BBC - History - Sigmund Freud [Internet]. 2014 [cited 28 November 2019]. Available from:
  10. Slovenko R. Dreams as evidence. Journal of Psychiatry and Law,. 1995;23(1):191. Available at :
  11. Kelly Bulkeley, Dreaming as inspiration: evidence from religion, philosophy, literature, and film, 2010, II. Quality of evidence (32-33)