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What Are Your Dreams Telling You?

Interpreting dreams can offer insight into today or glimpses of the future.

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How are you sleeping these days? Is your nightly restoration punctuated by dreams you forget upon waking; by those that make you smile, pondering their meaning; by nightmares that leave you struggling to shake yourself into consciousness; or by a conversation you had within a dream? If you are a lucid dreamer, when did you last engage actively with the content of a dream?

My daughter once asked me, “Mommy, where do dreams come from?” She was six years old. I asked her what she thought. After reflection, she gravely announced, “All day long things happen and we don’t have time to think about them. I think dreams are the thoughts that didn’t have time to get thunk during the day.” She was spot on, even though the neuropsychology that would prove her point — that dreams serve purposes of consolidating information we have been exposed to and integrating emotional responses to that information — would not offer measurable proof for years.

Views on dreams — their origins, purposes, meanings — span history, from the Old Testament or ancient Greek philosophers to modern times, inspiring films about a zombie apocalypse or penetration of black holes. Not surprisingly, perspectives on the “how” and “why” of dreaming reflect their times and the scientific measures that were available or in favor during those times.

The ancient world saw dreams as prophetic, spiritually-laden messages from the divine. Content “Dictionaries” for interpreting dream “symbolism” became popular during the Roman Empire. A century ago, Freud, Jung, and Adler became fascinated by the relationship between unconscious and conscious information and their manifestation through dreams. Each proposed his own theory of how dreams came to be and what they could tell us. With differential foci, they emphasized archetypal (spiritual) and collective (cultural) meanings (Jung); familial relationships (social psychological, Adler); and motivation, emotion, and behavior (the psychological, Freud). When expanded technical tools permitted sleep research to examine brain cells and structures during dreaming, hormones secreted to and within the brain and the rest of the body, and the activation of various parts of the brain at various points during a dream, theories that emphasized the neurobiology of dreaming became popular. Mark Solms, a South African neuropsychoanalyst, developed the Seeking approach to explain dreaming. He emphasized the role of dopamine in dreaming, concluding that dreams are motivated by biological impulses of appetite and attraction. In contrast, neurocognitive researchers like William, Bill, Domhoff have stressed the neural substrate of dreaming. He summarizes research and theories in this area in a comprehensive 2019 article, cited under References below. Best known for neurobiological research that led to his claims that dreams had no “meaning” or psychological motivation at all, Harvard’s J. Allen Hobson argues that dreams are the result of brain activity serving purposes of physiological — especially neuronal —maintenance. He called his theory the activation-synthesis hypothesis. David Maurice, Professor of Ocular Physiology at Columbia, brings a novel and specialized twist to this approach: he has demonstrated that the dream state brings needed oxygen to the cornea, essential for eye health.

As argued in my pyramid model of experience, different lenses complement each other rather than contradict. The following remarks address the experience of dreaming from a psychological perspective with dips into those of social psychological, cultural, and spiritual viewpoints. Note that a dream can be examined from any part of the pyramid.

Recently a friend asked me a question leading me to review what l had learned about dreams and dreaming and, especially, mental imagery, sometimes seen as wakeful dreaming. As a former president of the American Association for the Study of Mental Imagery and Contributing Editor to the journal Imagination, Cognition and Personality, my study had bounced freely between “waking” and sleeping dreams and included a look at hypnogogic and hypnopompic imagery, that which occurs respectively prior to sleep and upon waking from it. Two conclusions formed nearly fifty years ago have held up well when examining my own dreams and those of people with whom I have worked: (1) each person has their own individual way of experiencing, understanding, and using dreams; and (2) we can experience several different types of dreams, differentiate among them, and use them in our lives according to their type and content.

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Many studies of dream content have looked at words in a narrative of a dream and identified common themes like falling, flying, being chased, meeting someone with a family role (living or deceased) or taking an examination in school (even if schooldays had taken place decades earlier). Dream “dictionaries” have been created to "aid" in interpreting such content. Some dream researchers recommend throwing out any dictionaries. I do not — but I do recommend they be used with great discrimination, only as a jumping off point in developing an individual’s unique imagery lexicon, one in which imagery emerges and recurs over time.

