In ancient times, people saw dreams as vessels of meaning that contained divine messages and had the power to alter history.
Alexander the Great was on the verge of breaking ground for his new city when a gray-haired man appeared to him in a dream. The man told him about an island off the coast of Egypt. When Alexander awoke, he scrapped the building site and instead found an island on which to construct Alexandria.
Today people still look for meaning in their dreams. Though our methods of interpreting dreams have changed since Alexander’s day, our desire to understand them is much the same.
In this article, we’ll explore more modern ways of interpreting dreams and go over what nine common dreams might mean.
Dreams are sensory experiences that happen while you’re sleeping. In a dream, you see images, hear sounds, and feel physical sensations. You may or may not remember your dreams when you wake up.
Researchers think people dream for several reasons, discussed below.
May help process emotional life experiences
First, dreams may help you deal with the emotions you’ve experienced in your life. Brain scans indicate that the same areas of your brain are active both when you’re dreaming and when you’re dealing with extremely emotional events.
May provide practice response scenarios
It’s also possible that dreams help you practice how to respond to threatening scenarios in real life. In this way, dreaming may offer you a fight-or-flight training ground.
May help sort information collected during the day
Your brain might also use your dreams to sort through information you’ve gathered during the day, deciding which information is important enough to store in your long-term memory and which you can
May serve psychological purposes, such as revealing subconscious feelings
Some researchers think dreams may serve psychological purposes in addition to biological ones. For example, they might represent feelings or desires you haven’t acknowledged in your waking life.
For more than a century, psychologists have attempted to create frameworks that can explain the meaning behind dreams — from the wildest to the most mundane.
Dream researchers believe they do. Beginning over 100 years ago with the work of Sigmund Freud, psychologists have studied dreams to try to understand what they mean to dreamers.
In 1899, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud published his groundbreaking text “The Interpretation of Dreams.” In it, he proposed that dreams express the unfulfilled wishes of the dreamer’s daily life.
Freud suggested that dreams are made up of two kinds of information:
- manifest content (what actually shows up in your dream)
- latent content (the deep symbolic meaning of your dream)
In Freudian dreamwork, an analyst encourages a dreamer to find the hidden meaning behind their dream through a process called free association.
With free association, you speak openly about everything that might relate to the images and events in your dream. Through this process, you can reveal the deeper wishes that may be hidden in your subconscious mind.
Like Freud, Jung thought dreams were rooted in the unconscious mind and could help heal the dreamer if understood properly.
Jung suggested that dreams reveal the ways an individual has fallen out of balance. In Jungian dream analysis, every aspect of your dream represents something in your psyche.
So, the dream is an effort to communicate with yourself about the things holding you back from becoming a whole and fully developed individual.
Co-creative dream theory
Much of modern dream research focuses on the way you respond to a dream’s content both within the dream and when you’re awake. Researchers have called this method of analysis the co-creative dream theory.
The basic idea is that a dream’s meaning doesn’t come from the images in the dream. Instead, you create the meaning by analyzing how you responded to events in the dream.
Here’s a basic example: In co-creative dreamwork, you share with a therapist how your dream ego felt at the beginning of the dream. Your “dream ego” just refers to the version of you that appears in the dream.
You and your therapist outline the basic plot of your dream but leave out any names, places, and details. Then, you examine how your dream ego felt in response to the dream’s events.
You ask questions like “How did I respond when I felt threatened in the dream?” and “How did the dream images change based on my feelings and actions?”
Finally, you and your therapist explore whether you’re using similar responses and strategies — successfully or unsuccessfully — in real life.
You can use the methods and principles of dream research to help you analyze your dreams. Some require you to share your dreams in a group therapy setting or with a psychotherapist.
Let’s take a brief look at a couple of these approaches.
Ullman’s dream appreciation model
Montague Ullman founded a dream lab at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York. His approach to dream analysis is called dream appreciation.
