Dream Meanings: What Do Our Dreams Mean & Why Do We Have Them?

9 min read

Last Modified 24 June 2022 First Added 25 March 2021

By Sam Atherton

For centuries, people have questioned the meaning of dreams. Early civilisations thought of dreams as a medium between humans and the gods. The Greeks and Romans were convinced that dreams could predict the future. Since then, times have changed. Now there are many different theories on dream meanings and dream interpretation. In this article, we explore the different theories behind dream meanings, talk to dream analysts, and find out what happens while we dream to find out whether our dreams have any true meaning.

Do our dreams mean anything?

There are many different theories when it comes to dream interpretation and whether our dreams really mean something. While we often enjoy recalling our dreams the following day, it’s important to decipher if there’s any significance in dream meanings. Here, we explore three leading scientific theories below…

Activation-synthesis hypothesis

One neurobiological theory of dreaming is the activation-synthesis hypothesis. This was proposed by Harvard University psychiatrists, John Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley. The activation-synthesis theory states that we dream because the mind attempts to make sense of i.e., synthesise, brain activity that happens when we sleep. Resultingly, the theory states that dreams don’t actually mean anything as dreams are just the result of neuronal processes.

This is because, whilst we may be asleep, our brains are anything but. Whilst we sleep, our brains perform several activities, including cleaning, known as metabolic clearance. These activities often occur in the amygdala and hippocampus, areas of our brain responsible for emotions, senses and memories which causes a spike in brain signals and impulses. The effort to give these sudden signals meaning is what leads us to dream. Memories in the brain are used to make sense of the signals and impulses resulting from this activity.  For example, if these resulting signals are similar to those produced whilst running you may dream of running.

However, critics of the activation-synthesis theory argue, that current neurophysiology fails to fully account for dreams and their meanings as it is too reductionist and simplistic. The presence of recurring dreams, for example, challenges the theory’s position on the randomness and non-meaning of dreams.

Freud & wish-fulfilment theory

It is these critiques that make the work of renowned psychologist Sigmund Freud so irrepressible. Rather than seeing dreams as the product of the sleeping brain, Freud regarded dreams as “a royal road to the unconscious”. For Freud, dreams are not random. Dreams derive from real life and the connections are constrained by unconscious desires hence “a dream is the fulfilment of a wish”.

He believed that dreams revealed unconsciously repressed conflicts or wishes. According to Freud, dreams are the imagery of a wish or impulse that has since been repressed. Our brains repress dreams, i.e., ‘dream-censorship’, where our latent dreams (the true meaning of the dream) become toned down or distorted and it is the job of the psychoanalyst to uncover the true meaning. This is why Freud studied dreams as a gateway to understanding the unconscious mind.

However, the strongest criticism of Freud is concentrated on its most important axiom – that dreams are wish-fulfilment. Rather than being a gateway to the unconscious, Aserinsky and Kleitman’s (1953) discovery that dreams typically occur during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep led to the conclusion that dreams are bizarre, not due to an elaborate disguise mechanism hiding their true meaning, but more simply due to brain stem activity. Indeed, many of Freud’s neurobiological assumptions are now thought of as inaccurate.

Threat simulation theory

Another theory is the threat simulation theory, which describes dreams as a defence mechanism our brains put in place to prepare us for threatening events. This theory is evolutionary-derived. That those with a more highly developed threat simulation system increase their chance of survival and reproduction and these threat simulation systems have since been ingrained into the gene pool. Threat simulation allows us to face our fears in a safe simulation.

Dreams, therefore, act as a dress rehearsal for the real thing, allowing us to practise the cognitive mechanisms necessary for threat perception and avoidance. Following research in 2005, in accordance with the theory, it was found that children who live in an environment in which their physical and psychological wellbeing is constantly threatened have a more highly activated dream production and threat simulation system compared to those who are free of such threats. Further studies have also supported threat simulation theory finding that threatening events are frequent in dreams, the most frequent threat being aggressive behaviour, that the self is often the target of these threats and recurrent dreams include more severe threat simulations.

Critiques of this theory have noted, however, that i) threat content may only be the result of selective memory for emotionally charged content, ii) that the bizarre nature of dreams fails to offer us realistic and therefore beneficial simulations of threats and that iii) nightmares or disturbed sleep can hardly be regarded as beneficial or functional to the dreamer due to what we know about the benefits of sound sleep.

Dr Pixie McKenna discusses dream meanings

Here Dr Pixie McKenna is joined by Dr Neil Stanley, who has studied dreams for 37 years, discussing the ins and outs of dream meanings.

