As a dream interpreter I am asked “how do you interpret dreams?” And my answer is “throw a lot at the wall and see what sticks.” Try a bit of everything and see what works. There is no magic formula. However, with some helpful facts, knowledge of dream symbolism, and a few techniques, most dreams can be interpreted. In this primer I give a rundown of the facts I use to help me understand dreams, and show you the process I follow.
Begin with helpful facts.
Dreams are stories
We are all familiar with stories. Novels. Movies. Television. We are exposed to them almost everyday…and every night. Dreams are stories, like parables. Most of us learn better when information is delivered through stories rather than lectures, especially when there is a moral or point to the story. The stories dreams tell are about you and your life.
The stories dreams tell can be analyzed the same as a novel, movie, or television show. Later in this primer I go into detail about analyzing your dream stories.
Dreams use symbolism
Symbolism is defined as “the practice of giving special meaning to objects, things, relationships or events. An example of symbolism is Christians making the cross a representation of Jesus.” [Source: yourdictionary.com] Everything in dreams is symbolism, except in rare cases when they communicate directly and literally. A symbol is a shorthand way of expressing an idea. A symbol used in a story to convey meaning is symbolism.
Dreams create symbolism by making comparisons and contrasts, by using puns, word plays, metaphors, and by dramatization. Dreams pull from the library of symbolism gained from your culture and personal experience. Some symbols are specific to certain cultures, times, and places. Other symbols are universal and part of what Carl Jung calls the “collective unconscious.” These symbols are recognized by everyone, everywhere, and you are born with their meaning imprinted in your mind. For example, everyone understands the sun as a symbol of life, but in Chinese culture the sun is also a symbol for Yang, the male principle.
Think of your dreaming mind as a translator. It takes any input—thoughts, feelings, memories, ideas, physical sensations—and translates it into symbolism.
Symbolism is figurative instead of literal. For example, a dream shows you lost in a woods, and it represents feeling lost in your personal life. A dream shows you flying through the air like Superman, and it expresses the feeling of soaring in your personal life. A dream shows you driving at high speed and the car’s brakes don’t work, and it symbolizes that your life is going too fast and you can’t slow down.
You already know what your dreams mean
Who or what creates your dreams? Is it something in your own mind, or are your dreams beamed into your head from outer space? Obviously, you create your dreams. Specifically, your unconscious mind creates your dreams. That means somewhere deep inside of yourself you already know what your dreams mean because you create the stories. Thing is, most people do not know their unconscious mind, nor do they understand much about symbolism.
Dreams usually relate to what happened the previous day in your life, or anticipate what’s coming up.
This fact narrows down the possibilities. The meaning of most dreams can be understood by remembering everything that happened in your life the previous day. What events occurred? What did you think, feel, and perceive? Even dreams that refer to the past do so because something in the present is relevant to it. Some pattern, notion, or idea started back then that still affects you in the present. Or something recently reminded you of the past.
Dreams also anticipate what’s coming up soon in your life—the test you will take, the meeting at work, the gathering of friends or family, the holiday you need to prepare for, the vacation you have planned, the big talk your significant other wants to have.
This simple fact can really help you understand your dreams. Most people look at the surface story told by their dreams and can’t relate it to their lives because it is so dramatic. It is exaggerated. For example, you have an argument with your SO and dream about a boxing match. A friend says something mean about you behind your back and you dream about being stabbed in the back. You feel like your workplace is dreary and torturous and dream about being trapped in a dungeon. Each of these scenarios is an exaggeration of something in your waking life.
Around half of your brain power at any given moment is used to process sensory input, mostly visual input. The other half tends to be used up by the train of thought constantly rolling through your head. That means a lot happens during the average day that doesn’t get consciously processed, especially the subtle stuff such as the vibes you pick up from people and the feelings and emotions that get pushed aside because you are too busy or preoccupied. However, it all registers subconsciously, and your dreams sort through that unprocessed material and pull out the most important stuff.
Here is an example I love. A mom dreams that a little white pill is beneath her couch, and she thinks of what would happen if her toddler found the pill and swallowed it. She wakes up and immediately checks beneath the couch. Sure enough, she finds a little white pill, a powerful medication that could be fatal to her child if ingested. Some people would say mom has ESP and that’s how she knew the pill was there. However, it’s also possible that she saw the pill out of the corner of her eye but was too busy or preoccupied at the time to consciously register it.
