March 20

Anthropology of dreams, Part 1: Introduction to the beautiful realm

Have you ever experienced a dream that felt so vivid and lifelike that it lingered in your mind long after you woke up? Perhaps you’ve had recurring dreams or noticed a particular theme that has persisted throughout your dreamscape for years. Or maybe you’re simply curious about the purpose of dreams and why our brains don’t just shut down completely during sleep, instead of conjuring up these strange and surreal visions. Dreams have long been a fascinating and enigmatic subject that has puzzled humans for centuries. Their meaning has been interpreted in countless ways, ranging from prophetic visions and messages from the gods to a meaningless byproduct of brain activity. Welcome to Dreamseer’s series on the anthropology of dreams, where you can find answers to these and many other questions that may be perplexing you. In this introductory article, we will provide a brief overview of what the anthropology of dreams entails and explore how studying dreams from an anthropological perspective can yield fresh insights into human history, behaviour, and culture.

The Evolution of Dreaming

Dreams are not unique to humans. In fact, animals also dream. For example, dogs and cats have been observed twitching, vocalising, and even running in their sleep, just like humans. While the content of animal dreams is difficult to ascertain, researchers have suggested that they may serve a similar purpose to human dreams, such as memory consolidation and emotional regulation. The evolution of dreaming is a fascinating subject that sheds light on the evolution of consciousness. When it comes to our species, we have very good reasons to believe that humans in prehistoric societies may have had a very different relationship with dreams than we do today. We can see this difference even today when studying indigenous communities and tribes.

Development of anthropological views on Dreams: Victorian Era (1837-1901).

Charles Darwin’s “Origin of Species,” which was published in 1859, had a significant impact on shaping the perspectives of anthropologists regarding dreams during the Victorian Era (1837-1901).

Anthropologists have studied dreams from different viewpoints. One question that keeps arising is why some societies value dreams more than others. In the Victorian era, anthropologists drew inspiration from Darwin’s theory of evolution to classify different societies. According to their schema, Amazonian and Melanesian societies were considered “savages,” while African kingdoms and Middle Eastern sheikhdoms were categorised as “barbaric,” and European states were deemed “civilised.” Anthropologists believed that the extent to which societies recognised the reality of dream experiences was an indication of their level of development.

Thus, the savage, according to them, considered events in their dreams as real as those in their waking lives. This idea was expressed by John Lubbock, who also believed that dreams were closely associated with lower forms of religion. Herbert Spencer argued that people who believed in the reality of dreams lacked a theory of mind and were therefore less evolved. However, distinguishing between purely mental phenomena and real perceptions was a crucial criterion for attaining civilisation. It is worth noting, that in the proceedings of witchcraft happening not that many years ago from the Victorian times the courts sometimes dismissed dreams of Satan as pure fantasy, while other times prosecuting the dreamer as an active witch, already putting some doubts on the afore-mentioned ideas.

XX Century

In the early XX century, the French philosopher and anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl rejected the idea of the evolution of societies and criticised the Victorians. He argued that those who previous authors called “primitives” could easily distinguish dreaming from waking experience, while not rejecting dream content as unreal. Instead, they viewed it as exceptional knowledge, sometimes more significant than normal waking knowledge. Dreams provided a way to communicate with totems or ancestors, or to enter the time zone of myth. Lucien Lévy-Bruhl emphasised the importance of affective resonance of experiences, which he termed “mystical participation”. A dream scenario could be implausible on logical grounds, but if it felt and seemed real, then it impelled one to take it seriously in certain cultures. Lévy-Bruhl advocated studying the social principles that underpinned different systems of thought and made them coherent instead of dividing societies into “civilised” and “uncivilised”. It is worth noting that Lévy-Bruhl was part of Emile Durkheim’s inner circle (an influential French sociologist, who is often referred to as the “godfather” of modern sociology). This means that he was a proponent of the idea of “collective conscience” (concept in some ways similar to the “collective unconscious” introduced by Carl Jung, which we discuss in the next chapters) that influence people’s thinking, rather than the idea that individuals are solely responsible for their own ideas. Lévy-Bruhl’s approach paved the way for cultural relativism, which acknowledges that different societies have their own unique set of ideas and symbols that inform their thinking.

