Do Dreams Have Meaning? What the Experts Believe (2023)

Do Dreams Have Meaning? What the Experts Believe (1)Share on Pinterest

Some dreams slip away like minnows when you wake up and hazily try to grasp at them. Others remain vivid in your memory, so clear and unforgettable that, as the days pass, you might start to wonder if you actually dreamed them more than once.

Even if you don’t remember many (or any) of your dreams, you do still have them. While experts still have plenty to discover about dreams, they do generally agree that dreaming is part of the human experience.

You can cover a lot of ground in your dreams. Common experiences include:

  • sexy encounters with a crush
  • ordinary activities, like doing chores or buying groceries
  • terrifying experiences, like returning to high school or being chased by monsters
  • gaining superpowers or magical abilities

Whether your dreams are mundane or peculiar, you might want to know if they have any deeper significance. Experts haven’t come up with a clear answer, but you’ll find some main theories below — along with a few tips for decoding your own dreams.

Plenty of psychologists and other experts have theorized on the deeper meaning of dreams.

Freud’s theory of unconscious wish fulfillment

Psychologist Sigmund Freud had a lot to say about dreams (and not all of it related to sex).

He suggested that dreams helped protect people from waking up early when light or sound disrupted their sleep, but he also believed dreams pointed to buried desires.

Your sleeping brain creates what he called a “manifest dream” from snippets of everyday images, experiences, and memories. The manifest dream simplifies, reorganizes, and masks the “latent dream,” or your repressed and unconscious wishes.

In other words, the manifest dream uses various symbols and bizarre or unusual images to conceal the latent dream, or what you’re really dreaming about.

Jung’s theory of compensation and self-portrayal

Like Freud, Carl Jung believed dreams had meaning. Jung focused on specific archetypes, or patterns, that appear symbolically in dreams, theorizing that dreams could help explain daily events and balance out aspects of yourself you aren’t aware of yet.

Say, for example, you have a lighthearted relationship with your partner. You enjoy the same hobbies, have great sexual chemistry, and get along well — but you can’t shake the feeling that something deeper’s missing from your relationship.

One night, you dream the two of you are reviewing housing listings, wandering through the furniture section of a department store, and then, suddenly (in the abrupt nature of dreams), taking a leisurely walk through a quiet park.

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Upon waking, you might realize your dream exposed some of the more mundane things absent in your relationship, while also suggesting you might want a relationship that includes thoughtful planning for the future along with fun.

Other key theories

Other dream researchers have offered their own theories as to the meaning of dreams.

Psychologist Calvin S. Hall considered dreams part of the cognition process, or a type of thinking that happens as you sleep.

Since the images that appear in dreams reflect elements of daily life, Hall believed dreams could offer important insight into how you view yourself and others, your problems and conflicts, and the world in general.

Linguist and philosopher George Lakoff believed dreams offered a metaphorical glimpse into daily challenges and life events. In other words, the abstract symbols appearing in your dreams represent real hardships.

Psychologist and dream researcher Rosalind Cartwright also tied dreams to significant life events and emotional experiences. She believed dreams played an important role in cognitive processes, including memory and emotion regulation.

Professor G. William Domhoff also connected dreams to daily experiences. The things you do and think about during the day can resurface in dreams, he suggested, while your emotional mindset helps shape their unique content.

Domhoff also noted that, although dreams may shed some light on heavy concerns, they might not have any real purpose. You forget most of your dreams, after all.

William Dement, who helped found the field of sleep medicine, similarly suggested that, while dreams may lack a clear purpose, they can still convey meaningful messages.

Many experts don’t believe dreams have much meaning, but believe they still serve a purpose.

Existing theories outline a few of these purposes.

Threat simulation theory

Some researchers suggest that dreams serve an important evolutionary purpose.

According to threat simulation theory, dreams offer the chance to practice identifying, avoiding, and dealing with potential threats. By safely handling these threats in your dreams, you might feel safer in your waking life.

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Research from 2009 found some support for this theory by comparing dreams of children who had experienced trauma with children who hadn’t.

Of course, threat simulation theory can also tie into other theories about dream meaning. Traumatized children could, for example, have more threatening dreams, because they often feel afraid in daily life.

Activation-synthesis theory

According to the activation-synthesis theory, dreams are nothing more than a collection of random images and thoughts, projected during sleep as a result of normal brain activity.

These images don’t follow any narrative structure, thanks to the pons, your brain’s random dream generator. You create the story of your dream on your own, after waking up.

