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Why Do We Dream We Are Flying?

Dream interpretation made realistic.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever incorporated your alarm clock into your dream? It may have appeared as a siren from an ambulance, a dog barking or a the automatic drill used by workers in the street. It is common for real auditory stimuli to affect dream content. It is much less common for visual, tactile, olfactory or gustatory stimuli to have this effect on your dreams. An interesting question is why this happens. But a more frequent question is that of what this means. What does it mean when you hear a siren from an ambulance in your dream?

The simple answer is that it doesn't really mean anything. It does not affect the dream content as a symbol of something deep and mysterious. Rather, it has a function of keeping you asleep, in spite of the ear-deafening sound of your alarm.

When people look at their dreams in order to interpret them, they sometimes make the mistake of not drawing a distinction between what a dream means and what it does.

Research suggests that one of the main reasons we dream is that our memory control center—the hippocampus—needs to rehearse information from the day before or the week before in order to ensure that it gets encoded in long-term memory. This is why many of our dreams feature events and people we have recently encountered or thought about.

A radical view is that this is all there is to dreaming. As the hippocampus is busy rehearsing recent input to the brain, other parts of the brain make a narrative that can be more or less coherent out of the content being rehearsed.

This view is radical and likely false. A more likely thought is that dreams can have dream content that can teach us something about our unconscious beliefs, desires, fears and so on. Sigmund Freud went overboard with his symbolic dream interpretation. This Freudian theory is inconsistent with the hypothesis that we dream, in part, because that allows our hippocampus to do its job.

Symbols can occur in dreams. But they are usually not super-mysterious. Dreaming that your teeth are falling out doesn't symbolize something profound about you or your life but your existential angst about loss in general—a fear we all harbor. It could also symbolize a hidden fear about losing your partner, a parent, a job, and so on. Likewise, dreaming that you are flying does not (typically) symbolize orgasm. The symbolism is much more subtle than that. When you fly, you feel elated (presumably). So, it likely symbolizes some relief or excitement in your waken life.

You don't need a fancy psychoanalyst to interpret your dreams. If you want to find out what your dreams mean, you can write them down as soon as you wake up when they are still fresh in memory. If you use a software program like Word and add all your dreams there—properly marked with a date and what took place in your life at the time—you can use the search engine of the software program later to search for key words. Using your own personal dream bank, you may be able to find the real dream content of each dream by looking at many different dreams with a common theme and comparing them to real-life events and worries occupying you at the time.

Berit "Brit" Brogaard is a co-author of The Superhuman Mind.