Understanding the Metaphors in Your Dreams

How to interpret the most creative meanings of your dreams

Posted Sep 13, 2018

Kelly Bulkeley
Source: Kelly Bulkeley

When you wake up from a vivid dream, it’s natural to think about what caused or triggered it from the day before.  Let’s say you dreamed about a cat, and you remember that yesterday you saw a similar cat while you were walking outside.  That’s good, that’s a helpful insight about what Freud called the “day residue” of the dream.  But to be clear, it’s not what the dream means.  That’s just a first step towards learning more about the dream.  If you simply stop after identifying the day residue, you really haven’t unlocked any of the potential meanings of the dream.

You had countless experiences yesterday, yet this is the one that came through in your dream, the encounter with the cat.  Maybe that’s random, but maybe it isn’t.  Maybe your dreaming mind is focusing on this particular experience because it means something to you because it’s emotionally important and relates to one or more of your concerns, interests, fears, and desires. It’s an image that draws your attention and elicits a response.  By exploring the image and your response to it, you will gain a better understanding of what the dream might be expressing.

In some dreams, the meanings are quite direct.  Your dream of a cat may remind you of a family cat from childhood.  Of all the things you experienced yesterday, that brief encounter with the cat may have been unusual in connecting you with a deep set of memories and feelings that you overlooked during the day, but are now processing at night through the dream.

In other dreams, the meanings are more indirect.  Let’s say you have no personal connections to cats, no direct contact with them, and you barely gave a thought to the one you saw yesterday; yet you had a vivid dream about a cat.  Where does such a dream come from? 

Maybe this is where the randomness of dreaming comes in, where no direct connections with waking life can be identified.  It’s more likely, however, that this is an instance of a metaphor in dreaming. Your dreaming imagination is going beyond your current daily life to create new images that bring together multiple meanings, potentially helping you understand things you could not fully understand before.  Rather than trivial nonsense, this might represent a burst of new creative insight.

The essence of metaphor is understanding one kind of thing in terms of another.  We use what we know to help us understand what we don’t know. This kind of thinking comes naturally to us—human brains have evolved a powerful ability to associate, connect, and combine different ideas as a means to greater knowledge and adaptive creativity. Metaphorical thinking is a valuable strength of our species, giving us tremendous flexibility in creative problem solving when faced with unforeseen challenges.

For instance, when a large and dangerous hurricane forms offshore, meteorologists and public safety officials use strong metaphors to communicate the level of risk to the public. They might describe the storm as a “monster” with a “gaping eye” that threatens to “crawl” inland and deliver “vicious” destruction.  They might say the storm is “winding up” to give the coast a “punishing wallop.”  They use something easily understandable—the fear of being attacked by an aggressive monster—to help people understand something they don’t yet grasp: the danger of the approaching storm.

No metaphor has a single fixed definition; the same image can refer to many different meanings.  The genius of the human imagination is its infinite ability to create novel extensions of preexisting ideas. This is precisely what happens so often in dreaming when the unconscious mind spins out an endless variety of metaphorical images.  Dreams do this to promote our psychological health, as a way of integrating our emotional experiences and weaving them into a meaningful whole.  

So, about your cat dream.  Even if it does have a direct connection to a cat in your waking life, the dream may also have metaphorical meanings.  These two levels of meaning are not mutually exclusive.  At a metaphorical level, the image may reflect something else in your waking life that has cat-like qualities.  Perhaps this has to do with cats being curious, playful, and affectionate; perhaps it relates to their being independent, cruel, and dangerous.  Perhaps it reflects a cat-like part of yourself, or a cat-like person you know from your workplace, or a cat-like energy you sense in the world around you.  We would have to talk more about the dream (what else was in it besides the cat?) and your waking life circumstances to highlight the most likely metaphorical meanings. 

What can you do to understand the metaphors in your dreams?  If it’s a cat or anything else, how can you learn more about the metaphorical meanings of specific dream images?

  1. Brainstorm a list of words and phrases relating to the image (as I did above with cats being curious, playful, etc.).  Your first reaction to the list will be a good clue to the dream’s likely meaning.
  2. Draw a picture or diagram of the image, or make a little collage out of magazine clippings.  Give the dream image some kind of visual representation in your waking life.  New ideas will flow from that.
  3. Share the dream with a friend, and ask what they think it would mean if it was their dream. Your friend might help you see metaphorical possibilities you were missing.
  4. Explore books, websites, and podcasts about dreams. Try different ones, and seek out those that have the highest quality, integrity, and respect for the dreamer.
  5. Trust your intuition.  If you feel the meaning of your dream goes in one direction and not another, you’re probably right.  (But test your intuition, too.  Are you sure you’re not avoiding an unpleasant truth?)

The interpretation of metaphors in dreams is more of an art than a science.  As the Greek philosopher Aristotle said more than 2,500 years ago in "Prophesying by Dreams," the skill of dream interpretation depends on “the faculty of observing resemblances"—in other words, the ability to identify connections between the dream images and meaningful aspects of waking life.  Everyone has this basic ability to observe resemblances and interpret dream metaphors, and it’s an ability that can be improved with practice.  The more you do it, the better you get. 

George Lakoff, one of the leaders of modern metaphor theory, has written favorably about the role of metaphors in dreaming, and his research offers another way to explore this topic further.  He views metaphors as the essence of human thought, and he affirms that metaphorical thinking occurs in both waking and dreaming.  For this reason, he firmly disagrees with the claim that dreams are mere nonsense from the sleep-addled brain: “Dreams are not just the weird and meaningless product of random neural firings but rather the natural way by which emotionally charged fears, desires, and descriptions are expressed.” (1993, 87)

Note: for more on the role of metaphors in memory and emotional processing, see the work of Josie E. Malinowski and Caroline L. Horton.

Some of the passages above are adapted from Dreaming Beyond Death (2006).