Without a doubt, the question I am most often asked by reporters, inquirers, students, and most people everywhere who discover that I study dreams is “What do my dreams mean?” There are some websites and phone apps that promise the hapless dreamer that they have the right interpretation for any given dream: "Just pay us a lot of money and we’ll show you what your dream means by looking it up in our grand dream encyclopedia!” Those websites and “dream interpretation professionals,” however, are no better than frauds as there is at present no consensus in the scientific community that dreams mean anything at all.
Even if dreams do carry some meaning (and I believe that they do), no one has any validated method for reliably extracting those meanings from any given dream. We can easily identify how a particular dream varies from a standardized reference group in terms of dozens of standardized indicators (such as how many characters, how many emotions, how many strangers, etc.) but that kind of information does not tell us anything about the meaning the dream carries for the individual dreamer. If I tell you that your dream contains fewer male strangers in it than other people from your age and sex reference group that may be interesting to you but it does not unlock the meaning of that dream for you.
Freud and Jung attempted to derive general dream interpretation rules that individual dreamers could use to decipher their dreams but their techniques have not been validated via rigorous scientific examination. In addition, two different analysts using exactly the same Freudian or Jungian interpretation rules will virtually always come up with dramatically different interpretations of any given dream; thus underlining the arbitrariness of the methods themselves.
I’ve seen so much nonsense written about dream meanings over the years that I have been very hesitant to publish my own dream interpretation method. But I think it is time now to throw it out there as demands for some sort of reliable dream interpretation technique keep rising and I found my technique to be useful and consistent for interpretation of my own dreams. I make no claim here that my technique is scientifically validated; I simply urge you to use it once for yourself and if you find it useful, great! If not, toss it in the trash with all those other interpretation schemes you’ve tried over the years.
I originally laid out my interpretative scheme in my 2009 book (McNamara, 2009; Neuroscience of religious experience; pp. 196-205), in which I argued that both dreams and religious experiences were characterized by a four-step cognitive “decentering” process. Decentering involves a simultaneous disengagement of executive control/diminution in personal agency (step 1) and a subsequent entry (step 2) of the disengaged self into a liminal state (what I call in the book a “suppositional space or possible worlds space”). In step 3, a narratively constrained search for an optimal self occurs and takes whatever time brain resources allow to “locate” or settle on a “new self” and which then facilitates step 4 or integration of the old into a new self that ends the liminal state. In every dream, the dreamer subjectively experiences step 1, a sense of a diminishment of self or loss of agency and control, along with a transient increase of fear or negative affect (step 2) anxiety, disorientation during the liminal state etc., linked to that loss of agency or control. And then there follows (step 3) a sense of effort or search to reestablish control or a more effective sense of self, and finally some resolution (step 4). Ideally, that resolution would involve re-establishment of executive control and a deeper more unified sense of self, but in dreams the resolution all too often involves reintegration with a dark side of the self.
The key to individual dream interpretation is to assume that every dream involves trying on a differing sense of self. The dreamer uses narrative and the decentering process to do so. We need one more piece of information before we can interpret any given dream: We need to link up or translate the four-step decentering process into the four major literary tropes linguists and literary scholars have identified as occurring in most or all narrative types. (White, H. V. 1999). Figural realism: studies in the mimesis effect (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press) has argued that people unconsciously utilize the four major stylistic tropes metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony when analyzing historical materials and constructing histories. Metonymy (step 1, disengagement and entry into liminal state) involves breaking up those materials into parts; synecdoche (step 2, liminal state) involves reorganizing those materials into a new whole; metaphor (step 3) involves a comparison of materials with something familiar (narrative search for ideal self); and irony (step 4, resolution/reintegration) involves reflection on that new whole. In 1999, White showed that these four tropes are effectively equivalent to Freud’s dreamwork operations such as displacement (metonymy), condensation (metaphor), presentation (synecdoche) and secondary revision (irony). “The four operations identified by Freud function in the same way that the tropes do in allegory to mediate between the literal and the figurative levels of meanings of the text.” (White 1999, p. 103).
We now have the tools to interpret any given dream narrative. For example, this was a dream selected at random from the children’s dream series at dreambank.net, #235-01 (fifth grader, 02/20/97):
I was in my house getting ready for bed with my mom and I heard the door open. I ran to the front door and saw four black figures. The four black figures walked slowly closer to me. Each foot they put forward, I put back. then the alien—one of the four black figures—tried to grab me. I pushed them out the door locking it right after I closed it. I ran to the telephone and the phone was dead. The next day at school a kid (and a man) came up to me talking, and one said, "I am an alien, too. Don't be scared, I won't hurt you because you are an alien too!" I backed up and ran.
The dreamer is trying on an “alien” identity.
1. Metonymy involves breaking up those materials into parts (step 1, disengagement and entry into liminal state).
The dreamer’s front door opens by itself and in walk four dark figures. Dreamer needs to lose old identity/agency before trying on new identity. Loss of usual identity is signaled by four unknown figures approaching dreamer and loss of agency is signaled by the phone being dead and not usable.
2. Synecdoche (step 2, liminal state) involves attempts to reorganize materials into a new whole.
The dreamer attempts to close the door on the aliens, pushes them back not wanting the new identity and attempts to phone for help.
3. Metaphor (step 3) involves a comparison of materials with something familiar (narrative comparison of old self with possible new self) the dreamer discovers the next day that her identity is in question and that she may herself be an alien.
4. Irony (step 4, resolution/reintegration) involves reflection on that new whole.
Dream figures tell the dreamer not to be afraid about being an alien—it's OK.