Dream Interpretation: What Do Dreams Mean?
Discover the true meaning behind the dreams you have each night.
Feb 12th, 2021 •
If you’ve ever wondered what your dreams mean, you’re not alone. Dreams have long fascinated us as mysterious nightly occurrences that can eerily reflect our real life or be so wildly different from our daily life that we are unsure how our mind could create such vivid images while we sleep.
In the work to gain a deeper understanding of our dreams, researchers have uncovered some interesting insights that only make us all the more curious about understanding how our dreams work.
Although you may claim that you don’t dream at night, everyone is thought to dream between three to six times each night, with each dream lasting between 5 to 20 minutes. If you don’t remember your dreams though, don’t feel bad—about 95 percent of dreams are forgotten by the time a person even climbs out of bed.
So what do dreams mean? Let’s start by taking a look at the long history of how we have tried to understand our dreams.
Humans have a long history of being fascinated and perplexed by the meaning of our dreams. The roots of dream interpretation trace all the way back to the ancient Egyptians who believed that experiencing vivid dreams was a symbol of prophetic wisdom.
Egyptians believed that their gods revealed themselves in their dreams for the purpose of either demanding something, providing a warning, or giving an answer to some greater question. To receive these oracles, they even held ceremonies, hoping to induce dreams on a dream bed in a temple to connect with the gods.
Since then, history has taken more scientific and sociological approaches to understanding dreams. In the 19th and 20th centuries, several philosophers provided varying explanations behind our dreams, including Carl Jung, Calvin Hall, and the Father of Dream Analysis, Sigmund Freud.
Theories from Philosophers
Freud released his book The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899 explaining dreams as a representation of the unconscious mind. According to Freud, through our dreams, our subconscious can uncover the wishes that our conscious mind has learned to repress, and we use dreams to live out our deepest wishes and desires. But often the dreams we remember are partially obscured and mentally censored, and a skilled psychoanalyst is needed to decipher a dream’s real meaning and reveal its latent content. This theory helped inspire many others’ efforts on studying the symbolic value of dreams.
In the early 20th Century, the prominent psychologist Alfred Adler disagreed with Freud’s emphasis on sexuality, maintaining that gender and politics could be just as important as libido. But he agreed that dreams were a pathway to a person’s true thoughts, emotions and actions, and a way of mentally compensating for any shortcomings in waking life.
Later work by Jung shared some similarities with Freud, though Jung’s theory of symbolism differed from Freud’s. Jung believed that dreams are extremely personal and require interpretation on an individual basis.
Jung also understood dreams as a way for our minds to express parts of the psyche that are underdeveloped in waking life. He defined certain archetypes such as the anima, the animus, and the shadow as symbolic figures in dreams which represent attitudes that the conscious mind represses.
Related: How dreams occur
Contradicting Jung’s beliefs, Hall later explained that the traits exhibited in dreams and waking life are the same for individuals. All this to say, there has been a long history of dream interpretation from even the brightest of minds and we still have yet to fully understand what they mean.
Despite not having all the answers, we are still eager to search for the truth. Findings from studies have revealed about 55 dream patterns. We will dive into the most common dream patterns and explain what these dreams reveal.
Many people can recall dreams where they have the ability to soar into the sky and effortlessly fly around. To understand exactly what this type of dream may mean, your personal relationship with flying may be important.
For example, if you are terrified of heights or flying (in an airplane or otherwise) then these dreams may be unpleasant for you and could be a representation of a fear of losing control. However, if you are obsessed with the idea of unlocking the superpower of flying, then these dreams may relate to joyful feelings of freedom, independence, or a longing for your previous childlike state-of-mind.
Falling is another trope that typically arises in dreams, and it may have a more logical explanation than most themes we experience in dreams. As we “fall” asleep at night, our body gradually slows down and shuts off so to speak. The sensation of your blood pressure and heart rate dropping may trigger a feeling similar to falling that causes you to jerk awake.
Dreams that involve falling could also have a symbolic explanation. A dream that involves falling may be a sign that you’re worried about your life going downhill, or it could represent uncertainty about whether you’re on the right path and an associated fear of failure.
Dreams of being chased most likely relate to avoidance. These dreams of pursual are particularly frightening, and they may reflect your desire to escape your fears in your waking life. One key indicator to understanding the meaning of dreams about being chased is identifying your pursuer.
It is said that being chased by an animal could be symbolic of your desire to escape your animalistic urges such as anger and passion. Being chased by an unknown figure could be related to a childhood experience or trauma of the past. If someone of the opposite sex is chasing you, this could mean you are running away from love or you are being haunted by a previous relationship.
