Dream Work in Psychotherapy

By: Dr. John Ankerberg and Dr.John Weldon; ©2012
The study of dreams has a legitimate application in pure research, in some schools of psychology, and perhaps in a few forms of psychotherapy. But even here, doors can open to psychic exploration or spiritism.

Dream Work in Psychotherapy

Basic Concerns

Is dream work in secular psychotherapy proven to be effective? In examining this concern, we should remember that the categories of secular, psychotherapeutic, Christian, and New Age dream work may cross-pollinate in actual practice. Thus, dream work methods in secular psychotherapy may be influenced by New Age methods through humanistic, transpersonal, or Jungian psychology; Christian dream work often incorporates Jungian psychology and sometimes New Age techniques, and even New Age dream work may employ secular psychologies or nominally “Christian” methods.

Dream Work in Psychotherapy

The study of dreams has a legitimate application in pure research, in some schools of psychology, and perhaps in a few forms of psychotherapy. But even here, doors can open to psychic exploration or spiritism. Due to space limitations, our concern will be simply to point out that an increasing number of secular researchers are questioning the validity of dream work in modern psychotherapy. Because Christian psychotherapy often depends on secular therapies,[1] this would include many forms of dream work common to Christian psychotherapy as well.

Dream work in psychotherapy assumes that by gaining insight into our dreams we may understand the forces in our unconscious mind that cause anxiety or even neuroses and possibly psychoses. Dream work may either be part of a given psychotherapy, or the actual psychotherapy itself. However, therapists in general disagree over the validity of dream interpretation in therapy and over the nature of the problems concerning dream work and the proper interpretation of dreams. Even though modern dream therapy assumes that the insight afforded by understanding dreams is therapeutic and psychologically healthful, this has yet to be demonstrated to the satisfaction of critics.

In addition, dream work itself is questionable to the degree that modern dream work is based upon the dubious or unproven theories of modern psychotherapy. Indeed, modern psychotherapy has run into serious difficulties presented by recent criticisms of many of its methods and underlying theories, not to mention the question of its overall effectiveness.[2]

One secular critic of dream work is Dr. Edward Erwin, professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Miami and author of several books, plus an article, “Is Psychotherapy More Effective Than a Placebo?”[3] In his “Holistic Psychotherapies: What Works?”[4] he questions the effectiveness of the modern therapeutic use of dream work.

Dr. Erwin discusses four assumptions of dream analysis. He states that one problem is whether dreams are what the therapists say they are: internal symbolic pictures representing how we view ourselves, others, and our place in the world. Given recent neurological theories, he suggests this assumption is not yet substantiated. To say that some dreams may reflect certain experiences or concerns in our lives is not to prove that dreams in general have important symbolic meanings for our lives in general.

He then discusses a second premise of dream therapists, which is that “dreams generally have a correct interpretation, so that when we decode them properly we gain useful insights into ourselves.” Given the conflicting nature of dream interpretations, this is an enormous leap of faith by dream therapists. Thus: “The warrant for these two assumptions, however, is challenged by recent neurological theories of dreaming that appear to provide better explanations of all the known facts about dreaming than do purely psychological theories. If the plausibility of these neurological theories is conceded one cannot just assume without argument that dreams generally are symbolic pictures that represent how we view ourselves or that dreams generally have a correct interpretation.”[5]

Erwin argues that even if the above two premises are granted, there remain two further assumptions that must be proven in order to establish the legitimacy of dream analysis based on its standard arguments. The first is how to determine an objective standard for interpreting dreams:

First, we need to assume that there is some way to establish that a certain interpretation is correct; otherwise, neither patient or therapist will be able to distinguish between dream insights and pseudoinsights. Therapists holding different theories—Freudians, Adlerians, Jungians, and others—will often disagree about how to interpret the same sort of dream. How are we to tell which theorist is correct?… [For example] the key difficulty with [Christian-Jungian psychotherapist John] Sanford’s suggestion is that the patient’s so-called “free associations” are often influenced by covert or overt suggestions of the therapists…. Sanford [believes that] the unconscious, which has produced the dream in the first place, knows when it is correctly understood. However, he gives no evidence that this theory about the unconscious is correct. If we do not assume Sanford’s theory about what the unconscious “knows,” then why believe that the reaction of the client is crucial?[6]

Finally, Dr. Erwin questions a fourth assumption of dream therapists: that the insights afforded through dream analysis have legitimate therapeutic value. He suggests that the evidence cited for such a conclusion is also not yet established.

In other words, there are at least four major premises of modern therapeutic dream work that have yet to be proven: 1) dreams are symbolic representations of our internal and external experience; 2) dreams generally have a correct interpretation; 3) some objective basis exists for determining that correct interpretation; 4) the insights uncovered in dream therapy have legitimate therapeutic value.

In light of this, Erwin thinks that dream analysis may not only be clinically irrelevant but also potentially harmful:

Finally, it might turn out that dream analysis is not only of little clinical value, but is actually harmful, although at present this is speculative. What I have in mind is the fate of the Crick and Mitchison theory that postulates a reverse learning mechanism in which dreaming modifies certain undesirable modes of interaction of network cells in the cerebral cortex. In effect, we dream in order to forget and forgetting is necessary to prevent an overloading of stored associations. Crick and Mitchison point out that on their model, remembering one’s dreams should not be encouraged, because such remembering helps to retain patterns of thought best forgotten.[7]

It could be possible, therefore, that people who participate in dream analysis, rather than gaining insights on how to resolve their problems, are, at least some of the time, aggravating those problems Dr. Erwin summarizes and concludes his critique of dream analysis with the following:

In sum, for some therapists, the cogency of their rationale for doing dream analysis is dependent on the arguments for Freud’s dream theory and these arguments have recently been severely criticized. Even those therapists who do not rely on the Freudian theory often use a rationale that includes the following assumptions: (1) dreams are generally symbolic pictures that represent how we view ourselves and others; (2) dreams generally have a correct interpretation; (3) there is a reliable procedure for determining the correct interpretation; and (4) the insights gained by dream analysis have therapeutic value. Unless some other argument is offered, all four of these assumptions need to be justified; subject to the caveats already expressed, there is some reason to question the evidence for (1) and (2), and even more reason to reject the warrant for (3) and (4).[8]

Of course, if the relevance of secular dream work is unestablished, this logically holds true for most all Christian dream work, since this is based on secular methods.


  1. John Ankerberg, John Weldon, The Facts On Self-Esteem, Psychology and the Recovery Movement, eBook; David G. Benner, ed., Baker’s Encyclopedia of Psychology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1986).
  2. Good starters are John Ankerberg, John Weldon, The Facts on Self-Esteem, Psychology and the Recovery Movement (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1995); Thomas Szasz, The Myth of Psychotherapy (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1978); Martin L. Gross, The Psychological Society: A Critical Analysis of Psychiatry, Psychotherapy, Psychoanalysis and the Psychological Revolution (NY: Random House, 1978).
  3. Edwin Erwin, “Is Psychotherapy More Effective Than a Placebo?” in Jusuf Hariman, ed., Does Psychotherapy Really Help People? (Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 1984), pp. 37-51.
  4. Douglas Stalker, Clark Glymour, eds., Examining Holistic Medicine (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1985), pp. 245-72.
  5. Edward Erwin, “Holistic Psychotherapies: What Works?” in Douglas Stalker, Clark Glymour, eds., Examining Holistic Medicine (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1985), p. 266.
  6. Ibid., pp. 266-67.
  7. Ibid., p. 267.
  8. Ibid.

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