- Dreams have been reflected on by millions of people across various cultures, societies, and historical time periods.
- Dreams interpretation and dream analysis continue to play a role in today’s world of psychotherapy.
- The value of dream interpretation within therapeutic environments is supported by research.
We humans spend approximately one-third of our lives sleeping1, and we dream every night—although we don’t always remember our dreams. Evidence has emerged that even people who never recall their dreams, or self-identify as "non-dreamers," display dreamlike behaviours when they sleep.2
Our ability to sleep and dream is also shared with other mammals. For example, most dog owners have observed their beloved companion’s eyes dart, paws twitch, or heard whimpers as if the dog is chasing rabbits in its dreams. While it’s difficult to determine the actual meaning of dreams for other mammals, there is something truly wonderous, enlivening, and even mystical about the experience of dreaming.
Many of us find dreams to be enriching personal experiences, and even terrifying at times when dreams turn into nightmares. However, a lot of us don’t share openly about our dreams, as it’s sometimes viewed as “woo-woo” in our hyper-rationalistic world. Yet, if dreams really do occur with no real point, why would nature, in its infinite wisdom, waste so much energy in developing this trait within us?
While the deeper meaning of dreams may be debated amongst scientists, evolutionary psychologists, spiritual traditions, philosophers, and mystics, the fact is that dreaming is a central part of what it means to be human. Dreams influence our lives, are inherently creative experiences, and have long been a source of personal inspiration. Dreams have been interpreted, recorded, discussed, and shared by millions of people across various cultures, societies, and historical time periods.
In today’s world, dreams continue to play an important role within psychotherapeutic environments.
Dreams in therapy
In the therapy room, it’s not an unusual experience if a person brings an impactful dream to their therapist. Other times, some therapists will try to elicit dreams more intentionally, as this will be part of their psychotherapeutic approach to treatment. While working with dream experiences and facilitating dream analysis isn’t a universal psychotherapeutic practice conducted by all therapists, it is supported by research.
Clinical researchers have found that dream interpretation often facilitates the therapeutic process by enhancing self-knowledge for people pursuing therapy.3 New knowledge can be gathered by talking to a therapist about a dream, and this can support adaptive changes in behaviour.
Additionally, these researchers found that therapists who work with dream experiences can often increase a person’s participation and involvement in therapy. Dream interpretation in therapy is correlated with high personal satisfaction and an experience of depth from the client’s perspective. So, discussing dreams is an effective way to build working relationships between people and their therapists who are trained in this unique skill set.
The exploration of dreams
From the therapist’s perspective, dreams often provide central information about the person pursuing therapy. Dreams may reveal a person’s relational patterns, personal wishes or desires, how a person may avoid aspects of life, a person’s attitude toward an experience, a significant life event, or how a person views themselves, others, or the world itself.4 Dreams can also facilitate the emotional expression of feelings that are troubling or threatening, and thus dreams can help us discover hidden aspects of ourselves by connecting us to the deeper parts of our personality. Carl Jung captures this perspective beautifully, by stating, "The dream is a little hidden door in the innermost and most secret recesses of the psyche."
Jungian and other psychodynamic therapists have long advocated for how human life is far more complicated than we often realize, and that our sense of self is more expansive than our rational minds. Thankfully, dreams can help us discover aspects of our lives that are unconscious to us. Every dream presents an opportunity for us to explore the twists and turns of inner psychological life.
As a therapist who works with dreams firsthand, I have witnessed how sometimes, changes in a person’s dream may indicate clinical progress. Alternatively, if there is a lack of content change within an ongoing dream, this may reflect how a person is stuck in a self-defeating pattern or may be continuing to struggle with a traumatic event.
How to develop a deeper relationship with your dreams
I often recommend keeping a dream journal and to record any dream you remember immediately when you wake up. It can be helpful to also pay attention to the feeling tone in a dream, as well as reflect on the current context of your life. In waking life, allow yourself to become curious about dream images or figures, and ask yourself—what is it in me that has this trait, or does this action?
Some folks invest in dream interpretation books to help their personal interpretation, whereas others sign up for therapy with Jungian, psychodynamic, psychoanalytical, transpersonal, and/or other therapists who advertise dream interpretation as a skill set. Many therapists are not qualified to work with dreams, so make sure to ask about their experiences with dream interpretation, and feel free to ask if they pay attention to their own dreams in their personal lives (this is essential if a therapist is to work with dreams professionally).
In recent times, the podcast This Jungian Life has become an international leader in offering free psychoeducational content on the value of dream analysis and teaching people how to work with their own dreams.5 The podcast facilitates endless opportunities for examining the complex nature of dreams and provides diverse perspectives on how dream images can have many different meanings. The podcast is run by Deborah Stewart, Lisa Marchiano, and Joseph Lee, who are three Jungian analysts with decades of dream interpretation experience.
The next time you wonder, "What does this dream mean?" write it down, keep becoming curious about the dream, and try to develop an ongoing relationship with the dream symbols as a starting place. Consider working with a therapist, doing your own personal research, and/or joining a community that openly discusses dreams. You might be amazed at where this takes you in life.
To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
1. Aminoff, M., Boller, F., & Swaab, D. (2011). Handbook of Clinical Neurology. Elsevier.
2. Herlin, B, Leu-Semenescu, S., Chaumereuil, C., & Arnulf, I. (2015). Evidence that non-dreamers do dream: A REM sleep behaviour disorder model. Journal of Sleep Research, 24(6), 602-609.
3. Eudell-Simmons, E., & Hilsenroth, M. (2005). A review of empirical research supporting four conceptual uses of dreams in psychotherapy. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 12(4), 255–269.
4. Shedler, J. (2010). The efficacy of psychodynamic psychotherapy. The American Psychologist, 65(2), 98-109.
5. Stewart, D., Marchiano, L., & Lee, J. (2023). This Jungian Life. Available on YouTube, Spotify, and other platforms.