Supporters of this theory believe dreams can feel strange, because these random images often make little sense when they’re combined.

Dreams as emotional regulation

The unpleasant or unwanted emotions you experience in daily life can pop up in your dreams, too.

Anxiety, guilt, sadness, or fear can quickly get overwhelming. But some experts have theorized that navigating these feelings in dreamland can help you begin resolving these feelings without all the stress.

Wondering how that might work? Well, when you dream during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep, the parts of the brain that help regulate emotion and memory are active.

What’s not active is the chemical messenger noradrenaline, which can produce feelings of anxiety or stress.

Continual-activation theory

Your brain doesn’t completely shut down when you go to sleep. Instead, it uses this time to carry out important processes, including transferring short-term memories into long-term storage.

As you sleep, your brain also takes out the trash, in a manner of speaking, by getting rid of all the leftover, unnecessary information.

As your unconscious brain focuses on processing memories, activity in your conscious brain slows way down.

(Video) Jordan Peterson: What do your dreams tell you about yourself?

According to the continual-activation theory, this prompts your brain to send a flow of data from memory storage into the conscious brain. You can think of this data — aka your dreams — as a sort of screensaver keeping the conscious part of your brain up and running, despite the lack of actual activity.

Common themes and their potential meanings

No matter what scientific theories might suggest, people around the world have long believed in the significance of dreams and attempted to guess their meanings.

Dreams may seem so intriguing in part because they’re not fully understood. But certain dreams show up so often across generations and cultures that many people believe these common themes suggest that dreams do, in fact, have significance.

Here are some common dream themes, plus possible interpretations:

A dream aboutCould mean
cheating on your partneryou’re having a hard time getting your needs met in the relationship, or you feel trapped in another area of your life
your partner cheatingyou feel afraid of losing your partner or rejection in another area of life
failing a testyou’re facing some stress that you don’t feel ready to handle
being naked or experiencing other public embarrassmentyou feel vulnerable and worry other people will notice your flaws
discovering money or treasureyou feel confident, worthy, and good about yourself
missing your bus or trainyour everyday life leaves you frustrated and you believe you’re lacking something important
losing your teethyou’re worried about aging, or you have insecurities around how other people perceive you
finding new roomsyou’re discovering new abilities, interests, or future possibilities for yourself
fallingyou feel unsupported by loved ones, or as if you’re losing control over some aspect of your life
dyingyou’re facing some unwelcome changes or you have some uncertainties about the future

Ready to dig a little deeper into your dreams? These strategies can help.

Make sure you’re getting quality sleep

Remembering your dreams is an important part of deciphering them.

Dream recall may happen more naturally when you get enough sleep. Aim for about 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night to get the right amount of REM sleep. This may, in turn, boost dream recall.


As you drift off to sleep, try repeating to yourself, “I’m going to dream vividly, and I’m going to remember those dreams when I wake up.”

Review the dream

When you wake up from a dream, your first instinct might be to reach for your dream journal. Instead, lie still for a moment and let the dream really marinate.

As you let each scene that comes to you unfold, try to open your awareness to any thoughts or feelings you experienced during the dream.

As you think back over the events of the dream, pay attention to any small details that stand out. They might seem minor in the light of day, but it’s very possible they had more significance in your dream.

Write it down

Once you’ve taken yourself through the dream, grab a notebook and write down everything you can remember. As you write, you might remember more key details that help shape the dream narrative.

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Jot down everything you can think of — even if you aren’t sure exactly what happened. You might write, for example, “Wandering through forest alone, searching for someone or something. Not sure, but I felt lost and lonely.”

Keep track of details, like:

  • colors and sounds
  • other people in the dream
  • anything you said or heard someone else say
  • buildings or places you visited
  • moods and feelings
  • key objects in the dream, like cars, weapons, tools, or books

Keep a notebook and small lamp on your nightstand to make this process easier, especially if you tend to wake up in the middle of the night.

Even getting out of bed to find some paper can end up jarring fragments of the dream from your mind.

Make connections to your own life

Books that offer dream interpretations can be helpful, but you’ll often gain more insight by examining the dream from the unique lens of your experiences.

People have plenty of things to say about their own dreams, but someone else’s meaning might not hold true for you.

Maybe you dream about a rabbit eating grass in the park. At first, this might seem like a simple, even somewhat boring dream. But, when you dig a little deeper, you remember feeling happy and peaceful in the dream, and that you wanted a pet rabbit as a child.

Connecting these facts to your everyday life, you might conclude that spending time outside felt good and decide to visit the park more often. You also realize you’d enjoy having a pet in your life.

