NYT op-ed touts the power of dreams to help you make decisions

March 27, 2023 • 9:20 am

The link to this NYT came from reader Mike, who said, “I guess I won’t be the only subscriber sending you this article. [He was.] Serious Deepak Chopra vibes. I think it’s arguably worse than the Tish Harrison Warren opinion pieces because those are obviously religious. This one is stealthily religious, and comes with a “I’m a practical salt-of-the-earth science person” disclaimer. Disingenuous at best.”

Well, the piece does tout the useful power of woo, or rather of dreams, but I have to feel sorry for the author. Farris was diagnosed with breast cancer that had spread to the lymph nodes, and had radiation and a single mastectomy. Now she says she’s “NED” (“no evident disease”), but the waiting and waiting in cases like this must be awful, and could last a lifetime. Plus her radiation treatments apparently brought on heart disease, so she’s had a rough time. I want to avoid criticizing her, but do want to take issue with her view that her dreams were useful aids to making medical decisions.

Farris describes how she was was guided by her dreams when facing treatment options that, according to the doctors, were about equally efficacious. Because she’s still alive, she gives credit to her dreams as factors that helped her survive. That is the “woo” bit, and I don’t think the NYT should give people the idea that their medical decisions should be guided by their dreams—especially because dreams are often either bizarre or ambiguous.

Click to read:

Throughout her cancer treatment (including its first detection, revealed in a dream about two helicopters crashing on a highway), Farris responded to what she saw was the message of her dreams.  Here’s the way she decided to get chemotherapy when it was a judgement call:

Because my cancer is hard to see, often invisible on scans, the doctor told me it was likely to be even more advanced than my other doctors thought, but we wouldn’t be sure until after my surgery. “There are nearly equally good arguments for and against doing chemo,” he said. “What do you want?”

That night I had a dream of soaring above a garden full of light. I woke laughing with delight, but then my laughter turned ironic — who has ecstasy dreams about chemo? Still, I took what felt to me to be the dream’s advice. I started chemotherapy.

Note that there’s no clear message in this dream—a clue to what was might really have been going on (see below).

When faced with the option of having a single or double mastectomy, she opted for the single based on this dream:

This appointment was about my “choice” between a single and a double mastectomy, and between reconstruction and no reconstruction. Double mastectomy, she said, would mean a much lower chance of developing a new breast cancer.

But not zero. “My sibling had a double mastectomy and then had a recurrence,” I told her, “and since the doctors don’t regularly scan double mastectomies, the recurrence was nearly missed.”

She made a quietly compassionate face. I’ve learned to pay attention to doctors’ silences. However, I’d already made my choice, based on the first dream I’d had in months.

In my apartment, flames were creeping up the blinds and down the back of the couch. I had two jugs in my hands, though only one was full of water, which I threw on the fire. I went to refill both jugs, but when I returned, the fire was already out. And so, with some relief and a laugh at the strange ways dreams communicate, I decided on a single mastectomy. One jug was enough. I didn’t tell my doctor about the dream, but I did tell her about my decision.

When doctors found a suspicious sign later on, she was faced with the decision of whether to opt for more radiation. She did, based on a dream:

That weekend, while I struggled, I had my last and strangest breast cancer dream. I saw nothing, as if I was in a dark room. A man’s voice, inflectionless, American-sounding, said, “You must continue with radiation.” It was as if my subconscious was drained of all the symbols, the stories, the irrational desires and impossibilities. The only straightforward dream of my life.

I did the extra radiation.

At the end of the piece, Farris weighs science (which offered no clear-cut choice in her treatments) versus her dreams, and more or less sees them as coequal:

It doesn’t matter whether you “believe” in science — the earth is still round. But we are creatures who need something to believe in — stories and symbols to make meaning from a chaotic universe. Are dreams the flotsam of our waking lives, washed up on the shores of consciousness? Or are dreams, like pain, meaningful messages from our bodies?

Imagine my open, uncertain, freckled hands. There’s no conclusive evidence supporting either hypothesis. But when I felt betrayed by my own body, dreams gave me a feeling of meaningful connection to, and faith in, myself. I’m as grateful for that connection as I am for highly advanced medicines, and for the doctors who spend every day reckoning with the mystery that is cancer.

