Some dreams slip away like minnows when you wake up and hazily try to grasp at them. Others remain vivid in your memory, so clear and unforgettable that, as the days pass, you might start to wonder if you actually dreamed them more than once.
Even if you don’t remember many (or any) of your dreams, you do still have them. While experts still have plenty to discover about dreams, they do generally agree that dreaming is part of the human experience.
You can cover a lot of ground in your dreams. Common experiences include:
- sexy encounters with a crush
- ordinary activities, like doing chores or buying groceries
- terrifying experiences, like returning to high school or being chased by monsters
- gaining superpowers or magical abilities
Whether your dreams are mundane or peculiar, you might want to know if they have any deeper significance. Experts haven’t come up with a clear answer, but you’ll find some main theories below — along with a few tips for decoding your own dreams.
Plenty of psychologists and other experts have theorized on the deeper meaning of dreams.
Freud’s theory of unconscious wish fulfillment
Psychologist Sigmund Freud had a lot to say about dreams (and not all of it related to sex).
He suggested that dreams
Your sleeping brain creates what he called a “manifest dream” from snippets of everyday images, experiences, and memories. The manifest dream simplifies, reorganizes, and masks the “latent dream,” or your repressed and unconscious wishes.
In other words, the manifest dream uses various symbols and bizarre or unusual images to conceal the latent dream, or what you’re really dreaming about.
Jung’s theory of compensation and self-portrayal
Like Freud, Carl Jung believed dreams had meaning. Jung focused on specific archetypes, or patterns, that appear symbolically in dreams, theorizing that dreams could help explain daily events and balance out aspects of yourself you aren’t aware of yet.
Say, for example, you have a lighthearted relationship with your partner. You enjoy the same hobbies, have great sexual chemistry, and get along well — but you can’t shake the feeling that something deeper’s missing from your relationship.
One night, you dream the two of you are reviewing housing listings, wandering through the furniture section of a department store, and then, suddenly (in the abrupt nature of dreams), taking a leisurely walk through a quiet park.
Upon waking, you might realize your dream exposed some of the more mundane things absent in your relationship, while also suggesting you might want a relationship that includes thoughtful planning for the future along with fun.
Other key theories
Other dream researchers have offered their own theories as to the meaning of dreams.
Psychologist Calvin S. Hall considered dreams part of the cognition process, or a type of thinking that happens as you sleep.
Since the images that appear in dreams reflect elements of daily life, Hall believed dreams could offer important insight into how you view yourself and others, your problems and conflicts, and the world in general.
Linguist and philosopher George Lakoff believed dreams offered a metaphorical glimpse into daily challenges and life events. In other words, the abstract symbols appearing in your dreams represent real hardships.
Psychologist and dream researcher Rosalind Cartwright also tied dreams to significant life events and emotional experiences. She believed dreams played an important role in cognitive processes, including memory and emotion regulation.
Professor G. William Domhoff also connected dreams to daily experiences. The things you do and think about during the day can resurface in dreams, he suggested, while your emotional mindset helps shape their unique content.
Domhoff also noted that, although dreams may shed some light on heavy concerns, they might not have any real purpose. You forget most of your dreams, after all.
William Dement, who helped found the field of sleep medicine, similarly suggested that, while dreams may lack a clear purpose, they can still convey meaningful messages.
Many experts don’t believe dreams have much meaning, but believe they still serve a purpose.
Existing theories outline a few of these purposes.
Threat simulation theory
Some researchers suggest that dreams serve an important evolutionary purpose.
According to threat simulation theory, dreams offer the chance to practice identifying, avoiding, and dealing with potential threats. By safely handling these threats in your dreams, you might feel safer in your waking life.
Of course, threat simulation theory can also tie into other theories about dream meaning. Traumatized children could, for example, have more threatening dreams, because they often feel afraid in daily life.
According to the activation-synthesis theory, dreams are nothing more than a collection of random images and thoughts, projected during sleep as a result of normal brain activity.
These images don’t follow any narrative structure, thanks to the pons, your brain’s random dream generator. You create the story of your dream on your own, after waking up.
Supporters of this theory believe dreams can feel strange, because these random images often make little sense when they’re combined.
Dreams as emotional regulation
The unpleasant or unwanted emotions you experience in daily life can pop up in your dreams, too.
