The meaning of dreaming

Kathryn Wheeler
By Kathryn Wheeler,
updated on Oct 21, 2022

The meaning of dreaming

Teeth falling out your mouth and stumbling walks... what can our dreams tell us about ourselves? And how can we learn to interpret them?

Humans have been searching for the meaning of dreams for a very, very long time. In fact, the Babylonian Dream Tablet offers a series of dream interpretations – including “If he carries beer in the street his heart will be glad. If he carries water in the street his sins will be forgiven” – and dates all the way back to about the 15th century B.C. Beyond that, dreams appear in everything from myths to religious texts, literature, art, and psychology, as for millennia people have tried to figure out what our nighttime creations were trying to tell us.

The latest science has some theories. In a 2021 study by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, results found that 53.5% of dreams were traced back to a memory, and nearly 50% of reports with a memory source were connected to multiple past experiences. What’s more, the study also found that 25.7% of dreams were related to specific impending events, and 37.4% of dreams about the future were also related to one or more memories of past experiences.

With that in mind, what can these dreams tell us about ourselves, and our wellbeing? Here are some clues…

A window to our minds

“I believe dreams offer us a little window into the mysteries of the psyche and subconscious mind,” says Rhian Kivits, a psychodynamic therapist and sex and relationship expert. “What’s normally unseen is able to be seen, in such a fascinating and vibrant way. I believe that when we remember our dreams, there may be something powerful to be learned from their signs and symbols through dream analysis. Perhaps a wise inner part of ourselves is speaking? If this is the case, it feels important to me to listen.”

Rhian points to how our dreams can help us to process things, something that tends to occur in REM sleep, where we have our most vivid dreams. During this time, the region of the brain responsible for functions including self-awareness, inhibition, and emotional control – known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – closes down. The result is a period of time where our emotions can be explored without boundaries.

“I believe dreams help us work through and organise information about past memories and present situations that we may not have the capacity to consciously or fully process in our busy, waking lives,” Rhian explains.

“Since they can be highly detailed, colourful, and packed with emotion, dreams can make an intense impression upon us. I’ve certainly noticed that I can relate aspects of my own dreams to dilemmas in my life in an extremely helpful way. Although science can’t confirm exactly why we dream or what our dreams mean, clients who share my belief that dreams have meaning find dream analysis supportive.”


Catch feelings

When it comes to dream interpretation, there’s no rule book that can tell you a definitive answer. Instead, Rhian suggests that you should consider the feeling of the dream, and what that might tell you about your current wellbeing.

“For example, if you feel happy and excited during the dream, then I believe it could be offering a positive message of hope and expectation,” she says. “If you feel desperate and sad, perhaps you’re processing anxiety or something heavy.”

Consider a dream about your teeth falling out. It’s a common dream – in fact, according to a study published in Frontiers in Psychology, 39% of the population have had it. It’s unlikely that all those people are about to go through the same, very specific thing (for example, you’re about to ‘reach a turning point in your life’, as dream dictionaries might claim), and more likely to be that our teeth falling out is an unpleasant experience in our society, and the image is triggered by real life anxiety.

Journaling is a great way to tune-in to this kind of dream interpretation. Over time, you might be able to pick up on themes in your dreams – do particular dreams, for example, tend to crop up when you’re going through periods of anxiety? What can the feelings of your dreams tell you about you? Do you dream of situations where you respond in a certain way, and what does that tell you about the real, waking life you?


Up for interpretation

“I believe that we each know ourselves far better than anyone else ever could, and that the signs and symbols in our dreams are highly personal and unique,” says Rhian, when we ask her for tips on making sense of your dreams. “So, the first piece of advice I’d offer is to trust your own interpretations rather than rely on the internet or books.

“Keeping a dream diary next to your bed can be useful, so that you can make a note of your dreams as soon as you wake up, because your memories can fade and you can forget important details once you’ve started the day.

“You don’t have to write out a long narrative of each dream – you could mind map, draw images, or simply list out a few key words to remind you of the content of the dream.”

Rhian adds that you can also make a note of a few key questions, like: how did this dream make me feel? What were the most prominent features? Who were the main players? What could I see, hear, smell, taste, or touch in this dream, and what was my response? And can I relate this dream to something specific in my past or present?

“I believe we often see metaphorical information in our dreams,” she continues. “Just say, for example, a significant person appears in your dream. It may not be that the dream is telling you something about this specific person, but it may be more about what they represent to you. You might dream about making more sales than a colleague at work, but rather than the dream being literal or predictive, perhaps you’re exploring your competitive nature or processing some stress related to how hard you’ve been working recently.”

At this point, Rhian dishes out a warning not to take our dreams too literally. We really don’t have all the answers when it comes to what our dreams may or may not be telling us, and we should try not to let them intrude on our waking lives. For example, if you dream about your partner being unfaithful, when all the while they were sleeping soundly next to you, try not to give them the cold shoulder in the morning. Noting the dream down in a dream journal and questioning why it might have cropped up, and how it makes you feel, is a much more productive avenue.

Dream on

The inside of your mind is a complex place, and so it makes sense that the answers to its deepest mysteries aren’t something you can read off a list someone else has made. Our dreams are a deeply personal thing, no one theory or interpretation will apply to all of us. But, on a mission to untangle our nighttime sojourns, we could uncover a whole lot more about our wellbeing, our character, and the people we are when we’re wide awake.

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