Dreams help you learn
Many theories have attempted to explain the purpose of dreaming. In my experience, one stands out as applicable in most cases. “Dreams aid the learning process.” Several studies back up this assertion. In one, participants were divided into two groups. Both groups learned new information, then were tested on it. One group took a nap before being tested. The other group stayed awake. The group that napped did better on the test. “Sleep on it” is good advice, because it gives your mind opportunity to process and consolidate new information.
The study delves into learning in the academic sense, but most of what you learn is about yourself, your life, people, and the world. You continually take in new information and have new experiences that you assimilate with what you already know. Your dreams help you process it all and fit it into the big picture.
Dreams that help you learn can be less “meaningful” and more “learningful.” They are simulated environments to test yourself and drive lessons home, or dress rehearsals to practice something. People who play a lot of video games, for example, can dream about playing a game as a way of improving reactions and other aspects of game play. It’s also entirely possible for a dream to use a game to tell a story about yourself that is meaningful.
Learning simulation dreams are also common for people practicing skills, such as musicians. You play an instrument by day, then dream about it by night. Next day you wake up and whatever you were practicing the previous day comes a little easier because dreams helped drive it home, mostly by making connections with multiple areas of the brain. For example, music is mostly processed through the auditory centers of the brain, but other centers of the brain are involved too. Musicians report “seeing” sound as color. Playing an instrument is also tactile. The more a skill can be cross-referenced in the mind, the more brain power can be applied to it.
Dreams are based on feelings and emotions
Another theory about the purpose of dreaming is they are mostly used to process feelings and emotions. Many dreams can be interpreted simply by looking at the feelings and emotions you experience. They are comparable to something in your waking life. For example, if you feel proud of yourself during a dream, ask yourself what you have to feel proud about. If you feel angry during a dream, ask yourself what you are angry about. The symbols in your dream trigger your emotions. You already know what the symbols represent. That’s why they trigger your emotions.
Most dreams have meaning. Some don’t.
This final fact clears up potential confusion. Some dreams don’t have meaning. They might use symbolism, but there is no message, lesson, moral, or point. Most often these dreams are in response to illness, especially fever, and to certain medicines, especially sleep medicines and psychoactives.
Meaningful dreams stand out. They make an impression. They engage you. And they are the most memorable. You dream for 25 percent of the time you are sleep, on average. In eight hours of sleep, that’s two hours of dreaming. The most meaningful dreams will stand out among all that dream material.
THE DREAM INTERPRETATION PROCESS
- Break down your dreams into story elements and narrative components.
- Analyze the symbolism and make associations with the dream details.
- Connect the symbolism and associations with yourself and your life.
Settings set the stage for the story. They are symbolic, just like the rest of a dream. The symbolism is derived from a setting’s function in everyday life. For example, a library setting can be used in a dream about getting information or gaining knowledge. A restaurant can be used to tell a story about decisions and choices. A home improvement store can be used to symbolize making improvements to yourself, such as getting in shape, developing your mind, or getting your act together.
With dream symbolism, nothing is automatic. A setting in a dream can relate to recent events in the same setting or one similar to it, instead of being symbolic. For example, if you spend a lot of time at work or school you are bound to dream about it. The setting might look the same as the place from your waking life, or it might not. Everyday places from your waking life can also be symbolized in your dreams, such as in the example of a dreary workplace being symbolized as a dungeon.
Characters help tell the story. They are like actors on stage following a script. Most dream characters represent something about yourself, but sometimes they can be direct representations of people you know. But here’s the rub. Even when a dream character portrays someone you know, they are still likely to represent something about you. Analyze your dream characters the same way you analyze other dream symbolism.
You might recognize a character or personality trait in someone you know that you also see in yourself. In which case the dream character that looks like that person represents something about you, not them. For example, you have a friend who tends to get grouchy when fatigued. You dream about the friend running around your house threatening your family, and really the dream is about you being grouchy and sorta hostile after a hard day at work.
Dreams can make observations about people you know. You can dream about events, situations, or circumstances that involve those people. In which case, the character is a pretty direct representation. However, the portrayal of the person is still based on your thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. It is subjective, not objective. Also, surrogate characters can be used to represent people you know, so you won’t recognize the person portrayed by appearance, but instead by how they act and other clues.
Almost every symbol used in dreams presents multiple possible meanings. That’s why most dream dictionaries aren’t very helpful. Even if they cover all the possibilities, they aren’t very helpful with helping you figure out which one applies to your dream. The meaning can usually be figured out by the context in which a symbol is presented. Look at the settings, characters, and narrative components, especially the action.
