Dream interpretation was important for healing and problem solving in primitive and ancient cultures all over the world (Aztec, Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Hindu, Chinese, etc.). Some of the earliest books, on cuneiform clay tablets in Assyria, were guides to dream interpretation. It played an important role in Christianity until Thomas Aquinas emphasized reason in the 1200s. Even today, many people in India, Greece, Lebanon, and some North African countries perform rituals requesting dreams for advice or healing and pay for dream interpretations or advice on healing rituals suggested by dreams.
Dreams sometimes lead to scientific discoveries or masterpieces of creativity. Albert Einstein considered his whole career and his theory of relativity to relate to a strikingly beautiful dream during adolescence about sledding faster and faster until the stars distorted into a dazzling array of patterns and colors. Elias Howe had been trying unsuccessfully to design a sewing machine until he had a nightmare. When he woke up, he realized the spears used against him by hostile tribesmen in the dream, like the design of the needles needed by the sewing machine, had holes near their points. The chemist Friedrich August von Kekule struggled for years with the structure of aromatic carbon compounds until he dreamt of atoms whirling in a circle and discovered their molecular ring structure, revolutionizing organic chemistry. Dreams helped Nobel prize winners Niels Bohr to realize electrons in an atom must follow specific, fixed paths and Otto Loewi to discover the nervous system uses chemicals to transmit information to and from the brain. People reported Benjamin Franklin found answers to difficult problems in his dreams.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote his masterpiece poem “Kubla Khan” by describing a sequence of magnificent visions in a dream, and dreams inspired John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Robert Louis Stevenson often based his adventure stories on dreams, sometimes even dreaming successive installments night after night. His most famous story based on a dream was The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The painter Francisco Goya had many nightmares and sometimes based his paintings on them.
You can reduce the frequency of a recurring nightmare or eliminate it in the following way. First create a new dream based on it, changing the action before it gets bad. If a large dog growls and runs toward you in the dark, make the street suddenly brighten with plenty of lights and the owner call the dog and befriend you, so you end up petting and playing with the dog. Each night in bed, practice deep relaxation techniques and then visualize the new dream. With enough practice, the nightmare will probably end the new way and bother you less often or stop bothering you.
There have been many systems of dream interpretation in psychology and throughout history, but most psychologists today prefer a flexible approach that allows people to find their own meanings in their dreams. This flexible approach to dreams combines the insights of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Frederick (Fritz) Perls.
Collect your dreams as soon as you wake. If you don’t, you will quickly forget most of the details. Even talking to someone for just one minute will interfere with your ability to remember details, unless you describe the dream to the other person. Keep a tape recorder or a notebook with a pen or pencil right next to your bed and immediately record any dreams every time you wake up. To avoid disturbing other people at night, you may want to write your dream on paper in the dark and copy it in better form later. Write your dream in the present tense to keep it fresh and powerful. For example, use “I ran …”, not “I was running …”.
Many psychologists believe repetitive dreams may be repeated messages from the inner self about a personal problem that persists, either because you don’t recognize it or because you refuse to change. And many psychologists believe strikingly beautiful or very emotional dreams (happy, upsetting, etc.) may hold important messages for you. Even if dreams don’t carry important symbolic messages about conflicts, these kinds of dreams are ideal for personal exploration because they are interesting.
Begin your work on any dream by looking for similarities between the events, feelings, people, or behaviors in the dream and those in your real life. Consider each of these areas one at a time. What conflicts occur in the dream? Do they remind you of any in your past or present life? For example, a violent attack on you in a dream might symbolize the vicious lie someone recently told about you. Do any of the events or feelings in the dream remind you of other situations in your past or present life? Dreams of threatening forces chasing you, perhaps accompanied by paralysis or an inability to run away, may relate to unresolved fears.
