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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


Do Dreams Have Meaning? What the Experts Believe? ›

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

Do psychologists believe dreams have meaning? ›

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

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

What are dreams caused by? ›

Dreams come about as a part of brain activity when you sleep, which may involve the mental processing of your emotions, the consolidation of your memories, or warning signs to prepare you as a biological response.

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.”

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.

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.

What do neuroscientists believe 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.

Are dreams connected to reality? ›

Dreams allow the brain to work through its conscious experiences. During them, the brain appears to apply the same neurological machinery used during the day to examine the past, the future and other aspects of a person's (or animal's) inner world at night.

Is it scientifically proven that everyone dreams? ›

Rest easy, the answer is yes: Everybody dreams. Whether we recall what we dream, whether we dream in color, whether we dream every night or just every so often — these questions have more complicated answers. And then there's the really big question: What do our dreams actually mean?

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.

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.

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 to dream of someone that has passed away? ›

"When these dream figures keep returning, it brings a sense of continuity of connection," Ellis says, adding that toward the end of life, lost loved ones often come to help ease the life-death transition. "So while grief dreams can be painful, most often they help us through the pain of loss," she says.

Why do you dream about someone from your past? ›

If you often dream about people from your past or a particular person, that might signal that you are subconsciously dealing with some traumatic experience, grief, or loss. You probably see that person in your dream because of their connection to you and that trauma.

What does it mean when you dream a lot? ›

Experiencing recurring dreams may point at underlying issues regardless of the dream's content. Adults who experience frequent recurring dreams tend to have worse psychological health than those who do not, and many experts theorize that these dreams may be a way to work through unmet needs or process trauma.

What dreams predict illness? ›

In particular, dreams of unexpected memories, repeated physical injury, or lengthy dreams with bizarre or violent imagery could indicate impending illness. Paying attention to these unusual dream experiences could enable you to prepare the first defense against an oncoming illness.

Do dreams might be warning us about our brain health? ›

John Peever, a neuroscience researcher at University of Toronto, your dreams could actually be warning you about potential neurological disease. This researcher has identified the specific parts of the brain associated with dreaming, and has found some surprising connections between them and neurological disease.

Are dreams an indicator of good or bad sleep? ›

Researchers believe it either reflects or contributes to healthy sleep. If you rarely or never dream, that may indicate you're sleep-deprived. However, other factors affect dream recall, so you should talk with your doctor.

What are the three types of dreams? ›

It's important to know that dreams can come in many different types and to understand these different types of dreams that you can have. Some of the most common types of dreams you might be familiar with like nightmares, daydreams, and lucid dreams.

Why do some dreams feel so 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!

Why don't we remember being a baby? ›

Our brain is not fully developed when we are born—it continues to grow and change during this important period of our lives. And, as our brain develops, so does our memory.

What happens if you remember your dream? ›

While recalling a dream suggests that you've reached a REM sleep cycle at some point during the night, it doesn't necessarily mean that you've had more or less of that important stage of sleep than if you don't remember dreaming.

What happens when you stop remembering your dreams? ›

If you don't remember your dreams but are getting good sleep, you don't have anything to worry about. If you don't remember dreaming and feel tired during the day, or like your quality of sleep is worse than usual, you might be getting less REM sleep than you usually do, which means you're not dreaming as much.

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.

Does your subconscious control your reality? ›

There are countless studies that indicate how the subconscious mind controls every little thing – the way we think, feel, act, react, what we believe, and it also controls our goals and dreams, and whether we can achieve them.

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.

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.

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.

Do psychologists analyze dreams? ›

According to a study from the Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research, dream analysis appears to be most popular among psychoanalysts trained in psychodynamic theory.

Do dreams have meaning? ›

Domhoff also emphasized that while dreams can have meaning, his research suggests they aren't symbolic. During sleep, people don't appear to be able to access the parts of the brain involved with understanding or generating metaphors, he said.

Are dreams our thoughts? ›

Though there's no definitive proof, dreams are usually autobiographical thoughts based on your recent activities, conversations, or other issues in your life.

Are dreams a way to escape reality? ›

Dreams offer you an opportunity to escape the restrictions of normal reality and exercise the breadth and scope of your mental imagination. Like any good escape, sleep helps you turn away from the concerns of daily living, but it does so much more.

Is it rare to dream in color? ›

When awakened while dreaming, people rend to report that their dreams contained vivid colors seventy percent of the time and vague color 13 percent of the time, but outside of scientific studies, only 25 to 29 percent of people say that they dream in color. So many of us do dream in color but don't properly remember.

Can you sleep without dreaming? ›

While every human being so far as we know exhibits REM sleep, not every human being reports dreams. It appears you can have REM sleep with very low dream recall or possibly without dreams entirely. There may even be groups of individuals who never recall their dreams or who do not dream.

Do people with depression dream less? ›

Yes, depressed people tend to dream more. In fact, one study found that people who are depressed can dream up to three times more than people who are not depressed.

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.

Are dreams real or illusion? ›

Neurologically speaking, we process dreams just as we process waking experience, except there's no perceptual input and no physical output. Dreams, while we're dreaming them, are as experientially real as anything that happens to us during waking.

What is the most common bad dream? ›

Nightmares about falling were followed closely by dreams about being chased (more than 63 percent). Other distressing nightmares included death (roughly 55 percent), feeling lost (almost 54 percent), feeling trapped (52 percent), and being attacked (nearly 50 percent).

What is the most common dream? ›

Falling. Falling is the most common recurring dream people have, according to a 2022 survey of 2,007 Americans conducted by mattress and sleep product company, Amerisleep.

What does it mean if you remember your dream when you wake up? ›

Alarm clocks, and irregular sleep schedules can result in abrupt waking during dream or REM sleep, and thus result in recall of dreams. Sleep apnea, alcohol, or anything that disturbs sleep can also cause dream recall,” Dimitriu says.

Why you should never stop dreaming? ›

Dreams have the power to inspire, motivate, and drive individuals to achieve their goals. Whether it's a personal dream, a career aspiration, or a lifelong goal, dreams can provide a sense of purpose and direction in life. For many people, the idea of never stop dreaming is more than just a saying. It's a way of life.

Why do dreams feel so 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!

How to know if a dream is real? ›

Popular reality checks include:
  1. Finger through palm. Push your fingers against your opposite palm. ...
  2. Mirrors. In a dream state, your reflection won't look normal.
  3. Nose pinch. Pinch your nose. ...
  4. Reading. Look away from text then look back again. ...
  5. Tattoos. If you have tattoos, look at them.
Jun 17, 2019

What type of dream is it when it feels real? ›

Lucid dreams are when you know that you're dreaming while you're asleep. You're aware that the events flashing through your brain aren't really happening. But the dream feels vivid and real. You may even be able to control how the action unfolds, as if you're directing a movie in your sleep.

Are dreams linked to reality? ›

So Is There A Connection Between Dreams and Real Life? The short answer: yes. Because dreams result from the activity in our brains, which house our perceptions of ourselves and the world around us. It would be impossible to say that dreams have nothing to do with our waking lives.


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