For example, teeth falling out is a common dream symbol. It presents several possibilities for meaning. Ask yourself, how does teeth falling out fit into the larger story of a dream? Do they fall out while you are talking? That can symbolize nervousness about your speaking skills or lack of confidence in what you say. Do they fall out when you look in a mirror? That can symbolize anxiety about your appearance or social presentation. Are they front teeth or back teeth? The loss of front teeth can symbolize something related to your appearance or how you think people perceive you, whereas the loss of back teeth like molars can symbolize an alternate definition of loss, such as loss of health, loss of a loved one, or loss of prestige. In which case, loss of a tooth is a word play and dramatization.
In all of the above situations, the symbolism is created by making comparisons. Loss of tooth is compared to another sort of loss. It is an analogy. In my experience, analogy is the most common way that dreams create symbolism.
Your dreaming mind is a great storyteller. Stories are narratives, and most narratives have three components:
Action is the main component that tells a dream story. It’s what makes a story “move” and turns symbols into symbolism, because a symbol in action is symbolism. The plot of a story can often be summed up by the actions that take place. The actions of a dream are often the main source of clues to figure out the meaning.
When analyzing the actions of a dream, think of it as telling a friend about a movie you watched. Sum up the plot. Give the dream a title, same as a movie has a title that sums up what it is about. You know that dreams are almost entirely symbolic, so the actions are symbolism, too. What do you see of yourself in the action? How does it describe your life? What can it be compared to? Think figuratively.
For example, consider these scenarios that involve driving and what they can symbolize.
Driving in reverse….Going the wrong direction in life.
Driving out of control….Losing control of yourself or your life.
Driving on a narrow road….Feeling restricted.
Spinning your wheels….Going nowhere despite effort.
Your reactions during a dream reveal how you really feel. They also reveal the underlying symbolism, because you react based on your subconscious knowledge of what the symbolism means, not to the overt story. This helps explain why you sometimes react inexplicably in a dream. Your reactions are raw and honest…and symbolic.
For example, a dreamer watches people drown and does nothing about it. If you look at it superficially, you might think the person is heartless. The dream is actually about the dreamer being tired of rescuing people in the figurative sense, and watching people drown is a way of saying he wants to let people in his life solve their own problems rather than dumping them on him. Once you understand the symbolism and know the dreamer’s situation, his reaction makes sense.
Here is another dramatic example. A woman dreams that she is driving and needs directions. She pulls into a parking lot to bring up a map on her phone. A man reaches through the window and snatches her phone. She chases him down and very deliberately shoves a knife through his heart. Seems like an overreaction, but if you know that the man symbolizes her ex-boyfriend who stole her sense of direction in life and she is really angry about it, her reaction makes sense.
Your reactions also determine what happens next in a dream. In the last example, the dreamer was presented with a choice after the man snatched her phone. She could say “oh well” and decide to just buy a new one. She could call the police. But instead she chose to chase him down. Sometimes you are carried along in a dream story and don’t have much choice about what happens, but other times your dreams are like a Choose Your Own Adventure.
Resolution is often the hardest part of a dream to decipher because it’s not always present in the story. Instead, the resolution is up to you to figure out while awake. A dream presents a question, an issue, a problem, a situation. Question is, how is it resolved? Dreams can present a resolution as part of the story, but usually not. It’s up to you to be proactive about owning what a dream shows you. The resolution is a call to action. Do something with the information!
Example 1: A dream puts you in a scenario where you are on a toilet in a bathroom and you are concerned because the door is missing. You realize the dream is about privacy and feeling exposed. The resolution is to do more to protect your privacy. Perhaps you reveal too much about yourself to people you don’t know if you can trust, or you rarely give yourself private time, or someone is constantly looking over your shoulder. These are situations that you have at least some power to change.
Example 2: A dream puts you in a scenario where you show up to class and have to take a big test, and you are unprepared. You realize the dream is about feeling unprepared to meet the challenges and tests of life. To resolve the dream you look at the ways you feel unprepared and what you can do to change that.
Example 3: A dream puts you in a scenario where you are in the basement of your childhood home and a young child is down there, scared and alone. The child runs up to you seeking comfort and protection. You realize that your childhood home had a lot of instability and, even though you are older now, a young part of yourself is still seeking stability, comfort, and protection. You resolve to take better care of yourself, recognizing that your “inner child” is down in the “basement” of your mind. It needs you to be a good parent to yourself, and now that you are older you have the power to do that.
The language of symbolism is a picture language. Your dreams show you scenes that evoke your response, especially emotional response. Your response or reaction tells you what the symbolism means.
