Dreaming, Vol. 3, No. 4, 1993


Are the Effects of Dream Interpretation on Session Quality, Insight, and Emotions Due to the Dream Itself, to Projection, or to the Interpretation Process?

 Clara E. Hill, [1] Roberta Diemer, Shirley Hess, Ann Hillyer, and Robyn Seeman


 We tested whether interpreting one’s own dream was more effective in terms of subject-rated session quality (Depth), insight, and positive and negative emotionality than either interpreting another person’s dream as if it were one’s own or interpreting a recent event of one’s own. Sixty undergraduate volunteers participated, 20 in each of the three conditions. Results indicated that interpreting one’s own dream led to greater depth and insight than interpreting another person’s dream or interpreting one’s own event. Thus, the effects of dream interpretation cannot be attributed solely to projection or to the interpretation process. Rather, dreams seem to provide a stimulus that helps subjects gain self-understanding.

KEY WORDS: dream; dream interpretation; insight.

Empirical research on the origin and function of dreams has raised doubts about whether dreams are meaningful and thus worthy of interpretation (Foulkes, 1985). Hobson and McCarley (1977) have proposed that dream images come from random bursts from nerve cells in the brainstem during REM sleep. They believe that the images are meaningless in and of themselves, but that dreams represent the higher brain’s efforts to make sense of the haphazard signals generated by the lower brain. Crick and Mitchison (1983) suggested that dreams serve a purgative function to rid people of irrelevant information gathered during their daily lives. If dreaming serves merely to keep the brain from getting overloaded, remembering a dream means that the brain did not accomplish its housekeeping function satisfactorily. From these perspectives, interpreting dreams should not be particularly useful because dreams themselves are not meaningful.

 In contrast to the theory that dreams are meaningless, several people have suggested that dreams are meaningful, reflect current and past experiences in waking life, and serve an adaptive function (Cartwright, 1977; Faraday, 1974; Garma, 1987; Koulack, 1991; Kramer, Hlasny, Jacobs, & Roth, 1976). Some go so far as to embrace the Talmudic sentiment that “a dream uninterpreted is like a letter unread” (e.g., Bosnak, 1988; Johnson, 1986; Ullman, 1987; Weiss, 1986). Cartwright and Lamberg (1992) suggest that dreams help persons understand events from the day, put the current events in context of past events, and suggest means for dealing with waking problems. Certainly the number of books and approaches to doing dream interpretation attest to a view in our culture that dreams are meaningful and that dream interpretation is effective in helping people come to greater self-understanding (e.g., Bosnak, 1988; Enright, 1970; Faraday, 1974; Finke, 1990; Freud, 1900/1966; Gendlin, 1986; Johnson, 1986; Jung, 1974; Mahrer, 1990; Mattoon, 1978, Vossen, 1990; Weiss, 1986).

 Unfortunately, with the exception of the recent study by Cogar and Hill (1992), minimal research has been conducted on the effectiveness of dream interpretation. Furthermore, even if we had evidence of the effectiveness of dream interpretation, that would not provide evidence that the effectiveness is due to the meaningfulness of the dream. We will explore three explanations for what makes dream interpretation effective: (a) the meaningfulness of the dream itself, (b) projection onto the dream, and (c) the interpretation process.

 As discussed above, dreams may be a meaningful reflection of unconscious or waking conflicts and may serve a problem-solving function. If true, then interpreting dreams ought to lead to information about the self that would be difficult to come by otherwise. If dreams represent a message from one’s unconscious that needs to be heard and attended to, then interpretation of dreams ought to have a positive outcome. Specifically, dream interpretation should have several effects. Sessions in which dreams are interpreted should be viewed as deeper and more valuable, subjects should gain more insight, and there should be more positive and less negative emotionality. Regarding the latter, we conjectured that although negative emotions might be aroused during a dream interpretation, the discovery of new insights should result in a positive feeling of accomplishment.

 An alternate explanation for the efficacy of dream interpretation, as we noted above, is that we create meaning out of meaningless symbols. Hence, the actual dream could be meaningless but we could create meaning when we interpret it (Foulkes, 1985; Hobson, 1988). If this were the case, projecting onto any material and interpreting these projections could be beneficial. We know that people project personally meaningful material onto neutral stimuli such as Rorschach inkblots or TAT pictures. Further, we have anecdotal evidence that when members in dream groups explore what another person’s dream would mean if it were their own, they gain insight and self- understanding (Falk & Hill, 1992; UlIman, 1987). If creating meaning through projection is the important component of the efficacy of dream interpretation, then interpreting someone else’s dream as if it were one’s own ought to be as effective in terms of session quality, insight, and emotions as interpreting one’s own dream.

