In a recurring dream of mine, I’m driving a car when I suddenly remember I don’t know how. It’s always at that moment when I realise my dad asked me to find parking. Like many dreams, it makes very little sense. Surely my dad would never let me get behind the wheel in the first place. And I would certainly not be bold enough to operate a vehicle with zero experience. So, could this dream possibly have anything to do with me IRL? Research says yes.
Dreams are far from random. Looking at multiple dreams and when they occur in a person’s life, you can see how the dreams embody ongoing concerns, how someone views themselves, and the dreamer’s relationship with the world, says Antonio Zadra, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Montreal and coauthor of When Brains Dream.
One recent example: During lockdown in 2020, people dreamed about social distancing, PPE, and other pandemic themes, according to one study. Not exactly surprising, but it does show that our dreaming and waking minds are closely linked.
So if dreams imitate life, why do some of them defy common sense, like my driving dream? The answer is found in neuroscience. Most recalled dreams happen during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. In this phase, your secondary visual cortex, which forms images from your memory and imagination, is way more active than when you’re awake.
The prefrontal cortex, where logic and censorship lie, is significantly tamped down, and so are the language areas of your brain, says Deirdre Barrett, PhD, author of The Committee of Sleep and a lecturer on psychology at Harvard. The result? 'We have our usual thoughts, concerns, hopes, and fears, but they’re being expressed in a visual story format rather than a logical, verbal-reasoning way,' she says.
Your dreams are trying to tell you to pay attention to something
Your brain strings together the plot by going through memories loosely related to your worries. Then it presents images and pictures in a dream to see how you’d respond. (Yes, your mind is actively testing you!) 'The brain creates these unusual dream narratives so we have an experience that we react to. Then it uses these feelings to make sense of the world around us,' explains Zadra.
Using my driving dream as a case study, I went from feeling happy and free to scared and resentful because I was given an impossible task. But I never resist or argue—I do what’s expected of me (I attempt to find parking), which is my norm.
Dreams can be a fount of ideas, and artists throughout history have gotten inspiration for masterpieces in bed. Mary Shelley dreamed of two key scenes in Frankenstein—when the inventor tries to bring his creation to life with electricity, and when the monster walks in and stands over him while he’s asleep. And Paul McCartney first heard the tune for 'Yesterday' in a dream.
But you can also simply learn a lot about yourself from dreams because they’re based on your memories and emotions. 'If you reflect, Why would my brain select this? Why would it put them together in this way?, it can lead to insights about what’s on your mind, things you haven’t thought about or given enough attention to,' says Zadra.
Yes, you can interpret your dreams. You just need to know where to look
Even if you and your friend have similar dreams, the meaning would be different for each of you. You need to examine your dreams in the context of your life to decipher them. That’s why Amy Lawson, MD, the host of the podcast The Stuff of Dreams, adds this disclaimer when she interprets dreams on Reddit: If her read doesn’t ring true for you, then it’s not right. 'You have to go where the inner energy is because you’re the one that’s in your head,' she says.
If you’re one of those people who rarely dream, fret not. Everybody dreams (including you!), but you may not remember it if you don’t wake up during REM sleep. Your short-term memory is active during this stage, while the mechanisms that convert short-term to long-term memory are not, says Barrett.
You’ll lose that memory if you don’t wake up. But there’s a hack: Tell yourself to remember your dreams before you hit the sheets. This is a legit technique called auto-suggestion, and it works, according to Zadra. It’s almost like setting an intention to recall what goes on.
Here's how to find out what a dream means
Ready to unlock the wisdom that’s specifically for you? Experts lay out how to make sense of your personal symbols and metaphors.
Tune In to Emotions
Pay attention to the feelings you have in your dream, especially strong ones. Look at when, why, and how these intense emotions are experienced. And write all of them down first thing in the morning. Think about what’s happening in your waking life that inspires feelings similar to the ones you have in your dream. Maybe the anxiety you experience in a dream about being unprepared for an exam mirrors the unease you feel about a new job.
Focus on the Who
The characters in your dream are important. Do you know them, and do they show up often in your dreams? Do they make you think of someone you know? And consider the nature of your interactions. Do you have a good time with them? Or do you fight? In my dream, my dad pressures me to find parking. I often worry about disappointing him, and I tend to have this dream when I go through work stress, like starting a new job or project.
Look at the Totality
You can learn many useful things from a single dream, but Zadra
believes observing a series of dreams to spot patterns is crucial. 'Because these patterns reoccur over time, they’re probably even more significant than any individual experience,' he says.
See who you dream about most often. Then think about the nature of your relationships with them. Is there a highly unusual interaction initiated by someone in your dream? How does it end, and how do you feel when you wake up?
Bringing it back to the car… My dad asked me to park it, but I literally can’t do it. Losing control of your car typically means not being able to guide your life where you want, per Zadra. So, my dream could be telling me that I push myself to fulfil my dad’s expectations even if they’re undoable.
Ask Your Friends
Ever heard the expression 'You’re too close to it?' That applies to dream analysis too. 'I’m pretty good at interpreting other people’s dreams, and I still often do not see stuff in my own until I talk to my dream group,' says Dr. Lawson. 'They’ll point out something, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, that should have been super obvious.’ But because it was mine, I couldn’t see it.'
Try gathering a few confidantes who have known you for a while and are also interested in interpreting dreams. (Think of it as an alternative form of book club!) They have in-depth knowledge of you to work with and can offer reads and insights to help you pick out threads you may have missed. Meet regularly so you can all get some practice in.
The Meaning of Common Dreams
Dream dictionaries can provide basic guidance on interpreting symbols, but the answer ultimately comes from your experiences. (Dr. Lawson recommends the book Inner Work, by Robert Johnson, for how to get started).
That said, researchers have identified some common themes, which can send you down the right path. Here, the ones they see all the time…
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