Decoding symbolism is like a game of Charades. Your dreams give you mostly nonverbal clues, and you guess at what it means. You know when you make the right guess because it feels right. Something inside you clicks. You recognize correct answers. It’s like the feeling when a word is on the tip of your tongue and you suddenly think of it. You already know what the dream means, you just have to be reminded.
Association is the #1 technique for analyzing dreams. It’s really quite simple. You associate by asking yourself what are the first thoughts that come to mind when thinking about a detail of a dream. The details are found mostly in the story elements and narrative components. Your associations can reveal the personal meaning of the symbolism. It works like this:
Detail: A bird.
Association: Flying, freedom, feathers, singing.
Detail: A shopping mall.
Associations: Buying stuff, making choices, Christmas, commercialism.
Associations are the place to begin. Think of it as brainstorming, or throwing a lot at the wall and seeing what sticks. To show how associations are used in dream interpretation, let’s put the above associations into context. After all, rarely does a single detail reveal the meaning of a dream. Dreams are interpreted by connecting the dots. Usually it takes supporting details to reach a conclusion. We pick up with the previous details and put them into context by adding more details and making more associations. Then I’ll show what the dream scenarios can mean.
Detail: A bird. The bird is in a cage. It is quiet.
Associations with a cage: confinement, restriction, punishment.
Interpretation: One of the associations with a bird is freedom, but a bird in a cage is not free. Another association with a bird is singing, and singing is a form of expression. A bird in a cage could symbolize that the dreamer does not feel free to express herself, or is restricted or confined in some other way. A caged bird could symbolize feeling like you can’t show your true self, can’t make your own decisions, or are being punished for wanting your freedom.
Detail: A shopping mall. Looking for a particular store in the mall but can’t locate it.
Associations with being unable to find a particular store: lost, confused, frustrated.
Interpretation: A shopping mall is a place where you have options about where to shop. Shopping involves decisions and choices. As symbolism that can relate to anything in life that involves choosing among several options. For example, picking an employer to work for, a college to attend, or person to date. Now combine that idea with being unable to find a store. It can mean you can’t make a decision, or you want more options than you have.
After making associations and looking for supporting details, the next step is to connect the dots.
Connect the dots
The example associations show how to connect the dots. A dream can seem like it is all over the map, with details that don’t connect, but it is actually telling one story and everything in that story points the same direction toward the meaning. The meaning is the thread that connects together the story. Even many dreams in the same night can be about the same subject.
Summarize the dream. What is the essence?
Now, after going through all those steps I’m going to let you in on a secret. You don’t have to always go through all that. When learning how to interpret dreams I think it’s a good idea to go through the process. But a shortcut that can lead to the meaning is to describe a dream in its essence and see if it fits what is going on in your life. These dreams can have many details that also point toward the meaning. Sometimes it’s not necessary to analyze all of them. For example:
Dream: Someone tempts the dreamer to use cocaine. After going back and forth with himself he decides to try it and likes it. In waking life he has never done cocaine.
Essence of the story: temptation.
I asked the dreamer if he had been tempted by anything the day before the dream, and he remembered being in a store and seeing a powdered doughnut. He walked by it a few times before finally buying and eating it. The doughnut was the temptation symbolized by cocaine in the dream. The fact that it was a powdered doughnut is a supporting detail, because cocaine often comes as a white powder. Plus, sugar can produce a pleasurable rush.
Dream: The dreamer is in the passenger seat of his mom’s truck as she drives on a snowy road. She misses a bridge and drives onto a frozen lake. The ice breaks and the dreamer has to rescue her. He admonishes her for bad driving.
Essence: Mom is bad at leading / makes bad decisions
I asked the dreamer if his mom makes bad decisions and he has to rescue her, and he said yes, she has a habit of getting herself into predicaments and he has to bail her out. As her teenage son his life is affected by his mom’s bad leadership. She is “in the driver’s seat.”
Physical causes of dreams
Dreams can translate physical sensations into symbolism. These dreams are not meaningful in the traditional sense. They can be suggestive that they have deeper meaning, but the symbolism can be traced back to physical causes. For example:
Dream that a snake wraps around your head….Wake up with your arm wrapped around your head.
Dream about hearing a gunshot….A book falls off a table and makes a loud sound.
Dream that you suffocate in outer space….Airway is cutoff while sleeping.
Congratulations, you have reached the end of this dream primer. You have enough knowledge now to interpret your dreams, or try your hand at interpreting dreams shared at Reddit Dreams. You can see this interpretation process in action by checking out the dreams linked from the Reddit Dreams Twitter. Also, check out my blog, and my book “Dreams 1-2-3.”