Dreams about people you know may tell you about that person or your relationship. For example, dreaming a friend tells a lie or a loved one hurts you may help you realize the person is untrustworthy. Perhaps dreams informing you of such things result from clues in your life you had not particularly noticed. People in your dreams can also symbolize other people in your life or even parts of yourself, however. Do any of the people in the dream remind you of other people in your life? Do any of the people in the dream remind you of parts of your own personality? Do any of the behaviors in the dream remind you of things you or other people in your life have done?
In the following dream, one person obviously symbolizes another. While out of town on a long business trip, a man learned that a close friend back home had suddenly died. Soon he had a dream in which his best friend in adolescence had died and in which he was crying and sympathizing with the upset family of the deceased. Although the friend who suddenly died had no family left, this dream accurately portrayed the sharing of feelings among friends he felt he had missed by being out of town during the funeral.
Dreams often relate to recent events. Watching a horror movie may cause a nightmare, or a dream may relate to the day’s events. Emotions in a dream may parallel emotions in your recent life. Keep striking events from your day in mind when analyzing your dreams. Think about recent arguments, troubling experiences, problems with authority figures, etc.
Most dreams don’t relate so clearly to people in your life, recent events, or personal conflicts, however. You will often have to decipher the meaning of the dream images as if they were a lost language. Dreams often have several levels of meaning. One symbol, element, or part of a dream may represent two different ideas or two people in two completely different meanings. Consider the previous dream about the death of a man’s best friend in adolescence. Besides the meaning noted above, if this man also felt the closeness in the dream was greater than any closeness or sharing in his life today, he might decide the dream also serves as a graphic reminder he shouldn’t wait for a calamity to express love and share feelings with his loved ones. In this case, the close sharing with the family of the deceased in the dream has two separate meanings for him.
Explore your dreams with free association, too. In this technique, you picture a dream element and let your thoughts and feelings wander freely onto other ideas or feelings that you associate with the dream element. Free association to dream elements often tells you the subject matter of the dream. For example, a woman had a dream about a series of problems in trying to find a mansion she had seen. Her free association to the mansion in her dream resulted in the following series of ideas: a fine home filled with art treasures, a home for my soul filled with beauty and love, Michael. This free association quickly showed the mansion symbolized her deceased husband. She decides, then, the dream symbolizes the troubles she has experienced in trying to find a new husband.
You can also find the meaning of dream elements by making a list of their characteristics and seeing what this list reminds you of. For example, a man dreamt about eating a peach with a kitten’s face on the skin of the peach. The kitten smiled and felt happy about his eating it. Here is his list of characteristics for a kitten: independent, soft, warm, playful, and intelligent. Here is his list of characteristics for a peach: wet, juicy, tangy, soft, round, and delicious. These two lists together reminded him of his girlfriend and told him the kitten and peach symbolized his girlfriend.
Once you find what you feel is the subject of a dream using similarities between the dream and your real life, free association, or lists of characteristics, study the rest of the dream with these techniques for further understanding. Other episodes in the dream or other dreams may add further dimensions to the basic feelings, ideas, or conflicts you are exploring. For example, the woman’s dream about a series of problems finding a mansion included various episodes that she could explore with free association. One seemingly unimportant dream segment involved her landlord painting one of her chairs white to brighten her apartment. She stopped him and wiped the wet paint off the chair because she preferred the natural wood. Remembering that an old friend gave her the chair, she concluded the chair symbolized Ron, a regular date who reminded her of the old friend in certain ways. The landlord’s attempt to brighten her apartment reminded her Ron truly did brighten her life, but the unacceptable white paint emphasized her feelings Ron’s lifestyle didn’t fit her own. Thinking over these feelings, she decided she should clearly define her relationship with Ron as just a friendship and not a romance. Removing the white paint in the dream symbolized removing the romance from the relationship.
Dialoguing also helps in exploring dreams. You might ask a dream element who or what it symbolizes, why it occurs or acts the way it does, or what it means. You might ask the whole dream what it means, says, or wants you to change or do. You can ask questions of feelings from dreams, allow dream elements or parts to speak to you, allow two dream elements or parts to argue with one another, two people in the dream to discuss issues with one another, or body parts or body tension in the dream to talk. Use “I” and the present tense to identify with the dream part that speaks. Imagine how the dream elements might feel or think, and create an argument between them. Be silly and experiment! Don’t try to be logical. Sometimes by letting go and being silly and spontaneous, you can tap real feelings or issues that you normally don’t pay attention to or normally hide or bury.
