What’s in a Dream?

Susan Devaney

5 min read

How many times have you woken up in a hot sweat or scratched your head as you recount an extremely vivid dream, and wondered what it meant? It may be your subconscious trying to tell you something...  

A recurring dream is like someone repeatedly shouting your own name until it gets your attention and you attend to something important in your waking life.

Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier has one of the most memorable and highly acclaimed opening lines of any fictional novel. Immediately, we enter her dreamy world and we’re captivated. It’s this prospect of the unknown that draws us in, because we all still don’t understand our own dreams. 

Ever since Sigmund Freud published his controversial theories about the meaning of dreams in 1900, we’ve been tossing and turning about what our dreams are trying to tell us, if anything at all. Freud was convinced that they represented some of our unfulfilled desires or hopeful wishes, but is that really the case and are we any further forward in reaching an answer today? “Nobody knows the answer to that question,” says Patrick McNamara, a neurologist at Boston University School of Medicine and the graduate school of Northcentral University in Prescott Valley in Arizona. “Dream content has some clear regularities. We know, for example, that whenever male strangers occur in a dream, physical aggression against the dreamer will occur. So, dreams appear to have a kind of code, but we are only beginning to unlock that dream code.” 

It’s this concept of trying to decipher some kind of code that keeps pushing us to interpret our dreams. The famous Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist, Carl Jung, analysed over 20,000 dreams during his lifetime, and theorised that dreams were the key to understanding the psyche. He famously said: “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life, and you will call it fate.” Could our dreams be a combination of signs and symbols with meaning? “Some people say that they never dream, but the reality is that they just don’t remember their dreams,” says Ian Wallace, a psychologist, who specialises in dreams and is the author of ‘The Top 100 Dreams’. “Even though it may seem a challenge to remember your dreams, all you have to do is remember three words: Will, still and fill. When you lay your head on your pillow to go to sleep, say to yourself, ‘Tonight, I will remember my dreams.’ When you wake up, lay completely still for a minute. Don’t move, don’t look at the time and don’t even wiggle your toes. By staying still, images and emotions that you have created in your dreams will emerge for you. Then, all you have to do is fill in the gaps between the images from the dreams that you have created and your dream story will begin to appear.”

Putting together the pieces and trying to build a story or pattern from our dreams has resulted in two major developments in dream research – big data and brain imaging. Detailed snapshots of our brains and researchers using sleep labs to gather information have led to the discovery that there is a more significant link between dreams and meanings. Scientists have learned a lot about the physiological process of dreaming, which occurs during our REM sleep. “A form of sleep where we have vivid dreams – l last for about a half hour to 45 minutes, so the longest dream can last up that much. REM sleep occurs up to 4-5 times per night,” explains Patrick. The kinds of cognitions we tend to experience whilst we dream are usually highly emotional, visually vivid and probably illogical. “Our dreams are one of the fundamental neurological processes that we use to make sense of the world,” says Ian. “Although your dreams may seem like a stream of random imagery that makes absolutely no sense, you are just expressing yourself in a different and far more creative way. To understand why you are dreaming a particular dream, all you have to do is work with the imagery and emotion that you have experienced in the dream.” 

Every night, around the world, people will experience a similar dream to someone else. From our teeth falling out and being pregnant to being chased by a stranger, we’ve all shared a common dream – but why? “Nobody knows the answer to this question,” says Patrick. “There may be a dream code wherein certain images express certain universal meanings. The dream code would be rooted in human biological realities; for example, REM sleep is associated with atonia (muscular weakness) or paralysis in multiple muscle groups. This paralysis gives rise to sensations throughout the body that is interpreted by the dreaming mind as experiences like flying/floating, teeth falling out, etc.” Up until recently, researchers have been working on relatively small samples of dream accounts. But, new websites and mobile apps (such as DreamBoard or Dreamscloud) are encouraging people to share their dreams, in turn allowing scientists to analyse dreams and move a step closer to concluding research. 

Reccurring dreams are also an element of dreaming that we’ve all experienced. Trying to figure out why something or someone keeps appearing in your dream night after night can be exhausting, but should we pay any attention to our reccurring dreams? “Our dreams are the language of our unconscious selves and when we create a dream, we use it as a way of expressing a vital part of our awareness that we may have difficulty in articulating in waking life,” explains Ian. “If you do not resolve a waking life tension by working with the imagery from the dream that you use to express it, then you will keep sending yourself that message again and again in your dreams until you take action to resolve it positively and healthily. A recurring dream is like someone repeatedly shouting your own name until it gets your attention and you attend to something important in your waking life.” Some scientists believe dreams serve to help our brains process emotional memories and integrate them into our long- term memories. “It is important to figure out the meaning of a recurring theme dream,” says Layne Dalfen, a dream analyst. “… the mere fact that it repeats is the indication that your subconscious is trying to call your attention to solving the problem!” In our dreams, we may try out various scenarios to deal with what’s coming up in our life – for example, an important work meeting, giving birth, etc. “Understanding the meaning of a particular dream theme enables you to apply that awareness to a specific situation in your waking life,” says Ian. 

There’s no doubt that our conscious and our subconscious play major roles in our dream patterns (something that shrinks and psychologists have long proclaimed). What’s been discovered thus far suggests that current scientific research reveals an enormous amount about what role dreams play in our lives, and how vitally important they are for biological, psychological or social reasons. As scientists continue to research the processes, meanings and biological reasoning behind our dreams, we know that reflecting on our dreams is useful and can give us a great insight into ourselves.