Last updated: January 31, 2017
Many people wake up after a particularly vivid or powerful dream and wonder, "What does my dream mean?" Humans have been attempting to decipher the messages found in dreams since ancient times. There are many opinions about dream interpretation, and people have studied dreams using methods ranging from the scientific to the spiritual. Join us as we explore the history and theory of dream analysis, and learn to interpret your own dreams.
The Science of Dreams
Before delving into the meaning of dreams, it is helpful to understand what we know about them. Surprisingly, the scientific data is fairly sparse.
Most dreams occur during the deepest stage of sleep. This stage, known as rapid eye movement or REM sleep, occurs in cycles that last for 90 to 120 minutes. It is named for the movements the sleeper's eyes make. Researchers discovered that brain activity typically slows down during other sleep stages but, during REM sleep, it returns to patterns similar to those seen during waking hours.
Almost everyone dreams, and many people do not remember them. You are more likely to vividly remember your dreams if you are awoken during REM sleep. If you phase out of REM sleep and wake up during a different stage, you may forget your dreams entirely or only remember vague outlines.
Why Do We Dream?
Scientists and philosophers have long wondered why we dream, but no one is exactly sure of the answer. Many people believe that dreams are a way for our brains to process things we experience while awake. They may also be a way for us to deal with subconscious feelings or act out things we are too afraid to do in real life.
Some researchers also believe that dreams have no deeper meaning and are simply a side effect of our brains working while we sleep. Others think that dreams allow us to unconsciously rehearse important instinctive behaviors, such as recognizing threats or developing relationships with other people.
Many people think dreams have religious or spiritual meanings. They may see dreams as messages from divine beings, while nightmares may come from evil spirits. Some people believe that they receive psychic messages or can see the future in their dreams.
The History of Dream Interpretation
"What does my dream mean?" is a question that people have been asking for thousands of years. Ancient peoples around the world typically looked to dreams as spiritual messages or prophecies. Dream interpretation was often handled by shamans and priests. The ancient Egyptians even kept hieroglyphic records of important dreams and their meanings. Other cultures, including those of Greece and China, wrote texts about the meaning of dreams. Many myths describe heroes receiving prophetic visions or warnings in their sleep.
As the science of psychology was developed in Europe during the 19th century, researchers began developing different schools of dream analysis. Two of the most popular methods were psychoanalysis and Jungian interpretation. Both involve the use of free association techniques to determine what the patient's dream means to them. The psychoanalytic method focuses on dreams as a method of wish fulfillment and a reflection of subconscious desires, while the Jungian method incorporates the idea of universal symbols or archetypes. Jungian therapists believe that all humans share a collective unconscious, which causes us to respond to certain symbols regardless of our cultures or personal histories.
Other methods of dream therapy involve exploring your dreams through artwork or role playing. These interpretative methods let the dreamer play around with ideas and feelings to get a better idea of the meaning of their dreams.
Understanding Common Dream Meanings
Although everyone experiences dreams differently, there are some common themes that can help you answer the question, "What does my dream mean?" Many people dream about their teeth falling out or being naked in public when they are stressed and and feeling vulnerable. Dreaming about being chased is also common when you are anxious or afraid.
Falling is another common dream, but the meanings can vary depending on the content. It is often frightening, which can indicate that you do not feel like you are in control of your life. If it is a more gentle and peaceful feeling, it may show that you're letting go of something that was holding you back. Some falling dreams are also associated with hypnic jerks, also known as sleep starts. These harmless muscle movements occur when the neurological mechanisms that regulate sleep and wakefulness act in opposition to each other.
Flying dreams are often considered some of the best, most joyous dreams. Soaring above a beautiful landscape may indicate a desire to roam or simply a sense of freedom and happiness in your everyday life. However, if you find yourself struggling to fly or getting caught in obstacles, you may be feeling frustrated and unhappy about something.
Interpreting the Symbolism of Dreams
Objects you see or interact with may give a hint to the meaning of your dream. Although these can vary depending on your personal feelings and the meaning you attach to each object, there are some general themes.
Vehicles are a common feature in dreams. They typically represent power and direction. If you dream about out-of-control vehicles, you may feel powerless over the direction your life is taking. If the vehicles are running smoothly and properly, you may be feeling confident and happy.
Life stages also have symbolic meaning. If you dream about death, whether it is a literal death or a figurative personification, you may be thinking about a big change. Babies often indicate that you're ready for something new.
Houses often symbolize your life or mind. Dreaming about unused rooms, such as basements or attics, may mean that you're neglecting something or someone. Kitchens and bedrooms often represent family and intimate relationships.
Food is another common sight in dreams and can represent more abstract forms of nourishment. If you dream of food, you may be neglecting your spiritual, emotional or intellectual needs, even if you are taking care of your physical body.
Learning About Lucid Dreaming
Lucid dreaming occurs when the dreamer becomes aware that he or she is dreaming. Once you become aware of that, you can take control of your dream. This allows you to experience new or impossible things, such as flying, or to explore your dream world in depth to gain further understanding. Many people believe that lucid dreams are a powerful tool for spiritual and emotional growth.
Although some people naturally experience lucid dreams, others may struggle with the process. Most people can learn lucid dreaming with a bit of practice, however. Read our guide to learn how to start lucid dreaming.
What Does My Dream Mean? Interpreting Your Own Dreams
While there are therapists who specialize in dream interpretation, most people are capable of analyzing their own dreams. You don't have to be an expert in symbolism, either, since most experts agree that personal meaning is the most important thing.
If you often find yourself wondering, "What does my dream mean?" the first step is to start keeping a dream journal. Be sure to record any emotions you remember feeling as well as the things you saw and heard.
Once you have written everything down so you don't forget the details, spend some time thinking about your dream. Sometimes, the meaning is obvious. If you're having trouble working it out, though, start thinking about individual elements of your dream and what they mean to you.
Try pretending that you're explaining the dream to an alien visitor who is completely unfamiliar with human life. For example, if you dream that you lost your keys, you have to tell the alien what keys are and why it is important for you to find them. The way you choose to explain these details can give you insight into your personal dream meanings.
Dream dictionaries can also provide some clues if you get stuck, but don't let them override your instincts. Many of the meanings they ascribe to various symbols are arbitrary. The most important thing is how you think and feel about what you see in your dreams.
Be sure to consider the dream as a whole. Some dreams may start out being scary or stressful, but may end with you overcoming obstacles or having good experiences. Those dreams may tell a story about everything going on in your life.
As you interpret your dreams, look for parallels in your own life. Sometimes these might be fairly literal parallels, such as dreaming about losing important paperwork when you're worried about a stressful situation at work. Often, however, the parallels are more subtle. Sometimes the emotions are the only thing that the dream and waking situations share. Finding those similarities can help you recognize what you are really dreaming about.
Whether you believe that dreams are a simple instinctive reflex or you ascribe deep spiritual meaning to them, analyzing your own dreams can give you a deeper understanding of your subconscious thoughts and feelings. Dream interpretation can be complex and has many variables, but some self-reflection and careful thought can answer that timeless question, "What does my dream mean?"