Well, I’m not sure I’d choose dreams or something numinous to believe in. Neither did Christopher Hitchens when he got throat cancer. As he wrote in his book Mortality,

“To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: why not?”

His answer was that cancers happen, and he happened to be an unlucky victim. Yes, he had hope, but I don’t see that as “something to believe in” or a “symbol to make meaning from a chaotic universe.”  The idea that you need to confect something numinous or metaphysical to guide you is one that Farris made, but I can’t help but think that the NYT is somehow printing this article to tout the effectiveness of the spiritual—something it does quite a bit.

Now I wouldn’t tell Farris that I think her explanation was bunk. But I want to advance an alternative explanation for Farris’s using dreams as guidance for her treatment—one that doesn’t depend on thinking that dreams are somehow prescient or useful. You might have thought of this explanation as you read her piece. And it’s this: while she was sleeping, and perhaps dreaming as well, her mind kept turning over her alternatives and working away on making a decision, even if she wasn’t conscious of it.

We’ve all had the experience when we’ve forgotten something like a name, and, after trying to remember it, you just give up.  Then, suddenly, hours later, the name pops into your mind. What that says to me is that though you were not consciously trying to remember it in the interim, the neurons in your brain kept working away on the problem. 

That working may or may not be reflected in the contents of your dreams, since we don’t know how dreams work, but what is making the decision is the program in your brain. You wake up and that program has spit out a decision: get the radiation. Or have a single mastectomy.  Your choice may have had nothing to do with the dream, or it may have been reflected in the dream. For all we know, the dream content may be correlated with your unconscious musing, or it may not (some of her dreams weren’t obviously connected to her medical decisions). The dream, then, might be the correlate of a decision made without conscious reflection, not the “thing” that arose to help you make the decision.

Thus, I think Farris’s alternative takes on dreams, below, is insufficient.

Are dreams the flotsam of our waking lives, washed up on the shores of consciousness? Or are dreams, like pain, meaningful messages from our bodies?

Rather, the answer may be “neither.” The content of dreams often reflects what’s going on in our lives, but rather than see them as “meaningful messages from our bodies,” I’d say that Farris’s decisions were based on unconscious reflections in her brain. This, I think, is a more sensible interpretation of what she experienced than her thinking, as she seems to do, that dreams were interacting with the doctors’ indecisions to help her settle on a course of treatment. And of course, despite the title of her headline, there’s no guarantee that the dreams gave her the best advice—advice better than the doctors could give.  In other words, it’s not the dreams telling her anything, but her brain producing the dreams as a byproduct of its unconscious work.

35 thoughts on “NYT op-ed touts the power of dreams to help you make decisions

  1. This is unreal, literally. And take a look at the second highest rated readers’ comment describing how a woman from Tennessee “cured’ her daughter’s autism by going on a gluten free diet.

    “I had a dream. There was a man playing trumpet in a jazzy, irreverent way. It was not the kind of music I liked, but it got my attention. I’m not Catholic, and wasn’t raised Christian, but I got the sense that this was St. Michael. He put his trumpet down and said, “Be careful of eating and drinking.”

    It may be that dreams are worst than social media.

  2. “… reader Mike, who said, “I guess I won’t be the only subscriber sending you this article. [He was.] ”

    You done good, Mike – you done good.

  3. [ one more ]

    “Are dreams the flotsam of our waking lives, washed up on the shores of consciousness? Or are dreams, like pain, meaningful messages from our bodies?”

    For this false dilemma, wouldn’t it need to be the opposite of flotsam – viz. jetsam?

    Or would it need to be peanut butter sandwiches?

    False dilemmas are fascinating. Or are they unusual?

    One could even make a career of false dilemmas. Or might it be a nuisance?

    One can never tell.

