Feature Archive

Dream Interpretation Offers Insight

Dream experts tell what the real meaning is behind our dreams.

WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

Ever had the classic "examination" dream? You dream you're late for class and miss the exam, or you can't find the classroom, or you haven't studied or you studied the wrong subject. You panic. Upon awakening, you might dismiss the dream as irrelevant -- after all you haven't been a student for years. Or you may instantly sense how the dream reflects what's going on in your life. Perhaps the dream dramatizes how ill prepared you feel to handle a work project or reminds you to write a report you'd forgotten about.

Most of us pay little attention to our dreams. The impression in western society is that dreams are the province of psychoanalysts seeking to unlock mysteries of neuroses and psychoses. But, in fact, dreams can be very useful tools for self-discovery and problem solving. It takes just a bit of practice to learn dream interpretation.

What do those dream symbols mean?

Many books on dream interpretation contain a dream dictionary. Some common themes and their meanings are:

  • Falling: insecurity, loss of control, feeling threatened
  • Being chased: running away from your fears
  • Teeth falling out: anxiety, losing face, concerns about self-image, inability to get a grip on something
  • Being naked in public: feeling vulnerable, anxious about something that did or will happen, desire to be noticed
  • Ocean: the unconscious, emotional energy
  • Train: power, freedom
  • Island: isolation, loneliness, tranquility, longing for independence
  • Flying: desire for freedom, release of creative energy, transcending limitations
  • Finding a new room in a house: discovering an aspect of yourself you weren't aware of

Experts tell WebMD it's more instructive to understand dreams in terms of your own experience rather than to try to apply the meanings in dream dictionaries. Mark Freeman, PhD, who teaches a course on dream interpretation and uses dreams in personal counseling at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., suggests looking at the book called, A Dictionary of Symbols, by Juan Eduardo Cirlot, or The Secret Language of Dreams, by David Fontana, only after you've examined your dream and made associations between the dream symbols and your life.

Gayle Delaney, PhD, a dream specialist in private practice in Mill Valley, Calif., is more emphatic about the place of dream dictionaries. "Throw them out," she says. "They're the bane of all dream work. They've kept it in the dustbin of the intellectual mainstream. Yes, there are common dream themes, but no, they don't all mean the same thing."

Trends in Dream Interpretation

Ancient cultures attached great significance to dreams as communication with God or prophecy or out-of-body travel. Much of twentieth century dream theory was influenced by three approaches: Freudian, Jungian and gestalt. Their differences are illustrated in the interpretations they would give to a dream about being chased. Freudians would say the dream represents a repressed wish to be captured and have sex. Jungians would say the pursuer represents a disowned part of the dreamer's personality that may need to be accepted. Gestalt theorists would suggest that every image in the dream represents some part of the dreamer.

"Modern dream work has moved toward metaphor and problem solving, and people should stop trying to fit their interpretations to psychoanalytical theory," says Delaney, author of seven books on dreams, including All About Dreams: Everything You Need To Know About Why We Have Them, What They Mean, and How To Put Them To Work for You. "If they describe their dream to five different theorists, they'll get five different interpretations."

Freeman, who uses dream interpretation primarily to counsel students regarding careers and relationships, tells WebMD most dreams compensate for skewed relationships to the outside world. "For example, if we're too nice, our anger and hostility can come out in dreams," he says. He describes a woman who was so preoccupied with being pregnant that she neglected other aspects of her femininity. In a dream, she was at a party wearing a maternity dress when a voluptuous woman in a miniskirt approached and spilled a drink on her. "My client got very upset and angry in the dream," says Freeman. "The dream was compensating for a lopsided situation in which she'd been too much into her maternal self and ignoring her femininity. Dreams can be self-correcting in that way, letting us know when we're out of balance."

Doing Your Own Dream Interpretation

Both Delaney and Freeman use an interview approach with clients they say individuals can use to interpret their own dreams. Basically the interview unravels the dream metaphor to discover what the dream symbols mean to the dreamer and the dream's relevance to the dreamer's present day life.

For example, Delaney's interview with a woman who dreamt she'd had sex with her old boyfriend, George, might go like this:

Delaney: What is George like?

