People have been fascinated with the interpretation of dreams since ancient times, when they were thought to contain religious or spiritual messages. Some people and cultures maintain that perspective, but since then, countless other theories about what dreams mean have been proposed and investigated.
Today, there are hundreds of books available on how to interpret dreams. Many mental health professionals still use dream analysis in their practices. However, scientists still do not know the precise purpose dreaming serves.
Although researchers haven’t found a definitive answer about what our dreams mean, it can be fascinating to dive into current and historic ideas about dreaming and learn about the varied explanations that have been explored over the years.
Theories on Why We Dream
Experts are not sure why people dream. Throughout history, many scientists, psychologists, and anthropologists have come up with theories.
- Emotional processing: Some believe dreams help us process strong emotions. People who are stressed are more likely to have upsetting dreams. In addition, people often have recurring dreams about themes or situations that they are intensely concerned about.
- Memory formation: Parts of the brain that are in charge of memorization are active during sleep, suggesting that dreaming may play a role in memory and learning. Studies have shown that dream scenarios include fragments of memories, especially recently-learned information.
- Generalization and cognitive performance: The overfitted brain hypothesis proposes that dreams are random and strange in contrast to the repetitiveness of daily life. This contrast helps us to maintain a big-picture perspective and avoid information overload.
- No purpose: Some researchers believe that dreams do not serve any particular mental or physical purpose. Instead, they suggest that different societies have developed uses for dreams throughout history. For example, some cultures rely on dreams to predict important events.
Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud were two pioneering psychologists who studied the meaning and purpose of dreams. Each developed his own theories of why people dream and how dreams should be interpreted.
Freud’s Unconscious Mind Theory
Freud believed that individuals dream as a form of wish fulfillment. He theorized that people repress many uncomfortable desires and thoughts. Repressed ideas form what Freud called the unconscious, or a part of the mind that we are not aware of during waking life.
According to Freud, these repressed ideas reappear throughout in symbolic form through jokes, slip-ups while speaking, and dreams.
Jung’s Archetypes Theory
Jung incorporated some of Freud’s ideas into his own practices. However, Jung contributed his own dream interpretation theory centered on the concept of compensation.
He believed that dreams allow people to “compensate,” or explore complex symbols hidden in the unconscious called archetypes. The archetypes that appear in dreams indicate parts of an individual’s personality that are out of balance or underdeveloped.
The Possible Meanings Behind Common Dreams
Some researchers believe that dreams include imagery from the individual’s waking thoughts, fears, and memories but do not contain symbols that convey a deeper, hidden meaning.
There is no strong evidence to indicate that dreams contain more symbolism than other types of thought. Despite this, some mental health practitioners use dream analysis to learn more about their clients. This is because dreams may highlight memories and issues that are important to a person.
If you are interested in interpreting your dreams, it may help to focus on your own personal feelings toward the subjects and images you perceive while dreaming. Your associations with people, places, and things are uniquely yours. For this reason, broad dream interpretations may not resonate or feel accurate to you.
However, some themes do seem to appear repeatedly in many people’s dreams, and there is no shortage of ideas about what those common themes may signify.
Your Teeth Are Falling Out
Dreams about losing teeth are so common that some researchers believe they are almost universal. From Ancient Greece to the Talmud and Freud’s writings in the 20th century, people have tried interpreting dreams about losing their teeth.
Experts remain mystified about why so many people dream about their teeth rotting or falling out. A leading theory about dreaming is that they reflect events in our waking lives. However, this doesn’t widely apply to dreams about losing teeth because most individuals do not experience tooth loss on a regular basis.
Some claim that dreams about losing teeth are related to stress and emotional upset. Others suggest that these dreams may be related to dental pain or mouth irritation instead of psychological distress.
Flying or Falling
Studies indicate that more than half of people dream about flying or falling.
Flying can be a pleasant dream experience and is one sought by many lucid dreamers. A lucid dream involves being aware you are dreaming and, in some cases, attempting to control the dream narrative.
Dreams of falling frequently occur before experiencing a hypnic jerk. Hypnic jerks are sharp, sudden flinches of the body that occur as a person falls asleep. Hypnic jerks are normal and are not a cause for concern. They are more likely to happen when you are sleep deprived, or if you have recently used stimulants like caffeine.
Insects or Spiders
Dreams about insects have been interpreted very differently among cultures and time periods. An ancient Greek dream interpretation manual from the 2nd century A.D. states that insects symbolize worries. Some modern psychotherapists suggest that children dreaming about bugs represents a feeling of being small and powerless.
People with sleep disorders like sleepwalking or night terrors sometimes have vivid dreams that involve insects or spiders. They may see or feel insects crawling on them or in their surroundings.
Nightmares, including dreams about being chased, are common. People may be more likely to dream about being chased or other frightening scenarios during periods of stress, after traumatic events, or due to anxiety.
Some mental health conditions and medications can also cause nightmares. If you are concerned that your medication may be contributing to dreams about being chased or other frightening scenarios, talk with your doctor before making any adjustments to your treatment plan.
Having An Affair
Aspects of your romantic life may affect the subjects of your dreams. Some studies have shown that dreams about infidelity are linked to having been cheated on in a relationship. Dreaming that you are having an affair might be associated with jealousy or low intimacy in your current relationship.
Seeing a Deceased Friend or Relative
Researchers believe that dreaming of deceased individuals may help loved ones cope with grief and adjust to their loss. These dreams allow people to maintain a sort of bond with the individual who has died as they process emotions related to their loss.
How to Analyze and Interpret Dreams
Evidence suggests that dream imagery is related to each individual’s personal experiences, and there is no scientific guide that can tell you how to interpret dreams. However, there are some steps you can take to understand your own dreams—and possibly yourself—a bit better.
- Focus on your own feelings: Instead of searching for a broad explanation, consider your own associations with the content and themes that appear in your dreams. A dream about snakes might be frightening to some people, for example, while others may find it fascinating.
- Write it down: It is easy to forget the details of a dream within minutes of waking up. Keep a notebook next to your bed so you can write down your dreams as soon as possible, or try using a smartphone app to take notes.
- Talk to a professional: Contact a doctor if you are having nightmares so frequently that they impact your sleep habits or daytime mood. A professional can also help you work through issues such as trauma or grief that may affect your dreams. Finally, let your doctor know if you believe a medication or medication withdrawal is giving you nightmares.
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