No one knows for certain what purpose dreams serve. But, at the end of the day, their true function might not really matter.

If you find them meaningful, then they have value to you.

Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.

(Video) Jordan Peterson - The Interpretation of Dreams


Do Dreams Have Meaning? What the Experts Believe? ›

Alan Eiser, a psychologist and a clinical lecturer at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor, says dreams can be “highly meaningful,” because they “deal with the sort of personal conflicts and emotional struggles that people are experiencing in their daily lives.”

Do psychologists believe dreams have meaning? ›

Dreams have psychological meaning and cultural uses, but no known adaptive function.

What do psychologists say about dreams? ›

Dreams are your brain's way of sorting through information.

“The theory is that while we dream, the brain is sorting through what information it should keep and what it should forget,” she says. And to help further the process along, our mind creates images and stories to optimally manage all of this activity.

What do some researchers believe about dreams? ›

Memory consolidation: Some researchers believe dreams play a part in memory formation. Evidence suggests that the sleeping brain sorts, processes, and stores information from waking life, turning important information into memories. Dreams may also reflect the images and concepts that are stored as long-term memories.

Do scientists believe in dreams? ›

But even today, scientists still don't entirely agree on the purpose of dreaming. By contrast, there's loads that we do know about the role of sleep, which has been found to help boost brain function, regulate our immune systems and promote physical activity.

Do dreams actually mean something? ›

Not all dreams are meaningful, though, Barrett said. In fact, much of their content can be “trivial or circular or repetitive.” In that way, dreams can be similar to thoughts we have when we're awake, which aren't always meaningful, either, she said.

Can dreams predict the future? ›

At this time there is little scientific evidence suggesting that dreams can predict the future. Some research suggests that certain types of dreams may help predict the onset of illness or mental decline in the dream, however.

Do dreams reveal subconscious thoughts? ›

'Because they originate in the subconscious mind, dreams can reveal our deepest needs, fears, and desires,' explained Dr Carmen. 'Dreams prompt us to examine our feelings and states of mind. They.

What psychologist believed dreams have hidden messages? ›

Understanding the Hidden Meaning of Dreams

Freud believed that the contents of the unconscious could lead to problems and dysfunction. By uncovering the hidden meaning of dreams, Freud believed that people could better understand their problems and resolve the issues that create difficulties in their lives.

What does it mean when you vividly dream about someone? ›

As dreams are all about the self—your feelings and behaviors—if you're dreaming about a specific person in your life, then it's likely there's some aspect of them that is currently at work in your life, Loewenberg explains. Perhaps you both share a behavioral trait that is currently being activated.

What do neuroscientists think about dreams? ›

In neuroscience, dreams have been associated with memory consolidation while sleeping. This event would regard the reorganization and store of memories according to emotional features and the transferring of memories from one brain region to the other.

What my dreams are made of meaning? ›

"'What Dreams Are Made Of' is a song I wrote about the immediate high that comes with falling in love with someone. The idea of the relationship rather than the reality of it." It tells the all too familiar story of falling in love with a reality that doesn't yet exist and getting swept up in your emotions.

What makes you dream about certain things? ›

Dreams appear to be influenced by our waking lives in many ways. Theories about why we dream include those that suggest dreaming is a means by which the brain processes emotions, stimuli, memories, and information that's been absorbed throughout the waking day.

Do dreams turn into reality? ›

While dreams are fun to think about, they're intangible and won't become real unless you take action towards them. If you dream about a retirement filled with travel, but don't make plans to save appropriately, that dream may not become a reality for you.

Why do we forget our dreams? ›

“Since dreams are thought to primarily occur during REM sleep, the sleep stage when the MCH cells turn on, activation of these cells may prevent the content of a dream from being stored in the hippocampus – consequently, the dream is quickly forgotten.”

Does your brain think dreams are real? ›

Dreams feel real because we use the same brain to process them! Parts of the brain that process “real” sensory information in wakefulness are active in REM sleep. The more rational parts of our brain only switch on in wakefulness. This is why dreams play out like any “real” experience!

What are the warning signs in dreams? ›

warning dreams tend to occur during the R.E.M (rapid eye movement) phase, sometimes occurring twice in one night. common symbols tend to revolve around loss of teeth, houses, car crashes, death, cataclysmic events (earthquakes), murder, jail/police, cold blooded reptiles (snakes), just to name a few.

Should we take our dreams seriously? ›

You have to be willing to take your dreams seriously because the world would come to a stop if there were no one with new ideas, thought or imagination. It definitely takes a daring and tenacious effort to be on a journey to pursue something beyond your current reality.