Dreamer: Extremely handsome and dashing, but I couldn't get close to him.

Delaney: Why did you break up?

Dreamer: He was critical and kept me at arm's length.

Delaney: Is there anyone in your life now who's sort of like George?

Dreamer: I'm dating Michael. He's handsome and dashing, but he's blond. He's not at all like George. Last night before I went to sleep I tried to talk to him about our relationship, but he put his arms straight out and said he didn't want to talk about it.

Delaney: So is there any parallel between the dream and real life?

Dreamer: Now that you mention it ...

Delaney says if friends told the dreamer that Michael was just like George, her subjective bias would prevent her from seeing the parallel. But subjective bias can be overridden in the dream state. "Dreams bring objectivity to everyday experience, and this dream revealed her unconscious pattern of choosing men like George."

"Dreams are pretty transparent, but most people never try to decode them," says Freeman. "It's like learning a new language." He teaches a four-week dream interpretation class and says when students begin, they view the symbols literally. "Dreaming they fell down stairs must mean they fell down stairs," he says.

The device both Freeman and Delaney use to get dreamers past the literal symbols and discover how the symbols act as a metaphor for what's happening in their lives is to have them describe the people, setting, mood, and actions in a dream as though they're talking to someone from another planet. They say dreamers can use the interview technique on themselves, and Delaney suggests questions you could ask if, for example, you dreamed about losing a purse or wallet:

  • What is a purse or wallet? Pretend I come from another planet and have no idea what one is, why humans use them and what they carry in them.
  • Why would a human such as yourself care if your purse was lost or stolen?
  • How do you feel in the dream when your purse is lost or stolen?
  • Is there anywhere in your life where you feel the way you feel in the dream when you realize your purse has been lost or stolen?
  • How so? Be as specific as you can.
  • Having identified the relevant area of your life, is there anything you could do to change the situation?

"Insights come easily with dreams if you don't jump to interpretations, but first describe the images and then ask what does that remind me of in my life?" says Delaney. "Dream images aren't that hard to get. What's hard is to act on your insights."

In addition to providing insights, dreams may also serve as warnings, putting you in touch with something you're not consciously aware of. Freeman cites the example of a psychologist who paid attention to dreams that warned of illness, went to the doctor and learned he was in the early stages of cancer.

Many people have experienced psychic or prophetic dreams. Jungian theory would attribute psychic dreams to a collective unconscious shared by all people, and prophetic dreams to the past, present, and future as existing more or less simultaneously. Freeman collects stories of such unusual dreams and describes a famous case in Florida in which a mother had a recurring nightmare about her deceased daughter whose body had been cremated. She saw the daughter's head in a jar. "She went to the sheriff who thought she was crazy, but she persisted," says Freeman. "Eventually they found the daughter's skull on a shelf in the coroner's office."

Psychic and prophetic dreams raise many questions but few answers, which points out a problem with the study of dreams in general. Freeman and Delaney tell WebMD much remains to be learned about how dreams function, but the field suffers from a severe lack of research dollars.

Dream Incubation

You've probably had the experience of waking up in the morning with a creative idea or a solution to a problem. It's an exhilarating feeling. Instead of waiting for it to happen, you can harness that power by incubating dreams. Pose a problem or question before you fall asleep, and the answer may be revealed when you awaken (Be patient. It takes practice). Freeman describes how to do it. "Start by writing down thoughts. What do I really want an answer to? If you're troubled about a relationship, ask 'How do I want my relationship with so-and-so to evolve?' As you fall asleep, repeat the question over and over. In the morning write down the answer."

"The question comes up, how are we smarter in our dreams?" asks Delaney. "I don't know. But all cultures have expressions for it, such as 'night brings good counsel' and 'sleep on it.'"

Published Jan. 12, 2004.


SOURCES: Gayle Delaney, PhD, dream specialist, Mill Valley, Calif.; author, All About Dreams: Everything You Need To Know About Why We Have Them; What They Mean, and How To Put Them To Work for You. Mark Freeman, PhD, director, personal counseling; instructor, Rollins College, Winter Park, Fla.

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