Which dream theory is best?

Whilst several theories have been posited, each examining dreams from different perspectives from evolution to neurology, a holistic theory on the meaning of dreams has not yet been agreed upon.

Rather than seeing each theory as competing or right or wrong, it is best to see them as different lenses through which we can better understand dreams and their meanings. Although it’s impossible to pinpoint one theory, professional dream analyst and author Lauri Quinn Loewenberg states:

“In my experience, people are beginning to be more open to the fact that dreams are more than random misfirings of the brain, and that they are telling us something about ourselves.”

Why do we dream?

Dreaming mostly occurs during the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) cycle of sleep. However, dreams can occur in non-REM sleep and REM without dreams. During REM sleep, your eyes move quickly in different directions. Usually, REM sleep happens 90 minutes after you fall asleep. You tend to have intense dreams during this time as your brain is more active.

However, REM dreaming appears to have a significant effect on creativity. In one study, participants who were woken up during REM sleep were able to solve up to 35% more puzzles than participants who were woken during non-REM sleep.  Moreover, participants that were woken whilst dreaming reported the solution simply “popped” into their heads. This may explain why some of humanity’s most impressive achievements, from Paul McCartney’s Yesterday to Mendeleev’s Periodic Table, have all been composed in dreams.

In a separate study, participants were tasked with navigating a maze. The participants who had dreamt about the maze were 10x better at solving the maze than those who had napped without dreaming. These findings suggest that memory consolidation is helped by reactivating recently formed memories in the form of dreams. We asked Lauri Quinn Loewenberg, why we dream? She explained:

“Dreaming is a thinking process. In fact, it is a continuation of your thoughts from the day. That chatter in your head that goes on all day long continues as you drift off to sleep, and, once you enter REM sleep, when dreaming takes place, those thoughts continue in symbols and metaphors instead of in words.”

“During REM, the brain is working differently to when we are awake; certain parts of the brain have become dormant, such as the prefrontal cortex which controls rational thought, while other parts become highly active, such as the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls emotions. Through the dreaming process, you are continuing your thoughts about your day: your mistakes, your achievements, your hopes for tomorrow. Your dream thoughts are actually more focused and significantly more profound because your dreams provide you metaphoric commentary on yourself.”

What happens while we dream?

Dreams are essentially stories we play out in our heads overnight; they can follow a linear narrative or be abstract. Scientists estimate that we have roughly 3-6 dreams in one night and around 95% of these dreams are forgotten the following morning.

Whilst we forget most of our dreams, this doesn’t mean that dreams are unimportant, rather the opposite. REM-sleep dreaming is the only time the brain is devoid of noradrenaline – anxiety triggering molecule. This is coupled with the fact that key emotional and memory-related parts of the brain are active during REM sleep.

This allows your brain to process potentially upsetting or anxiety-inducing memories in a stress-free environment. Dreaming, therefore, has the potential to reduce emotional reactivity helping you to process events in a more rational way.

How do I interpret dream meanings?

Dream interpretation allows you to understand if your dreams are revealing something to you. There are certain things you can do to decipher your dream meanings.  Loewenberg says:

In a nutshell, you want to do a comparative analysis between the imagery and actions in the dream to the events of your previous day.Therefore, you should pay attention to the content of your dreams in waking life.

If you start keeping a day journal in tandem with a dream journal, you will absolutely start noticing connections between your dream imagery and your daily struggles and achievements. For example, you may notice that when your mother-in-law came over for dinner, you dreamed of being attacked by a bear that night. When you landed an account at work you’d been trying for, you may dream you won the lottery that night. Or when something you were super excited about didn’t work out, you may find that you dream of a plane crash or of falling that night.

The 10 Most Common Dreams & Their Meanings

What are the benefits of dreaming?

While we may not know a lot when it comes to dream meanings, more can be said about the benefits of dreaming. For example, the REM stage in which we dream also allows you to commit things you learn to memory, meaning dreaming will help with cognitive processes. As well as this, dreams offer emotional benefits, such as introspection. Loewenberg adds:

“Our dreams are full of information, advice, guidance and even warnings we need to know about ourselves and about our lives. Dreaming is a very deep and profound thinking process in which we focus solely on the self. Through dreaming, we examine our current issues, behaviours and goals. We come up with ideas, we sort things out, we look at ourselves in a deeper light, we gain a clearer picture of ourselves and situation so that we can make better decisions. Those of us that are dream researchers and who use dream work in our mental health practices have found that dream interpretations are the deepest form of therapy available.”

Dream Encyclopaedia

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