    [ ok ok, you get the idea – too much fun! ]

    Or could they [ — is escorted from premises ]

    1. A deepity (definitely small ‘d’): One jug is never enough.

      I can’t really complain if a doctor abrogates his duty to his patient and says “it’s equal either way, what do you want to do?”, and then the patient tosses a coin, makes an alphabetical choice, or does it with oneiromancy. If she dies, she’s dead. If she lives, she has the comforting illusion that her dreams are meaningful and that she has some control over a situation where she has little or none. I don’t want to deny her that.
      I do, however, want to deny people making stupid decisions that go against all common sense and science by having a bloody dream, when there is a clear best choice that may not be what the dream recommended! That was sometimes the hard part, though I never faced a dream-believer. I do recall a man who would look into the corner of the room next to the ceiling, appear to listen, then reply with the answer he wanted to give. “It’s not a DVT, doctor, I know” when he had a hugely swollen painful leg. He wasn’t psychotic, but he believed there was an angel giving him silent answers. He was also into fairies and ley lines. Me, I feel sorry for the angel. Imagine a celestial being of light doomed to skulk among the cobwebs in the ceiling corner of a shabby consulting room.

  4. I have a New Age-y friend who has a New Age-y adult son who believes strongly in the power of dreams. In his view, they’re not brain-firings but meaningful messages from a Higher Level of Being. Could be predictions; could be advice; could be warnings; could be psychic experiences of the cosmos. Every aspect of them requires careful interpretation by a sensitive, receptive mind.

    So every morning, I was told, he and his wife sit down with a cup of coffee and tell each other their dreams. They’ve apparently got excellent memories because the stories are always detailed. Some dreams take up to half an hour to recount — and that’s before the analysis where they brainstorm possibilities and look for connections. When that is done, now it’s the other one’s turn.

    And again tomorrow…

    I do not believe in Hell, but if I did I think this would be it.

    1. Ha yes a kind of Groundhog Day hellscape. But a possibly useful one. I thought the main flaw in the NYT story was it’s dependence on this one person’s singular experience. How many others have experienced cancer (full disclosure I have too but nothing as terrifying as what Ms. Farris experienced), used the interpretation of dream metaphors to choose treatment options, and then died after making the wrong choice? Your friends at least have the benefit of a longer history of analyzing their dreams, and seeing in hindsight both their successful and disastrous interpretations. A kind of replication of the dreams-as-treatment-guide experiment. I don’t think we learn much from this bc we don’t really know what dreams are – but they are for sure not messages from the medical beyond. Dreams can’t tell us what the right thing is to do, but they might be giving us some metaphorical hint at what our subconscious minds are in the process of deciding to do.

    2. They are talking at length in depth to each other – that has to be a good thing, in general, for anyone. I bet they feel better as a consequence of the dialogue.

      That doesn’t mean the dreams are “doing” anything or have some mysterious meaning except serving as an interesting (for them) subject for conversation.

      That is, it could be some other mutually interesting topic.

    3. but meaningful messages from a Higher Level of Being.

      That’s about the point where he needs to be halted to produce evidence of there being a “Higher Level of Being” before being allowed to continue proselytising. He is proselytising, particularly if hie denies it.
      The detailed memories of the dreams … doesn’t sound that incredible to me. It’s a skill that you can hone. Likewise, forgetting your dreams is a skill you can acquire. Which one you choose is up to you.

  5. Back in the day when we were searching through libraries of cloned fly DNA for gene fragments of interest, I did actually dream about an experiment that, when we carried it out in the lab, actually worked. But my thinking it was a case of my brain continuing to work on a problem we had been struggling with for some time. No woo need be invoked.

    1. “. . .it was a case of my brain continuing to work on a problem we had been struggling with for some time.”

      Poet’s version: I had been having a discussion with someone about how cars used to be named after living things, like Cougar or Mustang, and now they were all abstractions. That night I had a dream in which I composed the following bit of doggerel (on waking I named it “Three-car Pile-up”):

      The man was in his Element,
      The woman had a Soul,
      The other car was a Mirage—
      No damage on the whole.

      I woke up laughing.

      1. how cars used to be named after living things, like Cougar or Mustang, and now they were all abstractions.

        So, the Tesla is named after the abstract unit of magnetic flux density? Well, I suppose the company could have been called the Musk, and damn the unavoidable comparisons to the anal seepages of Himalayan goats.

