Dreams: What They Mean
Dreams have long been a source of fascination. Since Freud’s day, they’ve also been the subject of endless armchair analysis. But it wasn’t until the late twentieth century that scientists began using brain imaging technology and modern research techniques to study how dreams take shape in the brain.
What Are Dreams?
What causes dreams and what neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists discovered is revealing. Dreams, they say, are far from random firings of neurons in your brain. Instead, dreaming draws upon your overriding concerns, emotional preoccupations and knowledge of the world. These factors combine to give your dreams their unique form and meaning. So, the specifics of your dreams are highly individual. However, we all share similar brain physiology and many common life experiences, so there are general themes that crop up time and again. Here’s what research shows about the meaning of four common types of dreams.
Four Types of Dreams
1. Dreams about daily life
As a full-time writer, I’ve occasionally had dreams in which I am writing passages of prose. My dreaming self is convinced they’re brilliant (too bad I can never remember the words the next day). Similarly, research has shown that musicians and singers are more likely than non-musicians to hear music in their dreams. And pregnant women are more likely than those who aren’t pregnant to dream about pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood.
What science says: These dreams seem to be straightforward examples of the continuity hypothesis. It states that most dreams revolve around the same personal concerns, emotional preoccupations and interests that drive your waking thoughts. First proposed by psychologist Calvin S. Hall in the 1970s, this idea is widely accepted in dream research today.
Decades of studies have shown that the storylines of dreams are largely coherent and fairly realistic. Yet, they obviously aren’t faithful reproductions of your waking life. While the concerns and interests — and sometimes the faces and places — may be the same, the associations between things are different. Someone from your past might make a guest appearance in the present, for example. Or you might be standing in your kitchen, only to discover it’s city hall.
That’s because your dreaming brain doesn’t face the same constraints as your wide-awake brain does. You start out with information that’s more wide-ranging and loosely connected than when you’re awake. Then your brain tries to shape the information into a coherent narrative. The result may seem both familiar and strange.
The implication: The content of your dreams can tell you a lot about what’s on your mind, but it may take some work to figure out the message. It’s not written in arcane code, however. It’s more like an ordinary letter that has been torn into pieces and needs to be reassembled. To do this, try asking yourself what the images, event, and feelings in the dream bring to mind.
2. Dreams about other people
You’re walking through a crowd, swimming next to a friend, running from a stranger or pulling a child out of the way of an onrushing car. Maybe you’re even having a heart-to-heart with a relative who died years ago. Research has shown that 87 percent of dreams involve actively engaging with other people in some way.
What science says: One theory, championed by psychologist William Domhoff, says dreams are similar to stage plays. As the dreamer, you imaginatively put yourself in the play, interact with other characters and explore possible outcomes.
A key point is that you’re the star of the play, not just someone sitting in the audience. While you’re dreaming, your brain isn’t receiving information about the outside world through your senses the way it does when you’re awake. Yet, certain areas of your brain involved in visual and sensorimotor functions are switched on while you imagine different scenes and actions. That helps explain why dreams feel so real.
3. Dreams about falling
Some dream themes are particularly common. Called “typical dreams,” they’re experienced by most people, often repeatedly, and across many cultures. Dreams about falling are a great example. They’ve been reported by more than 70 percent of American, Japanese, German, Canadian and Chinese study participants. Other typical dreams include being chased, being in school/studying and arriving somewhere too late.
What science says: Dreams about falling have often been blamed on anxiety and stress, and that may indeed play a role. A study of stockbrokers going through a major market downturn showed that dreams of falling became more common as client investments tanked.
Science suggests there’s more to the story. The sensation of falling may also be prompted by moments of wakefulness intruding into sleep. Some falling dreams may simply be a sign that you’re getting poor-quality sleep, whether due to anxiety or another reason.
4. Dreams about losing teeth
Dreams about teeth falling out, breaking or rotting are surprisingly common. Research has shown that almost 40 percent of people say they’ve had such dreams at least once. Tooth dreams are a recurring experience for one in six people.
What science says: This could be a classic example of your brain registering internal sensations experienced during sleep and incorporating them into your dreams. In one study, tooth dreams were related to feelings of tenderness or tension around the teeth, gums or jaws upon awakening. Such feelings may be signs of grinding your teeth while asleep.
If you ask someone who’s into dream analysis what tooth dreams mean, you’ll probably get a much different answer. You might hear that dreaming about your teeth falling out can symbolize losing the ability to speak up for yourself or feeling self-conscious about your appearance. And perhaps that’s true in some cases. Even many scientists believe that the dreaming mind can think in metaphors.
But if there’s one thing recent science teaches us, it’s that many factors can affect the meaning of your dreams. They’re as unique as you are!