What Does My Dream Mean?

Do dreams mean anything at all?

There has been much research and debate on this topic, and the official party line of the field of psychology is still "er..we don't really know".  But, let me present to you these facts:

  1. Neurons (brain cells) fire during sleep.  So, the brain is active.
  2. Our brains are basically meaning-making machines.  It is what brains do.  The entire job of the brain is to translate the confusing mess of sights and sounds that is our sensory experience into a meaningful and coherent narrative.  
  3. When we make meaning, we do so in a way that is relevant to us personally.  This is why we see a man on the moon, not a dancing chipmunk.

So, actually, it would be pretty remarkable if dreams didn't have any meaning.  In fact, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that we continue working on the problems that are important to us during dreams; both the principle of sewing machine and the chemical structure of benzene were discovered in dreams.  Not to mention Einstein's general theory of relativity.

So, I should get a dream dictionary?

Here's the issue with a this-means-that, one to one correlation style of finding out what a given dream might mean: people are very different.  In the pursuit of meaning-making, our brains draw upon the vastness of our personal and cultural experiences.  A dream about a spider means very different things to an arachnaphobe and an ornithologist.

So, in considering the meaning a dream has for you, you might want to think about your personal associations to the symbols you find there.  One technique I often use with my therapy clients is to reduce the dream to it's most basic emotional plot line.  So, a dream about a surprise exam becomes translated into "You felt very unprepared?"  Often this sparks recognition of the relevant waking-life problem a person may be dealing with.

How Can I Learn From My Dreams?

  • Keep a dream journal by the bed.
  • If you don't have time in the morning to write an entire dream, jot down 3-5 keywords that can help you remember it later.  We lose 90% or so of a dream within the first 10 minutes of waking.
  • Think about dreams as you are falling asleep, priming yourself to dream and to remember your dreams.
  • Talk about dreams with friends, family, and even your friendly local therapist

You spend a third of your life dreaming, and you can learn so much about yourself from your dreams.  Give them the attention they deserve.

For more information about dreams and dreaming, click these links to check out another good article about the psychology of dreams,  and peruse some recent research.