 A third explanation is that the process of interpretation itself may be the helpful component of dream interpretation in therapy (see Spiegel & Hill, 1989 for discussion of the effects of therapist interpretation in therapy). A good dream interpretation often takes at least an hour with the therapist helping the client explore each element (i.e., a given image or aspect of the dream) sometimes as if they were from another planet (Delaney, 1988). If the careful examination of each piece of the dream and then putting the meanings together to form an interpretation are the helpful components, then examining a puzzling or troubling event using the same procedures as used in dream interpretation ought to be as effective as interpreting a dream. Because both the dream and the event are stimuli that the person does not understand completely, careful examination of feelings about each of the pieces could lead to greater understanding.

 Thus, the purpose of the present study was to compare the effects of interpreting one’s own dream, interpreting someone else’s dream, and interpreting one’s own event on subject-rated session quality, insight, and emotions. Interpretation is present in all three conditions, so for the content of one’s own dream to be considered the most important ingredient of the dream interpretation process, interpreting one’s own dream should be superior to the other two conditions. Specifically, the own dream conditions should result in higher ratings of session quality, more insight, and more positive and less negative emotionality.

 Alternatively, if dream interpretation is impactful because of the projection process and subjects could project onto anything, then interpreting another person’s dream ought to be as effective as interpreting one’s own dream in terms of session quality, insight, and positive and negative emotionality. If projection were the explanation for the efficacy of dream interpretation, we would not expect significant differences between the own dream and other dream condition on the dependent measures. 

Although our ultimate goal is to apply the findings of this study to therapy, we felt that imposing this research on the therapy process would have been intrusive. Further, we would have been unable to separate the effects of dream interpretation from the many other processes that occur in treatment. Therefore, we opted for studying the effects of the different interventions in single sessions of each of the three above conditions with recruited volunteer undergraduate subjects who remembered their dreams. We hoped that the single sessions would afford the cleanest and most straightforward test of the effects of one’s own dreams in the interpretation process versus projection or the interpretation process itself.




 Each of five therapists conducted one-hour sessions with four volunteer subjects in each of three conditions (own dream, other dream, and own event), totaling 12 sessions per therapist. There were 60 subjects randomly assigned to three conditions (20 per condition). Interpretation in all three conditions was based on the Hill, Cogar, and Diemer (in preparation) model (hereafter referred to as the HCD model). Subject self-report measures were administered after sessions, creating a post-test only design.



 Five White women, aged 22 to 43 years (M = 34.60, SD = 9.13) and ranging in level of training from two with BA degrees in psychology to two advanced doctoral students in education or psychology to one professor in counseling psychology, served as therapists in this study. All therapists had completed a semester-long dream seminar that involved extensive readings and practice in several types of dream interpretation including the HCD model of dream interpretation used in the present study. Prior to beginning the study, therapists indicated (using 5-point scales, where 5 = high) that they believed that the three conditions would be equally effective and helpful for subjects (own dream: M = 4.80, SD .45; other dream: M = 4.40, SD = .55; own event: M = 4.60, SD = .89; F value not significant at a p < .05 alpha).



 Sixty (34 female, 26 male; 48 White, 5 Black, 4 Hispanic, 3 Asian) undergraduate students at a large mideastern university served as subjects for this study. Subjects ranged in age from 18 to 32 years (M = 20.93, SD = 2.14). Subjects reported remembering an average of 3.98 (SD = 2.67) dreams per week. (Note that there were no significant differences among the three conditions in dream recall nor was dream recall significantly related to any of the dependent variables.)



 The Depth Scale from the Session Evaluation Questionnaire — Form 4 (SEQ; Stiles & Snow, 1984) is a widely-used, 5-item, hi-polar, adjective-anchored self-report measure used by clients (subjects) to evaluate the quality of counseling. Items include valuable-worthless, full-empty, special-ordinary, weak-powerful, shallow-deep. Higher scores indicate higher ratings of depth of the session. Stiles and Snow reported internal consistency alphas of .91 for counselors and .87 for clients.