Types of dreams

Day residue dreams. Much of our dreaming does serve the purpose my daughter intuited: it helps us integrate information that awaits consolidation in our memory or helps resolve emotional states that felt unfinished when we went to sleep — perhaps arousal following an exciting film, anger after an argument, under-stimulation that begs for us to entertain ourselves or examine a troublesome feeling, perhaps one consciously denied.

Identity dreams. Typically, we have one or more category of content that signals when we are dreaming about a current challenge to or shift in our identity. Their symbols are flags that alert us to “pay attention”. (More below on personal symbolism.)

Problem-focused dreams. The literature is filled with stories of scientists who fell asleep pondering a question and awoke with the solution. See an inspiring selection here.

Nightmares. Dreams that evoke great fear or even terror can alert us to something in our life that is being ignored and should be dealt with. If we can engage in lucid dreaming (see below) and confront the threat in the dream, we stand to learn much about the perceived threat, why it is in our life, and even how we might consider addressing it. Feelings of terror, perhaps resulting in feeling paralyzed and unable to awaken, often signal that the dream is repeating a theme from a traumatic experience.

Prophetic dreams. Occasionally, like Joseph in the Old Testament, some among us may have prophetic dreams. In one of mine, a dog (who years later would become my beloved bichon puppy) hopped up onto my lap and nuzzled into my chest, looking up at me with his big black eyes. When he showed up in my life incarnate, I immediately recognized him and knew to adopt him without hesitation.

Conversations with dead people. Many of us have dream conversations with people who have died. These encounters can provide counsel, support, new viewpoints or questions for us to ask, or opportunities to clear up “unfinished business” that remained an issue for us after the death occurred. The less we fear what can be found in our unconscious, the more likely we are to dream in a range of ways, utilizing the content of dreams to better understand and guide our choices.

Individual variations in dreaming.

Symbols in identity dreams. When I have a dream that includes a house — or even a room within a

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home — I know that my dream is telling me something about my identity. Maybe I am at a point of transition, deciding whether to take on or abandon a significant role in the larger world. Perhaps I am longing to express a part of myself that has been neglected. Am I being nudged to look at how well I am caring for myself — physically, psychologically, socially, spiritually, or even financially? I have known people whose identity dreams typically include shoes (What shoes am I looking to fill? How grounded do I feel?) hats (What roles am I wanting or not wanting to fulfill in relation to the world in which I live?) wardrobe (dreams that feature clothing often reflect a role someone is playing and, similarly, nudity can reflect feeling exposed, an association with shame or freedom, depending on the person) or a mode of transportation (most commonly a car, but also a bicycle, train, bus, plane). These usually reflect an issue related to, “Where am I going in my life?”

Puns and metaphors in dreams. My favorite idiosyncratic aspect of dreams revolves around puns provided in them, necessarily dependent on idiosyncratic associations. The trunk of a car is filled with excess “baggage”. A person about to marry and move to a new location becomes capable of flying and surveys the landscape. When we moved to Indian Trail Road, my husband dreamed that he had encountered a tribe of Indigenous people. When I am mastering a new activity, I often dream being back in Graduate School.

Lucid dreaming. Lucid dreaming is the process of consciously entering a dream and interacting with its content. For example, one could have a conversation with a person in the dream or make a choice to take the dream in a different direction, perhaps literally such as driving left instead of right or confronting the challenge of a hill rather than sliding down a less demanding path (but is the easy way easier or is it filled with obstacles or dangers?) This process, like active imagery techniques in therapy, can provide insights into concerns a person has that are not quite conscious or ways to deal with current issues that had not been consciously considered.

I side with the folks who believe that our dreams provide us with rich sources of information about ourselves, our lives, our possibilities. They can help us identify problems we are reluctant to face or have been stymied in addressing head on, and even provide insights into ways to deal with those problems or understanding why solutions have been eluding us. Our dreams can help us communicate with others in alternate ways, resolve unresolved conflicts, forgive and let go of resentments, find compassion and understanding about why a person did what they did.

Think of a favorite dream you have had. Can you identify what it might be telling you? For tips on remembering and interpreting your dreams, visit these recent posts by Ken Stubenberg and Imi Lo.

Copyright 2020 Roni Beth Tower


Domhoff, G. W. (2019). The Neurocognitive Theory of Dreams at Age 20: An Assessment and a Comparison With Four Other Theories of Dreaming. Dreaming, 29, No. 4, 265-302.

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