        1. “anal seepages of Himalayan goats”

          That reminds of the story that Rolls Royce was once intending to name a new model the “Silver Mist” until it was pointed out to them that this might not help sales in Germany where ‘mist’ means manure or dung!

  6. Assuming for the moment that this story is true as presented, it would be fallacious to assume from this incident that dreams are reliable. They clearly are not.

    1. Paraphrasing:

      1. The nurse practitioner who said “it’s probably just a cyst” made a huge mistake bc Ms. Farris has several first-generation relatives with early-age breast cancer.

      2. I had dreams about my autistic/disabled/troubled child, and my dreams guided me to a cure based on diet/exercise/essential oils.

      1. Wait. What. Someone, anyone, anywhere has been cured of autism? Treated – with very varying degrees of success – I could believe. But an actual cure?
        It’s not as if it is universally accepted that the condition is a disease whose “cure” in any sense should be attempted.

        1. Both of those arguments emerged in other comments: that autism is not a disease but a neurodivergent status; and that it could be cured by diet changes. One supposes that such folks who were cured by diet change did not actually have autism.

          I defer to actual disabled people like Freddie de Boer when it comes to whether autism should be considered a disability. The severely autistic people I know are so obviously disabled and would so obviously be better off if they were not severely autistic that it’s hardly worth discussing. Guys like “The Good Doctor” tend to crowd out those other folks who can’t go to med school or make a complete sentence. But I realize it’s contentious to call autism a disorder or a disease or a disability.

  7. The stress she felt in this situation is hard to imagine, but her dreams weren’t really telling her what to do. Her mental state was such that she was looking for anything to assist her in making a treatment decision, even the imagined symbolism that she derived from her dreams. I’m sympathetic.

    After reading this, I told my wife about the three weird dreams I had last night. The subjects weren’t even related, yet my brain melded them together in a way that made sense—in the crazy way that dreams can make sense. Long ago I concluded that dreams start with random firings in the brain, which then spins them unconsciously (or subconsciously) into fantastically convoluted stories. I don’t ascribe them any meaning whatsoever. I look at them simply as a form of nighttime entertainment.

    As for the NYT… . No, they shouldn’t promote this stuff.

  8. Ms. Farris and the new-agers are simply taking their cue from the Senoi, indigenous people of Peninsular Malaysia, who believe that dreams are as real as (or even realer than) waking reality. As Wiki recounts their view: “dreams are considered very important, because they establish contact with the supernatural world. They can “warn” about certain events. People believe that they have their own spirits in the afterlife, with whom they communicate in a dream or in a trance. In this way, they can get help in diagnosing and treating diseases caused by evil spirits.”

    We can soon look forward to a NYT piece on Matauranga Senoi, with dreams as a source of scientific insight—referencing, of course, the famous story about August Kekulé’s dream about the benzene ring. I took this perspective so seriously in my scientific career that I often went to sleep in seminars—thus, of course, engaging with them at a deeper level.

  9. It’s often occurred to me that the “evidence” for dreams is totally anecdotal: if I were the only person who had dreams, convincing anyone else of their existence would be like trying to defend miracles. Few things are more subjective than dreams.

  10. That observation that your brain seems to be working on a problem while you are not conscious of it has been my experience so often, that I can’t count the times. Back in my school days when puzzling over all manner of math or other technical practice problems, I would suddenly get an answer the next morning. Lately I am obsessed with a free cross-word puzzle game on my phone, which I turn to when I get the chance. Just about every day I’d be stumped by one item that I can not figure out. I’d quit, do something else, and a few hours later turn to it again and suddenly: ‘Oh yeah, the word is “acrimony” or something.

  11. I read a book (how about that) in my youth. It was basically written by a Christian and the message I cannot and don’t want to remember.
    BUT, I do remember this from the book. If you have a problem, a question you need answered, sleep on it and the next day (oh hell ) god will provide the answer.
    I’ve just read another book last month on human judgement (based in/on science) also recommended basically the same, after informing yourself, defere making a judgement call if you can, letting biasis, judgement noise if you will to cool off. In other words, a clear head.