 The Mastery-Insight Scale of the Therapeutic Realizations Scale (TRS) involves 5 items from the Therapy Session Report (Orlinsky & Howard, 1975) that Kolden (1991) has developed (using face validity and internal consistency estimates) into a revised scale. Items include “I feel I got more understanding of the reasons behind my behavior and feelings”, “I feel I got better self control over my moods and actions”, “I feel I got more ability to feel my feelings, to know what I really want”, “I feel I got ideas for better ways of dealing with people and problems”, “I feel I got a more realistic evaluation of my thoughts and feelings”. Kolden (1991) reported internal consistency for the total scale of the TRS (including two other scales of Unburdening and Encouragement) of .86 to .87 and test-retest reliability between sessions 1 and 3 of .65. We found an internal consistency (alpha) of .79 for the Insight Scale for the present study.

 The Differential Emotions Scale-IV (DES-IV; Blumberg & Izard, 1985, 1986) is a 36-item measure that was developed from cross-cultural research on emotion-expression labeling. Each of 12 scales includes three items rated on 5-point scales. Item content has been refined through factor analysis and other psychometric techniques. Several studies have provided evidence for the construct validity of the DES-IV (Blumberg & Izard, 1985, 1986; Fridlund, Schwartz, & Fowler, 1984). The developers recognize the DES is not a pure measure of emotions because responding to items requires thought and rehearsal of emotion-related cognition. Rather, they suggest that scales can be thought of as measuring emotion-specific affective-cognitive structures. Factor analyses by the developers support two easily interpreted factors: Positive Emotionality (Interest, Enjoyment, and Surprise) and Negative Emotionality (Sadness, Anger, Disgust, Contempt, Fear, Shame, Shyness, Guilt, and Hostility Inward).


Check for Procedures Measure 

To determine whether subjects perceived therapists as delivering the appropriate condition, three questions were asked, “How much did you talk about a dream of your own during this session?”, “How much did you talk about recent events during this session?”, and “How much did you talk about someone else’s dream during this session?”. Subjects were asked to indicate their response on a 5-point Likert scale, where 1 = not at all, 3 = somewhat, and 5 = a lot.


 Prior to beginning the study, therapists practiced all three conditions with each other until they felt comfortable and competent in delivering all conditions. Therapists were urged to see the benefits in all three conditions and withhold judgment about which condition would be best. Therapists also met weekly throughout the course of data collection to discuss cases and monitor adherence to the protocol.

Subjects were recruited through announcements in undergraduate classes and given course credit for their participation. Subjects were informed that to participate, they had to be willing to talk to a trained therapist for an hour about either their own recent (last 2 weeks) dream, someone else’s dream, or a recent (last 2 weeks) troubling event. To be eligible to participate, subjects had to be able to remember their own dreams and be willing to be assigned to any of the three conditions.

 Participants were assigned randomly to one of the three conditions and one of the five therapists (with an attempt to schedule an equal number of men and women per condition per therapist). Therapists called their volunteer subjects to schedule appointments. Depending on the condition to which the subject was assigned, he or she was asked to come prepared to talk extensively about either one of their own recent dreams, someone else’s dream, or one of their own recent events. In the dream condition, subjects were told to present a recent dream that they did not understand and that was troubling. In the other dream condition, subjects were told that they would be presented with someone else’s dream and asked to interpret it as if it were their own. In the event condition, subjects were told that they should present a recent event in which they did not understand their own or someone else’s behaviors or reactions and which left them feeling troubled or puzzled.

 Prior to each session, subjects signed consent forms. In each condition, the therapist first presented a rationale for the condition and then proceeded to follow the outline for that condition (described below). Sessions were no longer than 60 mm.


Own Dream Condition 

The rationale was that understanding one’s dream is useful for coming to an understanding of waking conflicts and of one’s unconscious. Dream interpretation followed the HCD model, which involves several steps: (a) retelling the dream, (b) associating to the images in the dream and linking the dream to relevant events from the past few days, (c) working with conflicts in the dream, (d) interpreting the dream, and (e) taking action based on the dream.

  Other Dream Condition

 The rationale was that interpreting any dream can be useful to help one understand more about one’s projections, since all of us see different things in dreams. Dreams were selected (all of moderate distress level as reported by the dreamer) from among those collected for another study (Cogar & Hill, 1992) and randomly assigned to subjects such that they were presented with a dream from someone of their same gender and approximate age. Therapists read the dream aloud to help the subject get into the emotions of the dream and then allowed the subject time to reread and think about the dream. Interpretation of the dream followed HCD model presented above.


