Have you ever had dreams that seemed special, significant, or hyper-real? What about having the same dream over and over? If so, you are likely one of many who have asked, “what are my dreams trying to tell me?”
Why do we dream?
The phenomenon of dreaming has mystified humanity since pre-history, and theories of what they meant ranged from veiled messages from various deities to glimpses into the spirit world. While we have not technically been able to rule these theories out, modern technology has allowed scientists to develop several evidence-based theories about the function of dreaming.
- Synaptic regulation. Scientists estimate that the average person living today processes as much as 74 gigabytes (GB) of information a day. That’s 10 more GB of raw data than what an iPhone 4S/5 (64 GB) could store being processed by our brain every single day. That’s a lot of data. Researchers have proposed that dreaming might be the byproduct of “mental housekeeping,” when the brain is busy sorting through the immense amount of data taken in from the day to decide which to keep and which to throw away.
- Emotion regulation. Dreams are heavily influenced by real-life memories and scientists believe they contribute to emotional processing and regulation. What we see in our dreams can reflect or symbolize situations and/or issues in our waking lives. Dreams can also be emotional experiences of what could happen, for better or for worse. Many of these are essentially worst-case scenarios being played out. I’m looking at you, I-forgot-to-wear-clothes-to-school-again dream.
- Memory consolidation and learning. Dreaming allows our brains to remember what’s important and prepares our minds for future learning. According to a study at Harvard Medical School, dreaming allows the brain to make connections between new information and past experiences. This helps us to better remember what we have recently learned and connect it to relevant information stored in our memory bank.
Are all dreams important?
Dreams often act as windows into the unconscious mind, displaying our innermost thoughts and emotions. This window can be difficult to see through, however, given that dreams are typically not as clear or concise as our conscious, waking thoughts. This is because the unconscious mind does not bother itself with pesky things like time, logic, or the laws of physics. Dreams are interpretations of our experiences as the mind attempts to make sense of the world and how we fit into it. When we are able to connect the emotions, symbols, or patterns in a dream to aspects of our real-life experiences, we gain insight into what we’re processing.
While dreaming is an essential function of the brain, not all dream content is profound. For example, many individuals report having dreams featuring content from shows they had been binging or about people they recently saw. Dreams like these demonstrate the memory consolidation function of dreaming. So, while these dreams may be a loose interpretation of recent events, they do not necessarily convey a deeper meaning.
When we dream, the unconscious mind makes all kinds of seemingly random connections that don’t make sense to the conscious mind upon waking. To help us sort through all that wacky dream content, documenting what we can remember in a dream journal is incredibly helpful. Here are some tips on dream journaling:
- As soon as you wake up, write it down.
- Dreams are most often forgotten, and for a good reason. If the brain were to encode the memories of our dreams in the same way it encodes our waking memories, things would get very confusing very fast. This is why we typically remember our dreams for only a few moments after waking. This short window is when we are able to record our dreams before they slip away. Keep a journal by your bed or use voice-to-text note-taking on your phone if your eyes haven’t quite adjusted to daylight yet.
- All data is valuable.
- Don’t skimp on the details. Anything you can remember about the location, environment, smells, sounds, emotional context, and featured characters (human or otherwise) are all valuable bits of information. Recording these details allows us to better see patterns within our dreams with continued documentation.
- Identify patterns, themes, and symbols.
- Look for patterns or themes. For example, did dream-me forget something again? Even if the setting of one dream was on a space station and the other was a memory from childhood, the theme might have been similar.
- Identify the emotions. The emotions experienced by the dreamer can add a lot of meaning to our dreams. Was the dreamer stressed? Angry? Panicked? Calm because they knew everything would be okay? Identifying the emotions experienced during the dream is crucial for understanding its context.
- What symbols are we noticing? Symbols in dreams are images, items, or places that feel significant to the dreamer. Symbols can be abstract like a purple sky or concrete like a broken phone. When you notice symbols popping up (especially more than once), pay attention. Those symbols likely contribute to the dream’s message.
- Take dream dictionaries with a grain of salt. There are many resources out there about interpreting dreams. While some of these resources may be helpful, none are specialized to the individual dreamer. Our inner world is of our own creation and a “blue bird,” for example, to one dreamer may mean something completely different to another.
- Make the connections.
- Let’s expand on the forgetfulness dream above as an example and assume that the dreamer felt stressed, compounded by their phone being broken and being unable to call for help. We could interpret that dream’s meaning as a pattern of struggling with forgetfulness-based anxiety, lack of confidence in our ability to manage crises, or perhaps feeling like we are unable to handle a current role or responsibility and can’t ask anyone for help. Alternatively, if the dreamer was calm, this could mean that regardless of the craziness life throws at them, they know that their supports have their back no matter what.
- Trust your intuition.
- When interpreting a dream, how would we know if we interpreted it correctly? The answer: trust your intuition. If your interpretation doesn’t quite feel right, continue to explore other possibilities. You can also bounce ideas off others to gain alternative perspectives if you’re feeling stuck. When your conscious mind connects with what the unconscious has been wrestling with, you’ll feel it “click.”
Analyzing our dreams can provide insight into how we view different issues in our lives and even help us to better understand our underlying goals or anxieties. By effectively interpreting our dreams, we gain a better understanding of ourselves and our inner world. Sweet dreams!