    1. From what I can tell, her doctor framed these sequential choices as “toss-ups”. There is a literature on this.
      By definition, a clinical toss-up is one in which the expected benefit of one treatment choice is the same, as best as can be predicted on (always incomplete) evidence, as the other one. There is no basis to choose one over the other as to outcome. It comes down to which the patient prefers, often between immediate and late side effects of different natures as here. (This is clearly not the average straightforward case of non-hereditary breast cancer where there is good evidence to guide one choice over another at most of these decision points.)

      If the two choices have equal expected outcomes, the fact that one seems to have “worked” cannot be taken as evidence that the choice was correct, however guided. That’s nonsense. A choice to bet on red in roulette is no better if it is guided by a dream, a preference for the colour red in general, or flipping a coin first. Indeed, it’s likely that she would have been still alive even if she had chosen the other route at each decision node because few clinical decisions carry a roulette-like 50% average chance of dying and a 100% chance of dying if you make the “wrong” choice. Instead most decisions are of the nature that Choice A and Choice B both shave 5% off the risk of recurrence in 2-5 years or whatever. The magnitude of treatment effects, within a menu of choices considered reasonable, is smaller than we think, and the differences between them may be too small to be detectable even if we had complete knowledge. So regardless of her choices, we’re not surprised that she is alive and disease-free now. Sadly, we will not be surprised either if she has a recurrence at some point in the near future. Metastatic breast cancer is controllable not curable.
      And if she had suffered an early recurrence before now, you can bet she wouldn’t be here blaming her dream for steering her into the wrong choice.

      That’s why I think the dream aspect of this decision is total woo. The Times should be ashamed of itself.

      1. “And if she had suffered an early recurrence before now, you can bet she wouldn’t be here blaming her dream for steering her into the wrong choice.”

        Yes – much the same can be said of prayer. Believers make a big deal of the occasions when something they have prayed for comes to pass but forget/don’t notice the many, many more times when it does not. I went to a choral music concert in a local church this week and noticed a card on a table (labelled ‘Prayer Station’) which listed various trouble spots around the globe – Ukraine, Middle East, Yemen and such like – and invited people to choose one and pray for the people of that region who are affected by the conflict or natural disaster there. I’m pretty sure that many church goers across the world have prayed time and again for the people in these places but none of them seem to conclude that the persistence of war and pestilence in these unhappy countries suggests prayer is not helpful.

  12. I’m glad my college transcripts aren’t filled with all of those classes that I dreamed of having enrolled in, never attended, and then forgotten to drop–only to realize this in a panic during final exam week.

    1. I had dreams just like those, except I showed up to the final exams naked and having never cracked a book. We must be related!

      1. That’s a high-efficiency dream. I used to have those as separate dreams. The naked part was for work at the hospital. Never got in trouble for some reason.

  13. Having teased about the dreams, I feel obliged to mention the poetry. While I haven’t read more than a piece or two by Ms. Ferris, I would note the two works by her husband Ilya Kaminsky: “Dancing in Odessa” and “Deaf Republic”. The latter was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, but I prefer the tone of the earlier work. Really quite remarkable sound–even setting aside that the poet is deaf and English is not his native tongue.

  14. I personally swear by the power of reading animal entrails as a guide to the future. If I seem to benefit, I’ll remember the reading and be able to see, in retrospect, why it was exactly right, and maybe write an Op Ed piece for the NYT. If not, I’ll probably be able to figure out how I misread the entrails. Plus I’ve heard from people all across the nation who, like me, have have had their lives blessed by goat guts. For some reason I don’t seem to have heard from anyone else, or if I have I can’t remember. And why should I bother? The evidence is so undeniably clear.

    I have a brother who is an astrology aficionado, who decided to try out a career as an investment advisor. When all the planetary signs were pointing to some looming worldwide disaster he told all his clients to pull all their money out of the stock market and put it in gold or something like that — I don’t remember details. When every one of them lost money, he checked with the planets again and decided that an exploding propane tank at a house across the valley must have been the international disaster the planets were referring to. His faith never skipped a beat. Now he’s just as unshakably confident in a newfound religious faith.

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