Own Event Condition

 The rationale was that carefully examining a troubling event may lead to greater understanding of one’s own and another’s behaviors and reactions. Therapists treated the event as if it were a dream and interpreted it using the HCD model. For example, subjects were asked to retell the entire event, to go back and talk about each part of the event, and to relate the event to other events in the past. Therapists then helped subjects work with any conflicts that might have been aroused by the event (e.g., role-playing being more assertive in the situation). After a thorough exploration of the event, therapists helped subjects interpret the meaning of the event and decide if they wanted to do anything different in their lives based on what they learned during their exploration of the event.

 Table I. Means and Standard Deviations for Subject-Rated Depth, Insight, and Positive and Negative Emotionality for Own Dream Interpretation, Other Dream Interpretation, and Own Event Interpretation Conditions               



Own Dream

Other Dream

Own Event






















Positive Emotion







Negative Emotion







Note. The Depth Scale is from the Session Evaluation Questionnaire and uses a 7-point Likert scale; the Insight Scale is from the Therapeutic Realizations Scale and uses a 3-point Likert scale; the Positive and Negative Emotionality Scales are from the Differential Emotions Scale and use 5-point Likert scales. High scores reflect more of a variable.


Post-Session Testing

 After the session, subjects completed the Depth Scale, Insight Scale, DES, and the Check for Procedures (in different random order sequences for each subject). Subjects were then debriefed and given course credit and referral information about the campus counseling center. 



 Preliminary Analyses

 Means and standard deviations for subject-rated Depth, Insight, and Positive and Negative Emotionality Scales of the DES for the three conditions are shown in Table I. Means for Depth were within a standard deviation of the client means presented by Stiles and Snow (1984) for the other dream and own event conditions, but the mean for the own dream condition was more than one standard deviation above the client mean reported by Stiles and Snow. Thus, the own dream condition was viewed as being of higher quality than ongoing therapy, with the other conditions being viewed as of equivalent quality. Correlations between the dependent variables are shown in Table II (using a .01 alpha because of the large number of correlations).

Table II. Correlations Amoung Subject-Rated Depth, Insight,
 and Positive and Negative Emotionality Scales

  Depth Insight Positive
Insight .65b    
Positive Emotion .42b .39a  
Negative Emotion -.13 .18 .15
ap < .01.
bp < .001.

We conducted preliminary analyses of variance (ANOVAs) on subject-rated Depth and Insight and multivariate analyses of variance (MANOVAs) on the DES scales (Positive and Negative Emotionality) and Check for Procedures (3 items) with effects for subject gender (male, female), therapist effects (five therapists), and a Gender x Therapist interaction. No significant main effects or interactions were found for any of the measures.


Manipulation Check

A MANOVA with main effects for condition (own dream, other dream, own event), therapist, and Therapist x Condition on the three questions on the Check for Procedures Measure indicated a significant effect for condition, F(6, 88) = 93.31, p < .001. Post hoc univariate tests, with a Bonferroni adjustment to the alpha of .02 (.05/3), indicated a significant difference for the question, "How much did you talk about a dream of your own during this session?", F(2, 45) = 163.92, with Scheffé tests revealing that subjects in the own dream condition talked significantly more about their own dreams than did subjects in either of the other two conditions. A significant effect was also found for condition on the question, "How much did you talk about some one else’s dream during this session?", F(2, 45) = 153.12, with Scheffé tests revealing that subjects in the other dream condition talked significantly more about someone else’s dream than did subjects in either of the other two conditions. No differences were found for condition on the question, "How much did you talk about recent events during this session?", indicating that subjects in all three conditions talked equally about recent events in their sessions. This was not surprising in that the Hill et al. (In preparation) model stresses relating dreams to recent events. Hence, these tests indicated that the three conditions could be distinguished in terms of the amount of time spent talking about the subject’s own dream or about another person’s dream.


Differences Between Conditions

Separate ANOVAs were conducted for Depth and Insight and a MANOVA was conducted for the Positive and Negative Emotionality Scales, all with one main effect for condition (own dream, other dream, own event). For each analysis, separate contrasts were conducted to answer the two questions in this study. In the first contrast, the own dream condition was compared to the other dream and own event conditions to answer the question about the effects of the interpretation process. In the second contrast, the own dream condition was compared to the other dream condition to test for the effects of projection. A Bonferroni adjustment to the alpha of .025 (.05/2) was made to correct for conducting two contrasts on the same data.

