Dream Interpretation: What Do Dreams Mean?

Dream Interpretation
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While many theories exist to explain why we dream, no one yet fully understands their purpose, let alone how to interpret the meaning of dreams. Dreams can be mysterious, but understanding the meaning of our dreams can be downright baffling. Our dreams' contents can shift suddenly, feature bizarre elements or frighten us with terrifying imagery. The fact that dreams can be so rich and compelling is what causes many to believe that there must be some meaning to our dreams.

Some prominent researchers such as G. William Domhoff suggest that dreams most likely serve no real purpose.

Despite this, dream interpretation has become increasingly popular. While research has not demonstrated a purpose for dreams, many experts believe that dreams do have meaning.

According to Domhoff:

"'Meaning' has to do with coherence and with systematic relations to other variables, and in that regard dreams do have meaning. Furthermore, they are very "revealing" of what is on our minds. We have shown that 75 to 100 dreams from a person give us a very good psychological portrait of that individual. Give us 1000 dreams over a couple of decades and we can give you a profile of the person's mind that is almost as individualized and accurate as her or his fingerprints."

Freud: Dreams as the Road to the Unconscious Mind

In his book The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud suggested that the content of dreams is related to wish-fulfillment.

Freud believed that the manifest content of a dream, or the actually imagery and events of the dream, served to disguise the latent content or the unconscious wishes of the dreamer.

Freud also described four elements of this process that he referred to as 'dream work':

  • Condensation – Many different ideas and concepts are represented within the span of a single dream. Information is condensed into a single thought or image.
  • Displacement – This element of dream work disguises the emotional meaning of the latent content by confusing the important and insignificant parts of the dream.
  • Symbolization – This operation also censors the repressed ideas contained in the dream by including objects that are meant to symbolize the latent content of the dream.
  • Secondary Revision – During this final stage of the dreaming process, Freud suggested that the bizarre elements of the dream are reorganized in order to make the dream comprehensible, thus generating the manifest content of the dream.

Jung: Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious:

While Carl Jung shared some commonalities with Freud, he felt that dreams were more than an expression of repressed wishes. Jung suggested that dreams revealed both the personal and collective unconscious and believed that dreams serve to compensate for parts of the psyche that are underdeveloped in waking life. In contradiction to Jung's assertions, however, later research by Hall revealed that the traits people exhibit while they awake are the same as those expressed in dreams.

Jung also suggested that archetypes such as the anima, the shadow, and the animus are often represented symbolic objects or figures in dreams. These symbols, he believed, represented attitudes that are repressed by the conscious mind. Unlike Freud, who often suggested that specific symbols represent specific unconscious thoughts, Jung believed that dreams can be highly personal and that interpreting these dreams involved knowing a great deal about the individual dreamer.

Hall: Dreams as a Cognitive Process

Calvin S. Hall proposed that dreams are part of a cognitive process in which dreams serve as ‘conceptions’ of elements of our personal lives. Hall looked for themes and patterns by analyzing thousands of dream diaries from participants, eventually creating a quantitative coding system that divided what's in our dreams into a number of categories.

According to Hall’s theory, interpreting dreams requires knowing:

  • The actions of the dreamer within the dream
  • The objects and figures in the dream
  • The interactions between the dreamer and the characters in the dream
  • The dream’s setting, transitions, and outcome

The ultimate goal of this dream interpretation is not to understand the dream, however, but to understand the dreamer.

Domhoff: Dreams as a Reflection of Waking Life

G. William Domhoff is a prominent dream researcher who studied with Calvin Hall at the University of Miami. In large-scale studies on the content of dreams, Domhoff has found that dreams reflect the thoughts and concerns of a dreamer’s waking life. Domhoff suggests a neurocognitive model of dreams in which the process of dreaming results from neurological processes and a system of schemas. Dream content, he suggests results from these cognitive processes.

Popularizing Dream Interpretation

Since the 1970s, dream interpretation has grown increasingly popular thanks to work by authors such as Ann Faraday. In books such as The Dream Game, Faraday outlined techniques and ideas than anyone can use to interpret their own dreams. Today, consumers can purchase a wide variety of books that offer dream dictionaries, symbol guides and tips for interpreting and understanding dreams.

Dream research will undoubtedly continue to grow and generate interest from people interested in understanding the meaning of their dreams. However, dream expert G. William Domhoff recommends that "...unless you find your dreams fun, intellectually interesting, or artistically inspiring, then feel free to forget your dreams." Others such as Cartwright and Kaszniak propose that dream interpretation may actually reveal more about the interpreter than it does about the meaning of the dream itself.

A Dream's Meaning Might Depend on Your Biases

Researchers Carey Morewedge and Michael Norton have studied the dreams of over 1,000 individuals from the United States, India, and South Korea. What they discovered is that few of the college students who participated in the research believed that their dreams were simply the brain's response to random stimulation. Instead, most endorsed Freud's notion that dreams reveal unconscious wishes and urges.

What they also discovered, however, is that the weight and importance people attach to their dreams depend largely on their biases. People are more likely to remember negative dreams if they involve people that they already dislike. They are also more likely to take positive dreams seriously if they involve friends or loved ones.

In other words, people are motivated to interpret their dreams in ways that support their already existing beliefs about themselves, the world, and the people around them. The researchers found that such things as the confirmation bias and the self-serving bias even impact how people respond to their own dreams.

Because people tend to take their dreams seriously, the researchers suggest, these dreams can also become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you dream that you are going to fail an exam, you might be less motivated to study or even become so stressed out that you perform poorly.

Dreams may or may not have meaning but the fact remains that interpreting dreams has become a popular past time. Some people even base major life decisions on the contents of their dreams. Learn more about what some modern dream interpreters have to say about some of the most common dreams and what they supposedly mean.

"A dream is a work of art which requires of the dreamer no particular talent, special training, or technical competence. Dreaming is a creative enterprise in which all may and most do participate." – Clark S. Hall


Cartwright R.D. & Kaszniak, A. (1991). The social psychology of dream reporting. In S.J. Ellman & J.S. Antrobus (Eds.), The mind in sleep: Psychology and psychophysiology, (2nd ed.). New York: Wiley.

Domhoff, G.W. (n.d.). The "purpose" of dreaming. http://www.dreamresearch.net

Freud, S. (1900). The Interpretation of Dreams.

Domhoff, G.W. (2002). “Toward a Neurocognitive Model of Dreams.” The Scientific Study of Dreams.

Domhoff, G.W. (1996). Finding meaning in dreams: A quantitative approach. New York and London: Plenum Press.

Hall, C. S. (1953). A cognitive theory of dreams. The Journal of General Psychology, 49, 273-282.

Jung, Carl (1966). "The Practical Use of Dream-analysis.” The Practice of Psychotherapy: Essays on the Psychology of Transference.

Tierney, J. (2009). What do dreams mean? Whatever your bias says. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/10/science/10tier.html?_r=0

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