Can we control our dreams? ›

Those who are more adept at lucid dreaming are able to control the action and content of their dreams to varying degrees. But can people learn to lucid dream and perfect their technique? According to a new study that Frontiers in Psychology recently published, the answer is “yes.”

Is it possible to have the exact same dream twice? ›

Since our dreams typically don't repeat themselves, all it takes is dreaming the same dream twice or more for it to be considered recurring, Barrett said. They're more common in childhood, Barrett said, but can last into adulthood.

What does it mean when 2 people dream the same thing? ›

According to Bustle, if you and a friend share a dream, it's indicative of an emotional closeness, “You two literally operate on the same wavelength and are essentially haunting one another's subconscious. “You're connected through more than just shared experiences and similar coping mechanisms. You're spirit pals.

Can dreams predict dementia? ›

Dream content predicts motor and cognitive decline in Parkinson's disease. Three studies have shown that a higher frequency of distressing dreams in people with nondemented PD, is prospectively associated with faster rates of cognitive decline, and increased risk of developing dementia over time.

Does remembering dreams mean good sleep? ›

Remembering your dreams doesn't necessarily have anything to do with how restful your sleep is, Dr. Harris says. Instead, recalling those dreams is a lot more likely to depend on a number of factors, from your current level of stress to the medication you're taking.

Why do I keep dreaming about an old ex? ›

Unresolved Feelings About Your Ex

If you still have feelings for your ex, they may appear in your dreams because dreams can replicate reality. However, your real-world feelings toward your ex do not necessarily have to be romantic ones. You may also experience frustration, anger, sadness, or jealousy.

Do bad dreams have meaning? ›

Indeed, studies suggest that nightmares are often linked to unmet psychological needs and/or frustration with life experiences. Yet those links aren't always easy to make—except in cases of trauma (discussed below), our nightmares tend to reflect our troubles through metaphor rather than literal representation.

Which dream theory is most accurate? ›

Correct answer:

The most pervasive theory of dreaming is that dreams are a result of electrical impulses in our brains that occur only while we sleep.

What is the most common dream content? ›

Some of the most common dream themes are about: falling. being chased. dying.

Can therapists decipher dreams? ›

Therapists, like the ones here at Louis Laves-Webb, LCSW, LPC-S and Associates can help you understand and interpret your dreams and the things in them. More importantly, dream therapists can help you find the connection between your dreams and your self-consciousness.

What therapists interpret dreams? ›

Gestalt therapists believe that dreams are existential messages we send to ourselves. These messages are actively explored to bring dream content into a person's actual life. A major technique used in Gestalt dream analysis is the “Take the Part of” technique.

Do therapists talk about dreams? ›

Mental health professionals who practice dream therapy are trained in techniques like imagery rehearsal therapy to help clients understand what their dreams mean. Dream therapy can also help you work through challenging subjects.

Do therapists care about dreams? ›

Abstract. Although a potentially helpful therapeutic tool, dream interpretation or dream work is only used occasionally in most forms of psychotherapy. Despite an interest from clinicians and clients alike in using dreams within therapy, many therapists feel unprepared to attend to their clients' dreams.

How does a psychoanalyst decipher dreams? ›

Psychoanalytic theorists emphasize the individual meaningfulness of dreams and their relation to personal hopes and fears. Other perspectives assert that dreams convey supernatural meaning, and some regard dreaming as nothing more than the normal activity of the nervous system.

What can a therapist not tell you? ›

But in other more serious situations, therapists are lawfully bound to keep the client or others safe. In general, therapists are required to keep everything you say in confidence except for the following situations: planned suicide intent. planned violence towards others.

Why are dreams important in therapy? ›

In psychotherapy dreams provide valuable opportunity to work with a client's inner world rather than purely their psychology. Through dream work the imagination has the opportunity to run free and deeper depths can be reached without our logical minds or conscious defences so easily getting in the way.

Do therapists dream about their clients? ›

We often dream about what we've been doing and who we've been with, so it should come as little surprise to discover many psychotherapists dream about their clients. In fact a new study reports that nearly 70 per cent of thirteen participating therapists said that they'd had such dreams.

Which type of therapy is most likely to focus on dreams? ›

Psychodynamic therapy

In psychoanalysis, you can expect to talk about anything on your mind to uncover patterns in thoughts or behavior that might be contributing to distress. It's also common to talk about your childhood and past, along with recurring dreams or fantasies you might have.


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