May 25

Anthropology of dreams: Yanomami’s fascinating dream culture bridging individual and collective unconscious

Immersing ourselves in the enigmatic world of dreams, we are poised to explore an intriguing intersection of consciousness, the collective unconscious, and the mystifying realm of Amerindian dreaming. Our journey takes us into the heart of the Amazon rainforest, to the indigenous Yanomami tribe, whose unique dream culture offers a compelling alternative to Western perspectives. This narrative unveils how the Yanomami conceive dreams as reality-shaping, collective experiences, challenging established psychological theories and opening up new vistas in the study of dreams.

In ‘Last Forest’, director Luiz Bolognesi beautifully juxtaposes candid documentary footage with meticulously staged sequences, offering viewers a remarkable insight into the life and dream culture of the Yanomami Indigenous community. Leveraging evocative soundscapes and striking visuals, the film underscores the rich cosmology of the tribe while drawing attention to the imminent threat facing their natural habitat in the Amazon rainforest. ‘Last Forest’ is available on Netflix.

Dreams have forever held a distinctive allure, a tantalising mix of the mysterious and the familiar. Throughout history, humans have been drawn to the messages carried in dreams and the potential insights they offer into our waking lives. Yet, the interpretation of these nocturnal narratives varies widely across cultures, shedding light on diverse belief systems and ways of understanding the world.

Anthropological studies of indigenous dream cultures

Until the late 20th century, the anthropological study of dreams remained a relatively uncharted territory, with indigenous communities often overlooked. However, a surge of interest in recent years has begun to unveil the complex dream cultures of Amerindian tribes, demonstrating their intricate intertwining with mythology, shamanism, and communal life. Despite these advances, research specific to dream-related beliefs is still emerging, suggesting an exciting frontier of study within anthropological circles.

The Yanomami tribe, spanning regions of Brazil and Venezuela, stands as a beacon in this exploration of dream culture. They perceive dreams not as elusive fantasies, but as tangible experiences with collective consequences that can influence the course of events. This perspective deviates from Freud’s classical psychoanalytic theory, which posits dreams as individual unconscious representations. Instead, for the Yanomami, the waking and dreaming worlds carry equal weight, each vital in shaping their communal reality.

Anthropologist Hanna Limulja has immersed herself in Yanomami’s dream culture, collecting and analysing over 100 dream narratives from tribe members of all ages. Her work uncovers a distinct form of dream interpretation, where dreams serve as a lens to perceive the ‘invisible’. During their dreams, Yanomami believe their ‘vital image’ detaches and embarks on a journey, traversing known and unknown territories, and encountering both living and deceased relatives. These dream experiences are viewed as events that could potentially shape the future, impacting the life of the entire community.

The Yanomami’s dream culture contrasts sharply with the Western perspective, which typically focuses on the individual’s unconscious. This divergence is beautifully encapsulated in the words of the Yanomami leader, Davi Kopenawa, who noted that Westerners “only dream of themselves,” implying a limited scope of dream experiences confined to personal narratives. The Yanomami, however, perceive dreams as a gateway to invisible worlds, a means to extend their consciousness beyond the tangible and gain deeper knowledge about the world.

Western dream culture

Now, let’s pivot to the Western psychological perspectives on dreams. The theory put forth by Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, was rooted in the belief that dreams allow for the expression or vicarious fulfilment of our wishes and desires, primarily through the realm of the unconscious or the id. Freud’s id is a primal, instinctual aspect of personality that encapsulates our most primitive impulses, many of which are sexual in nature. Hence, Freudian dream symbolism is often laden with sexual undertones. This theory posits that dreams are wish fulfillments, providing an outlet for desires that can’t be realised in our waking lives. They are not merely random thoughts strung together, as per cognitive dream theory, but each component of a dream has a specific meaning.
Juxtaposing Freud’s theory with the Yanomami perspective, we can see a sharp contrast. The Yanomami see dreams as tangible experiences with collective consequences, while Freud’s theory focuses on individual unconscious representations. This, indeed, highlights the dichotomy between the Western individualistic interpretation of dreams and the Yanomami’s more communal understanding.

However, not all Western thought disregards the collective importance of dreams. Carl Jung, an early 20th century Swiss psychiatrist, Freud’s most rebellious student, and the founder of analytical psychology, viewed dreams as a reflection not just of individual hidden desires, but of shared, archetypal experiences ingrained in the human collective unconscious. Jung proposed that the collective unconscious is populated by archetypes — fundamental characters and scenarios that reside within all of us. These archetypes, which may also manifest in dreams, are not individually acquired but inherited, embodying the collective wisdom of generations.
Unlike Freud, who saw dreams as the playground of suppressed personal desires, Jung posited that dreams could provide valuable insights into personal growth and wholeness, with archetypal symbols serving as guiding posts. In this regard, Jung’s perspective mirrors the Yanomami’s belief in dreams as a pathway to broader understanding and communal wisdom. This shared sentiment underlines the idea that the human experience of dreaming, though mediated by cultural context, is anchored in a universal consciousness.

BBC’s article featuring change of people’s dream themes during the COVID-19 pandemic. Image Source: Georgina Rannard

It is also worth noting that modern studies broadly support the idea that dreams can indeed reflect collective experiences. For instance, research into dreams during the COVID-19 pandemic has found shared themes and emotions within the dream content, higher proportion of negative sentiments, and more commonly occurring themes of “contamination” and “cleanness” suggesting a collective impact of the global societal dynamics.

To bridge this wide range of different perspectives on dreams and bring the power of dream interpretation to everyone, we present Dreamseer, a pioneering application leveraging artificial intelligence and the latest scientific insights to analyse and interpret dreams, their individual and collective significance. Just as the Yanomami see dreams as a portal to unseen worlds and hidden wisdom, Dreamseer presents dreams as a window to our unconscious, unveiling insights that can inform and enrich our waking lives.

In the end, regardless of the dream tradition one follows, the experience of dreaming remains a shared aspect of our humanity and a captivating mystery that continues to inspire fascination, research, and reflection. And in this shared exploration of the dream world, we may just find that we understand not only ourselves but our collective human experience a little better.
Embark with us on this fascinating journey!



anthropology, culture, dream interpretation, dreams, history, psychoanalysis, science of dreams

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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