Murray L. Wax offered a fresh perspective on the basic issue: why do some societies take dreams seriously as sources of valuable personal and social knowledge, whereas modern Western societies dismiss them as insignificant? In small hunter-gatherer societies, close cooperation and interdependence within the group and the natural world are crucial for survival. Dreams provide a medium for intersubjective contact, psyche to psyche, increasing the bonds between people and contributing to a shared perspective on the world. An illustrative example of this can be seen in Vishvajit Pandya’s detailed ethnography of the Ongee people of the Andaman Islands. The Ongee discuss their dreams and their experiences of the preceding day just before they sleep, and they would take directions from these dreams to find food sources in their environment. They locate ripening fruit, for example, by registering the smell of it during the day, but it is their detachable soul that goes forth while they are asleep to confirm this knowledge and weave the dream that instructs them when and where to go to gather this fruit. In industrial Western societies, such close contact and cooperation within a broad community do not seem to carry important values. The lost dimension of intersubjectivity in complex societies is regrettable, according to Wax. In the psychology of the XX century, the importance of dreams was largely revisited by psychoanalysis.

Psychoanalysis of the XX century

Portrait photo of Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)
Carl Jung (1875-1961)

The birth of psychoanalysis in the XX century had a profound impact on anthropological views on dreams. Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, asserted that dreams were the “royal road to the unconscious,” and he believed that they contained valuable insights into a person’s psychological makeup. Freud argued that dreams were a reflection of the individual’s innermost desires, fears, and conflicts. This emphasis on personal over collective significance of dreams was shared by the majority of Freud’s students (one illustrative exception is previously mentioned work by Carl Jung). While psychoanalytical theories have been criticised and revised over time, the field of psychoanalysis has continued to influence anthropological and even, to some extent, experimental research on dreams, which is currently revisiting some of the Freud’s ideas leveraging methods of neuroscience.

Current view and advantages of dreaming

Current point of view on dreams takes inspiration from the science of sleep while attempting to disentangle its role for survival. From a previously mentioned Darwinian perspective, dreams and dreaming can be understood as adaptations that have evolved to serve a specific purpose. The theory of natural selection suggests that traits that confer a survival or reproductive advantage are more likely to be passed onto future generations. If dreaming serves a survival or reproductive function, then it is likely to have evolved through natural selection.

Modern research of dreams takes inspiration from the science of sleep leveraging methods of brain imaging.

While the function of dreaming is still not yet fully understood, researchers have identified several potential benefits and purposes of dreaming. One theory is that dreams may serve a survival function by helping us to rehearse potential threats and develop strategies for coping with them. For example, if you dream about being chased by a predator, your brain is rehearsing how to respond to a threat.

Another theory is that dreams may help us to solve problems. The famous chemist August Kekulé claimed that he discovered the structure of the benzene molecule after dreaming of a snake biting its own tail, which inspired him to consider a circular structure. Similarly, the physicist Niels Bohr claimed that he found the structure of the atom after dreaming of a nucleus with electrons orbiting around it.

Finally, dreams may also serve a creative function by allowing us to generate new ideas and insights. The surrealist movement, for example, was heavily influenced by dreams, and artists such as Salvador Dalí and René Magritte used dream imagery in their work.

Next Steps

As we continue to explore the anthropology of dreams, we will discover how dreams have been interpreted and valued throughout human history. The next sections will delve into the role of dreams in prehistoric, ancient, and medieval cultures. We will examine the significance of dreams in early religions and spiritual practices and how they were used to communicate with the divine.

Moving forward, we will also explore the contributions of psychoanalysts such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung to the study of dreams, and how the differences between the two emerged.

Finally, we will look at the modern scientific study of dreams and how it has contributed to our understanding of sleep and dreaming. Advances in neuroimaging technology have allowed researchers to study the brain activity that occurs during sleep and dreaming, revealing new insights into the function and purpose of dreams.

So, welcome to the Dreamseer’s journey into the anthropology of dreams. We hope that this introductory article has sparked your curiosity and interest in this fascinating subject. And we have only scratched the surface of it! Join us as we explore the science, history, and culture of dreams and discover the hidden meanings and significance of our dreamscapes.

@Dreamseer Team


anthropology, culture, dream analysis, dream interpretation, dreaming, dreams, history, human history, neuroscience, psychoanalysis, science of dreams, sleep research, sociology

Dr. Alexander Lebedev (MD PhD) is a psychiatrist, data scientist and a co-founder of Dreamseer.
With over 15 years of experience in healthcare, applied data science, combined with extensive academic research in socionomics and non-ordinary states of consciousness, he brings a unique perspective to address global mental health challenges and foster personal and societal resilience. At Dreamseer, Dr. Lebedev's vision extends beyond individual mental health to a broader societal perspective. By mapping and analysing global dream trends, we aim to raise awareness of shared experiences that unite all of us, ultimately contributing to a healthier, more connected, and empathetic world. Dr. Lebedev is dedicated to fulfilling his mission to leverage technology in the service of mental health and resilient living.

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