Decoding Hidden Meaning in Your Daydreams

Understanding hidden messages in daydreams can help with difficult decisions.

Posted Mar 20, 2010

In my last posting I talked about the importance of daydreams in decision-making. Our brains are, according to recent research in the U.S. and Canada, programmed to wander and to use these wanderings to help problem-solve.I talked about tweaking a daydream to help you imagine your way to a decision. Now I am going to talk about how you can decode some of the hidden meanings of your reveries to help you make difficult choices.

I am not talking about finding some universal interpretation of symbols. If you and I both imagine owning a dog, for example, there may be commonalities in our fantasies; but there will also be significant differences. One of us might be longing for a companion who understands or responds to our every need. The other might be having troubles exercising and imagining that having to walk a dog would solve that problem. For one of us a dog might represent our wilder and less civilized self, while for the other it might symbolize our loving, tender and nurturing nature.

When it comes to problem-solving, these personal meanings are almost always the site of the most useful information.

Here is an example of how this can work: Jonathan* was a successful businessman who was unhappy in his marriage. He still loved his wife, he said, but now that their youngest child was in college, it seemed clear that the spark had left their relationship. He had recently found himself looking at other women in a way he never had in the past. However, he was not the kind of man who would have an affair. He did not like that his mind sometimes wandered to other women. He needed to decide whether or not to end his marriage before he could think about seeing someone else.

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Jonathan was ahead of the game since he was already paying attention to his personal reveries. Dr. Eric Klinger, one of the pioneers in the field of imagining, showed years ago that daydreams take up far more of our time than anyone believed. Recent research by a team of neuroscientists led by Dr. Kalina Christoff at the University of British Columbia has confirmed not only that everyone daydreams, but that we do it at least a third of the time that we are awake. These "mind-wanderings" often do their work silently. Yet they activate the same decision-making parts of the brain that are triggered by focused thinking.

I have found that we can aid our brains in this work by understanding some of the less obvious themes in our mind-wanderings.Often we conceal the meanings of our thoughts from ourselves because, like Jonathan, we are not completely comfortable with either the feelings they contain or the way they portray us to ourselves. When we conquer our discomfort enough to turn our attention to random reveries, the meanings can become clear. And that clarity often takes us much closer to the decision we thought we could not make.

Jonathan was not sure which images to talk about. Since we were talking about "spontaneous thought," I suggested that he simply pay attention to where his mind went right then. In my book I offer exercises in which you pay attention to daydreams over time; but it is also helpful to select any reverie as it occurs, since it will reflect your mind's current problem-solving activity. (Freud's idea of "free association," that is, following your thoughts without censoring or directing them, was probably actually an attempt to activate this process. However, Freud had very specific ideas about the meanings of the images that emerged.)

Jonathan began to speak quietly about a woman at work who he found attractive. "She's full of life," he said. "I wish I could have some of that energy. My wife and I are in such a dark place. Can we get out of there?" His mind wandered to a family vacation. "We had a great cabin near a lake. There were other families with small children nearby. Mary* (his wife) was happy, the kids were happy, I was happy. But the first night a bear got into the garbage cans. They were rooting around, noisily, and Mary got panicked. She wanted to call the park rangers, to have them come shoot the bears."

Jonathan stopped and asked, "Is this useful?" I have found that we often interrupt our mind- wandering when a thought gets complicated or confusing or perhaps embarrassing. Since this is also the point at which some of the less apparent meanings of the images often start to appear, it is helpful to keep going if you can.

Jonathan's next thoughts surprised him. He had felt guilty about not putting the garbage away more carefully, since there were signs all over the area warning of a problem with bears. But instead of beating up on himself, he had laughingly admitted his guilt, teased his wife a little about her panic, and reassured her that the bears would eventually go away. The kids were asleep upstairs, and he and she went to bed. He remembered that night with great fondness.

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Where he went next illustrates why daydream interpretation is so personal. No dream book could have taken Jonathan here. But his own brain, once it was allowed to do the work, did. Not immediately, but a day or two later he realized that he did not want to leave his wife. He called her from work and asked her to meet him at a nice restaurant for dinner. Over a meal with candlelight and wine he told her that he thought that they were both suffering from the loss of their children and the wonderful family they had created together. She immediately agreed and said that she had not thought he was feeling as sad as she was. "Oh yes," he told her. "I was feeling it. I just didn't know what it was."

Of course not every daydream analysis leads so directly to a decision. But Dr. Christoff says that even though a daydream may interfere with our ability to achieve an immediate goal, our minds "may be taking that time to address more important questions." Daydreams are not maps to life. But if you give them room to develop and then decode the information they contain, you will often be on track for a healthy decision.

*All names and identifying information have been changed to protect privacy of individuals and families.

1.Barth, F. Diane (1998) Daydreaming: Unlock the Creative Power of Your Mind.
2.Christoff,K. et. al. (2009) Experience sampling during fMRI reveals default network and executive system contributions to mind wandering. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
3.Goldberger, Marianne. (1995). The Clinical Use of Daydreams in Analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychoanalysis, 4:11-21.
4.Freud, S. The Interpretation of Dreams
5.Klinger, Eric (1990) Daydreaming
6.Singer, Jerome (2005) Imagery in Psychotherapy

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