The meaning of dreams

July 1, 1993

The meaning of dreams

By Frederic B. Tate, Ph.D.

By Frederic B. Tate, Ph.D.

The Counseling Corner from the American Counseling Association

Do you wake up each morning and remember your dreams in vivid detail? Or do you rarely, if ever, recall a dream? Whichever the case, according to researchers you do dream, every night—we all do. Scientists have found even primates and the unborn human fetus dream.

Research shows that the body is anything but passive while dreaming; the brain secretes chemicals, blood pressure can increase, the eyes move rapidly, and heart rate increases.

All ancient cultures have left evidence of dream records, and most considered dreams to be gifts or prophecy from the gods. All religions and all mythologies have addressed the topic of dreaming. And important decisions about war and politics, and more than one scientific discovery, have been the result of information received via dreams.

There are many beliefs once held about dreaming that we now know to be false. Dreaming of falling off a cliff and not waking before you hit the ground, won’t kill you. The worst that will happen is you wake up with a pounding heart. And it isn’t true that people who are born blind do not dream. Nor does dreaming cause sleepwalking. But do our dreams matter? The Swiss psychotherapist C.G. Jung, who studied the symbolic language of dreams, said, “The dream is a little hidden door in the innermost and most secret recesses of the soul.”

Remembering and understanding your dreams offers a way to understand the sometimes-hidden workings of your mind and to have a better grasp of who you really are.

Here are some tips that may help in remembering and understanding your dreams:

• Keep a notebook beside your bed. Record your dreams as soon after waking as possible. Memory of dreams fades fast! A small tape recorder is another option. Just a few key words can jog the memory to retrieve the full dream in the morning.

• Every night, as you fall asleep, suggest to yourself, “I will try and remember my dreams.” This simple power of suggestion can help. And if you don’t remember a dream, that’s okay, too. It can take time.

• Look for things in your dreams – such as settings, people, animals, action, colors, feelings, and words—that will often represent a part of your personality. If you dream of a certain friend, ask yourself what part of your personality he or she might represent.

• Try analyzing your dreams every day. You may notice a pattern or progression. The more you read about dreams, share your dreams with friends, and record your dreams, the more you will remember and the easier the interpretation process will become.

• Dreams will often appear to be “illogical.” Dream symbols are the forgotten language of the subconscious, and it takes patience and persistence to learn any new language. With time and experience, the meaning of dreams can become clearer.

• All dreams are important and have meaning. A dream that seems silly or insignificant can be profound. However, very emotionally-laden dreams, such as nightmares and recurring dreams, are often extra important. They may indicate that we are failing to learn what we need to learn or to change what needs to be changed. Nightmares can be seen as a gift from the subconscious because they get our attention.

• It’s usually best to be practical in our interpretations: keep it simple. Look first for a lesson. Is there something you’ve refused to face or have been ignoring?

• If you experience precognitive dreams (dreams that come true), OBEs (out-of-body experiences), or lucid dreaming (being aware that you are dreaming during the process), do not panic. Start reading; there are many books on each of these topics. These experiences are not as rare as one may think.

• Be wary of dream dictionaries that try to explain dream symbols. Dreaming of a ring with a red stone can hold a different meaning for each of us. Dream dictionaries will restrict and limit free-association.

Researchers believe dreams come to guide and help, not merely to amuse. If we are open to them, they can direct our attention to errors and problems, as well as offer encouragement for and insight for healthy decisions, endeavors and changes. Working to better understand your dreams can be a rewarding experience.

Pleasant dreams!

Dr. Tate is a psychologist at Eastern State Hospital in Williamsburg, Virginia, the nation’s oldest public hospital.

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