For the Depth Scale, the first contrast of own dream versus the other two conditions was significant, F(1, 57) = 6.28, p < .025, such that the own dream condition resulted in significantly higher Depth scores. The second contrast of own dream versus other dream was not significant, F(1, 57) = 4.71, p > .025, although it was in the predicted direction. For the Insight Scale, the first contrast of own dream versus the other two conditions was not significant, F(1, 57) = 4.64, p .> .025, although it was in the predicted direction. The second contrast of own dream versus other dream was significant, F(1, 57) = 6.19, p < .025, such that the other dream condition resulted in more insight than the other dream condition. For Positive and Negative Emotionality, neither contrast was significant.

Thus, interpreting one’s own dream led to higher ratings of session depth than either of the other two conditions, indicating that the effectiveness of dream interpretation is due to more than the process of interpretation. Furthermore, interpreting one’s own dream led to higher ratings of insight than the other dream condition, indicating that the effectiveness of dream interpretation is due to more than projection.



Interpreting one’s own dream was superior to interpreting another person’s dream and interpreting one’s own recent event in terms of subject-judged session quality (Depth), indicating that it was not just the process of interpretation that leads to how good or deep sessions were judged to be. Rather, it made a difference that one’s own dream was being interpreted. One’s own dream seemed to add a powerful element above and beyond that which was obtained by just collaboratively working together to understand a person’s dynamics. Dreams often enable persons to think about themselves in ways that they would not be able to otherwise.

Not only was the own dream interpretation condition higher on the Depth Scale than the other two conditions, but it was standard deviation higher than the norms for clients in ongoing therapy. Thus, subjects seemed to feel that interpreting their dreams provided them with a deep and valuable experience. The findings of the value of dreams supports the work by Cartwright, Tipton, and Wicklund (1980), who found that discussion of dreams reported during the night in a sleep laboratory was beneficial as a preparation for clients who were at high risk for dropping out of psychotherapy.

 Additionally, interpreting one's own dream was superior to interpreting another person’s dream in terms of how much insight subjects felt they had gained in sessions. Thus, the mere act of projection could not explain why subjects got something out of the session. It was not just that they could project onto any stimuli that was presented, but one’s own dream seemed to offer something unique to them. Dreams may have provided information about unconscious or waking conflicts that needed to be examined.

 In doing the sessions, we noticed big differences in the responsiveness of subjects to all three conditions. Some subjects could get involved in the condition they were assigned to and use it productively. When asked to bring in their own dream or a recent event or to imagine that another person's dream was their own, these subjects produced vivid imagery and seemed curious, insightful, motivated, and eager to learn more about themselves. Others seemed to have more difficulty getting involved in the condition to which they were assigned. Some did not have a very vivid dream or event to report. Some felt silly imagining that the other person’s dream was their own. We suspect that subject responsiveness to interpretation of any kind has an influence. Although such predictor variables are hard to specify and measure (see Cogar & Hill, 1992), such variables as psychological-mindedness, openness to experience, dream recall, vividness of dream imagery, and experiencing ability might predict who would profit most from all types of interpretative activity.

In terms of limitations, we should stress that these subjects were seeking extra credit points and were not clients seeking help with significant life crises. Real clients might have been more motivated and had a greater intensity of dream content. Of course real clients might also have had a greater projection ability and a greater intensity of event content.

 A further limitation is that we did not test whether dream interpretation might be particularly appropriate at specific moments in psychotherapy, such as when the transference has caused blocks in the process (Hersh & Taub-Bynum, 1985) or when termination is approaching (Cavenar & Nash, 1976). Such questions need to be addressed in actual ongoing therapy. Nor did we test other approaches to dream interpretation, such as experiential therapy (e.g., Gendlin, 1986; Mahrer, 1990), that might be more effective than the Hill et al. model in eliciting both positive and negative emotionality. Similarly, more than one session of dream interpretation might have produced more dramatic differences on the measures. A good therapeutic relationship may potentiate the effects of dream interpretation.

We encourage more research on the effects of dream interpretation, particularly within the context of ongoing therapy. We especially encourage research on the components of dream interpretation, such as the effects of association, relating dreams to waking conflicts, interpretation, and action initiatives. As in therapy research in general, we need to go beyond looking at entire treatment packages and examine specific helpful interventions and the mechanisms of change. Further, we need to examine whether interpreting different kinds of dreams (pleasant dreams, recurrent dreams, nightmares) lead to different outcomes. Finally, we need to examine variables that predict who is most likely to profit from dream interpretation.



  We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Joan Jeranek and Cindy Shaffer in coding data and Kevin E. O'Grady in consulting about data analysis. We thank Robert Coursey for his comments on an earlier draft of this manuscript.



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[1]           Correspondence concerning this manuscript should be addressed to Clara E. Hill, Department of Psychology, University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland 10742.

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