We spend roughly one third of our lives unconscious, and when we’re asleep we’re unaware of our immediate surroundings. But sometimes during sleep, we’re aware of ourselves in a realm of illusions. We remain ourselves in our dreams; but the people, animals, places and things we encounter may transform. A dream has a sequence of events but, unlike a story, it has no contrived plot. So, why do we dream, and what is the meaning of our dreaming? It depends on who you ask.
Dreams are regarded as sacred and/or prophetic in some cultures, and the interpretation of dreams is an ancient and widespread practice. In many cultures the interpretations have been made by priests, priestesses or shamans, proceeding from the assumption that dreams mean something in our waking lives. Many modern sleep scientists would disagree, believing that dream content is the result of random neural firings, connected to memory retrieval. One theory about why we dream is that it’s the way the brain sorts and edits new memories for later retrieval.
The history of modern dream analysis in Western culture starts with the 1899 publication of Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, in which he called dreaming “the royal road to the unconscious.” Along with free association, dream analysis was a component of Freudian psychoanalysis, used as a key for the unlocking of repressed thoughts and feelings. Freudian dream analysis has to do with themes such as wish fulfillment, unconscious desires, and anxiety related to conflicts in the dreamer’s life.
Carl Jung is perhaps best known for his concept of the collective unconscious. Jungian dream analysis is similar to Freud’s, in that it delves beneath the surface content of the dream as described by the dreamer (latent content), to explore the unconscious, symbolic meanings (manifest content). Jung’s system differed from Freud’s, in that Jungian therapists related the dream’s symbolic content to universal mythic themes in the collective unconscious, and archetypes such as The Mother, The King and The Hero.
While in grad school, I attended a leaderless gestalt dream interpretation group. Both theory and method were different from Freudian and Jungian dream analysis. The constant focus in gestalt therapy is staying in the here-and-now of your direct experience; and in the dream group you first related all that you remembered of your dream, in the present tense: “I’m walking on barren ground, in the middle of nowhere. I see a house in the distance and I’m walking toward it. As I get closer, I see that the house is deserted and falling apart. The wood creaks beneath me as I walk up the steps to the porch. The wood is rotten and I’m afraid I’ll fall through the floor, but I have to go inside. . . .” After the whole dream had been related in this manner, the dreamer would then take on the role of objects from the dream: “I’m a house in the middle of nowhere. I look good from the distance, but I’m actually falling apart. Nobody would want to live in me. . . .” After the dreamer finished, a group member might ask what it feels like to be this house, and the group would discuss possible meanings, before going on to the next dream object.
Things that happen to us in our dreams often mirror circumstances that arouse our anxieties in our waking lives. Fear, anxiety, helplessness, frustration, and shame (e.g. naked-in-public dreams) are frequent emotional states experienced in dreams. Most of us have gone to school, and I expect that we’ve all had school dreams. I’ve done some stage acting, and I imagine that every stage actor has had some variation of a recurring dream theme from my acting days: I’m onstage, the curtain is about to open on a full house, and I can’t remember what play I’m cast in, let alone my first line of dialogue. I’ve had very few nightmares as an adult, but a frequent theme in the dreams I remember is frustration, e.g. I need to get somewhere from where I am in a foreign city, but I’ve misplaced my luggage (or my car key) and can’t leave until I recover it. And then I can’t find my car, and the streets and buildings keep changing. It’s such a relief to wake up and realize that I’m right where I need to be, with no immediate problem to solve.
I’ve had some dreams that were so vivid, I’ve had to convince myself that they weren’t real. Researching the subject, I’ve come to believe that they were hypnogogic hallucinations, which occur in the twilight state between consciousness and unconsciousness, before falling asleep. Similar hallucinations that occur in the twilight state between sleep and wakefulness are called hypnopompic hallucinations.
Another unconventional dream state is lucid dreaming, where the dreamer becomes aware of being in a dream, and can control its content. I’ve had a few lucid dreams and have heard many claims that it’s a learnable skill. Some proficient lucid dreamers say that they can fly in dreams, overcome any adversary, and have sex with anyone they want. If you want to learn more about lucid dreaming, I highly recommend Richard Linklater’s 2001 animated film, “Waking Life.”
Dreams are but one of the mysteries of consciousness, and I believe that what they “mean” is ultimately subjective. Ancient shamanic tradition has it that Dreamtime is a real world parallel to our own, and that those who can “journey” in Dreamtime can heal people and work magic in the waking world. Whatever clues or signals dreams may hold in regard to our waking lives, their interpretation is culture-bound, and there are no authoritative answers to our questions about this mysterious, otherworldly phenomenon.