The basic steps of dream appreciation are:
- You write down your dream, then read it aloud to a group.
- The people in the group discuss your dream, exploring the emotions they might feel if they experienced your dream.
- You respond and discuss the real-life context of the dream.
- Someone reads your dream back to you, giving you a chance to add more details.
- The people in your group suggest connections between your life and your dream.
Ullman theorized that one of the purposes of a dream is to give you insights that can help you become truer to yourself in real life.
Hill’s exploration-insight-action model
Clara Hill, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, has written 14 books on psychotherapy, including several on dreamwork. Her model for interpreting dreams pairs the dreamer with a therapist.
The primary steps of the exploration-insight-action process are:
- You explain your dream to your therapist, and together you explore key images in the dream. You also discuss the feelings your dream evoked.
- You and your therapist gather insights based on the content of your dream.
- Your therapist helps you identify how you might change your dream if you had the power to alter it.
- Based on the changes you would make to your dream, you consider how you might make similar shifts in your life.
Hill’s interpretation model aims to make cognitive behavioral changes in the dreamer’s life — an action plan based on the information supplied by the dream.
Analyzing dreams on your own
You can use these frameworks as a guide for interpreting dreams on your own. Here are some ways you could apply well-researched principles to your dreams.
Note: Keep pen and paper by your bedside so you can write down your dreams as soon as you wake up.
Certain themes pop up over and over again in dreams. There isn’t much research to explain why these themes are so widespread. But theories about what they mean tend to focus on several common interpretations.
Here’s a brief list of dreams that many people experience, along with how they’re often interpreted in popular culture.
If you feel happy about flying in your dream, one typical interpretation is that you’re feeling a sense of freedom. This might be because you’ve risen above something in your life.
Feeling anxious about the flight, on the other hand, might be connected to your need to escape from something in your life.
Being naked in public
One popular interpretation of finding yourself naked in public in a dream is that something in your life has left you feeling more exposed or vulnerable than you’d like.
Teeth falling out
Freud viewed this image as having to do with a loss of power. But over time, people have broadened its meaning to include a loss of any kind.
This is among the most common nightmares that people experience. One popular explanation is that you’re afraid of something or someone in your life, and you want to get away from it rather than confront it directly.
Some dream analysts say that these dreams largely relate to feeling dissatisfied with some aspect of your life or relationship. It’s also possible that this theme represents unresolved issues you have from a previous infidelity.
Being late to an exam
Variants of this test-anxiety dream include discovering that an exam is in another language or that you meant to drop a course but never did. It’s thought that image is related to feeling like you aren’t meeting expectations in some area of your life.
If you’re pregnant or giving birth in a dream, it might reflect an area of your life where you’re experiencing new developments, possibilities, or growth. People often have this dream when they’re on the cusp of an achievement or milestone.
Being visited by someone who has died
Visitation dreams can be powerful because the encounters often feel very real. Some people believe these dreams are one of the ways your subconscious mind helps you process the loss of someone you love or someone with whom you need closure.
Being paralyzed or unable to talk
This dream is different than others. Sleep researchers have discovered a phenomenon known as REM atonia — a brief period during REM sleep when your body is paralyzed and can’t move.
Researchers think that when you wake up before that stage of REM sleep is complete, your mind can sense that your body is unable to move. In the moments between sleep and wakefulness, it may feel as though you’re just dreaming it.
People are fascinated by dreams. That’s why we have such a long history of designing frameworks to explain and interpret them.
Freud pioneered this body of research. Later, Jung expanded dream theory with his own ideas. Modern co-creative dream theories consider how you respond to dream imagery and how you can use that information to guide your waking life.
If you want to explore the meaning of your dreams, you can work with a therapist who specializes in dreamwork. You can also try group therapy to get the benefit of other people’s reactions to your dreams.
Or you can explore your dreams by yourself, using well-researched frameworks and the pages of your own journal.