For as long as human beings have tried to understand what dreams are, they have also asked, “What is the meaning of dreams? Where do dreams come from, and what are they trying to tell us?” While the scientific definition of dreams can reveal the neural processes behind dreaming the meanings of dreams are much more subjective and individual. Dream interpretation is the art of discovering the possible meaning behind someone’s dream through tracing the symbolism of the dream and the life context of the person who experienced it.
Today, dream interpretation has been enfolded into the realm of popular psychology, but it has been in practice for thousands of years. Inscribed clay tablets from Mesopotamia provide the earliest recorded dream journals, some with their associated interpretations. In Sumerian legend, gods and kings like Assurbanipal paid close attention to dreams, believing that dreams could provide the dreamer with advice and insight into the future. The hero of the epic Sumerian poem Gilgamesh experiences recurring prophetic dreams which he reports to his mother Ninsun, who counsels him in the possible meanings of his dreams. Many ancient near Eastern texts interpret dreams as prophecies about the future of a kingdom, an important person, or even an ordinary person. One Assyrian text warns that recurrent flying dreams meant that the dreamer was in danger of losing all he owned.
Much later, Sigmund Freud suggested that dreams were messages from the subconscious that inform the conscious mind about urges, conflicts and suppressed feelings that a person can’t express while awake. Freud believed there were two layers to the content of dreams: manifest content and latent content. Manifest content is the actual setting, characters, and objects of a dream, and has no deeper meaning. Latent content comprises the concepts and issues that the manifest content symbolically represents. According to Freud, the psychological meaning of a dream is in the latent content.
Freud believed that much of the latent content of dreams was sexual or otherwise had to do with an individual’s suppressed urges and desires. For instance, a dream in which a relative dies could represent the dreamer’s subconscious wish for the relative to die or go away. Freud suggested in his Interpretation of Dreams that this does not have to be the dreamer’s current desire, but is likely to be a feeling they experienced as a child and later suppressed. Though Freud focused heavily on sexual urges and wish fulfillment as the latent meanings of dreams, he later admitted there could be other causes behind dreams, such as trauma, aggression and supernatural influences (in his Dreams and Occultism).
Carl Jung, once a disciple of Freud, also believed that dreams contain subconscious wishes and messages for the dreamer. He thought dreams could be used to resolve emotional issues, problems, and anxieties; it was important to Jung that people pay attention to their dreams and try to determine their meaning. In Jungian interpretation, not every element of a dream has a latent meaning; he coined the term day residue to refer to elements of the past day that creep into our dreams. In your dreams, your subconscious mind processes the impression left by the people you saw, places you traveled, and things you did or watched the previous day. These elements may be arranged in your dreams in a way that does or does not express latent content.
Alfred Adler used a much more straightforward model to explain the meaning of dreams. He believed that there was no real separation between the subconscious and conscious minds, and that both parts of ourselves strive for individual perfection and complete control of the course of our lives. Adler claimed that dreams were mainly the subconscious mind’s way of helping you solve problems and conflicts in your life. Conscious interpretations of your dreams could shed light on how to solve these problems. In Adler’s model, if you have a lot of dreams it means that you have a lot of issues to work out; as you begin to have fewer dreams, it means you are becoming more psychologically healthy. Of course, anyone interested in dream work and lucid dreaming would say that dreams can be far more than a subconscious troubleshooting manual!
Modern dream interpretations lean more toward Jung than Freud or Adler, accepting that an individual’s circumstances can influence dreams enough that it is hard to ascribe a universal meaning to a certain type of dream. Frederick Perls, the founder of Gestalt therapy, firmly rejected the idea of universal dream archetypes and insisted that each dream is unique to the individual. In Perls’s model, dreams represent disowned parts of yourself that are trying to reintegrate into the whole. Everything you encounter in your dream is a part of you: the setting, the people you meet, even the antagonists in your nightmares.
If you want to take a crack at interpreting your dreams, there are many dream interpretation sites that offer handy catalogues of dream elements and symbols. The best dream interpretation sites include a series of open-ended questions within each category that you can use to get at the meaning of your dream. Concept maps, such as the one I’ve included below, can also suggest the mental concepts that each element of your dream may symbolize. The five most common concepts symbolized in dreams are:
-Concepts of self (the roles you play)
-Concepts of others (the roles others play and how you relate to them)
-Concepts of the world (the dream setting and how you feel about it)
-Concepts of impulses, prohibitions and penalties (how you regulate your behavior and impulses, and your attitude towards punishment)
-Concepts of problems and conflicts that you face in waking life. These dreams often try to offer resolutions.
The subjective nature of dreams means that the dreamer is always the best equipped to answer the question “what is the meaning of dreams?” With a little diligent interpretation, your subconscious will give you the answer that you are seeking, and perhaps this answer will help to guide you down a fulfilling and essential path in your life!