Dreams involving nudity and exposure in front of others can represent your fears of vulnerability. If you have a stressful life event coming up soon, such as public speaking, starting a new job, or meeting new people, that may be the cause of your dreams of being naked.
Teeth Falling Out
If you dream of losing teeth, this may be a sign that you have vanity issues relating to your appearance. Because of its relation to the mouth, it could also be an indicator that you have fears of communication or regret from verbally embarrassing yourself. Losing teeth also represents a loss of power, or it could represent a more practical issue of dental distress from grinding your teeth in your sleep.
Failing a Test
Remember the anxiety that you felt when you had to prepare for a test in school? Just because you are finished with school doesn’t mean you’re finished with life’s test. Dreams of failing a test may represent anxieties you have about succumbing to the pressures of a challenge and not coming out successful.
A dream that your spouse has cheated on you does not necessarily mean that you are uncovering a secret truth through your dreams or prophesying about their future infidelity. These dreams could reflect your waking fears about your partner’s faithfulness or represent a lack of loyalty and communication in your relationship.
Many people wonder: Does dying in a dream mean I die in real life? If you’ve experienced this type of dream before and you’re still here to tell the story, then you should know that a dream in which you die does not cause you to die in real life.
Death, like dreams, is another concept that we have a lot of uncertainty about. If you are having frightening dreams about your death, it could represent a fear of change and the uncertainties that accompany a new situation.
Related: Other types of dreams
At this point you’re probably starting to pick up on a trend–your mood, fears, desires, and worries can all have an impact on your dreams at night. But that doesn’t answer the question of why we are even experiencing dreams in the first place.
Researchers have considered several theories from the logical explanations to more speculative answers. Some scientists even believe that dreaming serves no specific purpose or function, but most believe dreaming has a primary purpose.
One explanation relates to the memory consolidation processes that occur during REM sleep. While we sleep, our brain processes and stores new information and forms long-term memories, and dreaming may be a side effect or component of this process. Researchers also ponder the possibility that dreams are the brain’s response to biochemical changes and electrical impulses.
Related: Why do dreams occur?
On the other end of the spectrum, some explain dreams as an extension of our waking consciousness or a self-help “therapy session” that occurs while unconscious. Dreams may be a way for us to work through our emotions and give attention to our emotional and psychological needs.
Other Factors Affecting Dreams
Along with all the aforementioned explanations behind your dreams, there are also practical explanations for certain dream occurrences. What you eat and drink, certain medications, and your health condition could all be impacting your dreams.
Food and Drink
A warm glass of milk or a cup of herbal tea can help you fall asleep, but certain foods can be harmful to your sleep and have an effect on your sleep and dreams. Eating heavy meals near bedtime can cause sleep disruptions as your body works harder to digest the food you consumed, and sugary foods are notorious for causing nightmares.
Alcohol consumption before bed can also be detrimental to your sleep. A nightcap isn’t as helpful as you may have once believed. Although alcohol makes you feel drowsy and can help you fall asleep, it won’t help you stay asleep and experience deep, restorative sleep, so it’s best to avoid late night drinking.
Certain types of medications may cause nightmares or other strange dreams. Medications that can affect your dreams include:
- Sleep Aids
- Blood Pressure Medications
- Cholesterol-Lowering Medications
- Alzheimer’s Medications
- Parkinson’s Medication
Those with certain health conditions may recognize patterns in their dreams. Nightmares are often reported by those with anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). People who are affected by sleep disorders such as restless leg syndrome (RLS) or sleep apnea may also be affected due to the frequent disruptions in REM sleep.
How to Experience Sweet Dreams
For a better night’s sleep, there are a few steps you can take to lower your stress, reduce your chance of nightmares, and have a better chance at seeing sweet dreams.
- Lower your stress. Stress is a large cause of nightmares and unpleasant dreams. To reduce your stress, you can try frequently exercising, starting a hobby, seeking counseling, and introducing more calming activities into your life.
- Create a wind-down routine. Practicing a routine each night before bed helps indicate to your body that it’s time to start winding down. Consider dimming the lights, drawing a warm bath, and reading a book instead of watching TV to calm your mind and body.
- Improve your sleep environment. Set yourself up for better sleep by creating a relaxing bedroom space. Start with the right paint colors, avoid hectic patterns in your decor, and be sure you find the mattress that is best for you.
It’s probably best to not take your dreams too seriously since no one has been able to perfectly explain why we dream the way we do. Take everything with a grain of salt and don’t worry too much about decoding all the strange components of your dreams.
If you’re ready for more nights of sweet dreams, we’re here to help you learn everything you need to know to improve your sleep!
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