Anxiety, guilt, sadness, or fear can quickly get overwhelming. But some experts have theorized that navigating these feelings in dreamland can help you begin resolving these feelings without all the stress.
Wondering how that might work? Well, when you dream during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep, the parts of the brain that help regulate emotion and memory are active.
What’s not active is the chemical messenger
Your brain doesn’t completely shut down when you go to sleep. Instead, it uses this time to carry out important processes, including transferring short-term memories into long-term storage.
As you sleep, your brain also takes out the trash, in a manner of speaking, by getting rid of all the leftover, unnecessary information.
As your unconscious brain focuses on processing memories, activity in your conscious brain slows way down.
According to the continual-activation theory, this prompts your brain to send a flow of data from memory storage into the conscious brain. You can think of this data — aka your dreams — as a sort of screensaver keeping the conscious part of your brain up and running, despite the lack of actual activity.
Common themes and their potential meanings
No matter what scientific theories might suggest, people around the world have long believed in the significance of dreams and attempted to guess their meanings.
Dreams may seem so intriguing in part because they’re not fully understood. But certain dreams show up so often across generations and cultures that many people believe these common themes suggest that dreams do, in fact, have significance.
Here are some common dream themes, plus possible interpretations:
|A dream about||Could mean|
|cheating on your partner||you’re having a hard time getting your needs met in the relationship, or you feel trapped in another area of your life|
|your partner cheating||you feel afraid of losing your partner or rejection in another area of life|
|failing a test||you’re facing some stress that you don’t feel ready to handle|
|being naked or experiencing other public embarrassment||you feel vulnerable and worry other people will notice your flaws|
|discovering money or treasure||you feel confident, worthy, and good about yourself|
|missing your bus or train||your everyday life leaves you frustrated and you believe you’re lacking something important|
|losing your teeth||you’re worried about aging, or you have insecurities around how other people perceive you|
|finding new rooms||you’re discovering new abilities, interests, or future possibilities for yourself|
|falling||you feel unsupported by loved ones, or as if you’re losing control over some aspect of your life|
|dying||you’re facing some unwelcome changes or you have some uncertainties about the future|
Ready to dig a little deeper into your dreams? These strategies can help.
Make sure you’re getting quality sleep
Remembering your dreams is an important part of deciphering them.
As you drift off to sleep, try repeating to yourself, “I’m going to dream vividly, and I’m going to remember those dreams when I wake up.”
Review the dream
When you wake up from a dream, your first instinct might be to reach for your dream journal. Instead, lie still for a moment and let the dream really marinate.
As you let each scene that comes to you unfold, try to open your awareness to any thoughts or feelings you experienced during the dream.
As you think back over the events of the dream, pay attention to any small details that stand out. They might seem minor in the light of day, but it’s very possible they had more significance in your dream.
Write it down
Once you’ve taken yourself through the dream, grab a notebook and write down everything you can remember. As you write, you might remember more key details that help shape the dream narrative.
Jot down everything you can think of — even if you aren’t sure exactly what happened. You might write, for example, “Wandering through forest alone, searching for someone or something. Not sure, but I felt lost and lonely.”
Keep track of details, like:
- colors and sounds
- other people in the dream
- anything you said or heard someone else say
- buildings or places you visited
- moods and feelings
- key objects in the dream, like cars, weapons, tools, or books
Keep a notebook and small lamp on your nightstand to make this process easier, especially if you tend to wake up in the middle of the night.
Even getting out of bed to find some paper can end up jarring fragments of the dream from your mind.
Make connections to your own life
Books that offer dream interpretations can be helpful, but you’ll often gain more insight by examining the dream from the unique lens of your experiences.
People have plenty of things to say about their own dreams, but someone else’s meaning might not hold true for you.
Maybe you dream about a rabbit eating grass in the park. At first, this might seem like a simple, even somewhat boring dream. But, when you dig a little deeper, you remember feeling happy and peaceful in the dream, and that you wanted a pet rabbit as a child.
Connecting these facts to your everyday life, you might conclude that spending time outside felt good and decide to visit the park more often. You also realize you’d enjoy having a pet in your life.
No one knows for certain what purpose dreams serve. But, at the end of the day, their true function might not really matter.
If you find them meaningful, then they have value to you.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.