Exaggerate and magnify views or emotions you find in each part of the dialogue. Do these parts remind you of parts of yourself? If so, dialogue with the parts of yourself to explore the conflict. Experiment with the opposite side of each view or emotion. Is this a neglected or buried part of yourself? Whenever a dialogue reminds you of any other feeling, issue, situation, or person in your past or present life, you can switch to a new dialogue based on that, dialoguing for hours on one dream.
Ideally, you should use all the above techniques and work with many of your dreams. Feel free to switch around among the various techniques. Be sure to switch to another technique when your work seems fruitless. Working with a variety of dreams opens many more possibilities for personal exploration than does working with one or a few dreams. Even when working on only one problem issue in your life, various dreams help you see more facets of the issue, so working with a whole series of dreams helps you see the situation more completely. Feel free to occasionally spend days working on one particularly interesting dream with a variety of techniques. Dreams can hold many levels of meanings and you can study one dream to explore many different personal issues, one at a time.
You are the final judge of whether any dream interpretation is correct or helpful. Correct dream interpretations promote growth and feel relevant to your life, meaningful, helpful, and alive. Incorrect dream interpretations feel boring, doubtful, meaningless, pointless, and dead. If your dream work feels difficult or frustrating, you may be struggling with the burden of an incorrect dream interpretation or you may be tackling important personal issues you need to face. If you then interpret the dream correctly, however, the dream work will feel relevant, important, striking, or alive.
Dreams may directly reflect your personality and issues in your life. Teenagers may dream about dating problems, college students who work very hard for good grades may dream about problems in preparing for class tests, and sexually promiscuous people may dream about flirting and sex. Dreams can also compensate for things that are missing or buried in your personality. For example, people with few sexual feelings in real life may dream about sex, or unassertive people who try too hard to always show kindness may dream about mean acts or acts of aggression.
We can easily see when dreams directly reflect our own personalities, but most people find it difficult to recognize and admit when dreams vent buried impulses. Consider both possibilities. Ask yourself if you might neglect or bury emotions or behaviors that come out in you or others in your dreams. If so, you may need to incorporate the neglected or buried parts of yourself in socially acceptable ways in your waking life.
Dreams about people we don’t know or don’t know well or people from the past we don’t keep in touch with any more, usually symbolize parts of ourselves, other people in our lives, strangers, authority figures, lifestyles, or principles. Dreams about people we were very close to a long time ago often symbolize parts of ourselves that are like that person. Dreams about anonymous children may symbolize playful or growing parts of ourselves or parts that need development or remain stuck with childhood conflicts. Dreams about dead people or people from the past sometimes identify unfinished feelings or issues concerning those people that need further work and exploration.
Most animals in dreams are symbolic, except for dreams about animals that play an important role in your present life. The wilderness may represent your instincts or natural, animal self. Houses and rooms in dreams often symbolize your inner mental world, personality, marriage, or interpersonal relationships. The front yard may be your public self and the back yard may be the deeper, hidden parts of you. Vehicles (cars, trucks, trains, etc.) often symbolize the direction and energy in your life, or perhaps the direction in which a relationship is going. For example, problems in dreams such as a truck going out of control or a car or train accident may indicate problems in your goals, behaviors, feelings, or relationships.
Review all your dreams occasionally, looking for subjects, feelings, or conflicts that occur repeatedly, for patterns, and for change and development. Compiling lists of symbolic meanings from dreams can help you keep track of your own personal dream symbols and how they evolve. Devote one page to each important symbol or action in your dreams. Every time the symbol or action appears in your dreams, add another note to the page listing the date and describing the meaning of the symbol in that dream. You may want to create paintings or drawings based on dreams.