How to interpret dreams: A comprehensive guide

Here’s a picture—you’re walking in a field of sunflowers, wearing a white dress and looking radiant. Suddenly, you drop into a hole from nowhere, free-falling until you land on the back of a giant monkey.

You wake up with a start, and you realize you’ve just had a strange dream.

As quickly as you realize this, the image begins fading. But the feeling of panic stays with you throughout the day, and you can’t help but wonder what it all means.

This is the mysterious pull of dreams, and it’s something that’s been up for debate throughout the years.

Why do we dream? And what do our dreams mean?

Here, we’ll try to answer those questions. We’ll break down the vast and confusing world of dream interpretation to help you make sense of it all.

What is a dream?

Before we dive into the different ways to interpret dreams, let’s first take a moment to discuss what a dream is.

A dream is a series of images, thoughts, and sensations that occur in your mind as you sleep.

It typically occurs during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep, which is when you have increased brain activity and eye movement.

Your dreams are unique to you. That’s because they are influenced by your emotions, memories, and experiences.

Dreams can be extremely vivid and realistic, or they can be abstract and surreal. They can be disturbing or pleasant, and they can be based on recent events or past experiences.

How do you interpret dreams?

Researchers find it difficult to explain the role of dreams, and you’ll find much disagreement among them on the purpose of dreams.

However, there are some widely accepted beliefs and theories that dream experts use to interpret dreams.

1) Freud’s theory of unconscious wish fulfillment

One of the most prevalent theories of dream interpretation is that of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.

If I were to describe this theory in a nutshell, it would be this—it’s all about repressed desires.

According to Freud, dreams are a way for your unconscious mind to fulfill the desires and wishes that you can’t satisfy in your waking life.

That’s because the mind’s censor, which is responsible for repressing unacceptable desires and thoughts, is less active during sleep.

This gives your unconscious mind an open door through which it can express itself.

This theory further proposes that the symbols and imagery you see in your dreams are not random, but are rather a reflection of your unconscious desires and conflicts.

For example, if you’ve repressed a desire for success and power, you might have a dream where you’re holding a gavel, which is a symbol of power and authority.

Basically, this theory highlights two key points: what the materials of a dream are, and how these materials work together.

The answers to these two questions can contribute to an understanding of dream interpretation.

2) Jung’s theory of compensation and self-portrayal

Carl Jung was another psychoanalyst—Freud’s protégé—who agreed with Freud that dreams are meaningful.

However, while Freud believes dreams are about repressed desires, Jung’s theory states that it’s all about maintaining a balance of the self.

What exactly does that mean?

According to Jung, our dreams help maintain a healthy balance between the conscious and the unconscious selves.

When the waking ego leans too much toward one side, our dreams will emerge to address the imbalance and guide us back to a more balanced self.

Say, for example, you’ve recently received a promotion at work. You’ve bought a new, flashy car, and, to top it off—finally gotten together with the woman of your dreams.

These events might have given you an inflated sense of pride; you might be feeling all-powerful and invincible.

Then, at night, you dream of being homeless and begging on the streets, unnoticed by people passing by.

Such a stark contrast to your waking life, isn’t it?

Well, if we were to follow Jung’s dream interpretation theory, that’s your unconscious trying to bring you back down to earth and give you a dose of humility.

3) Threat simulation theory

Some researchers believe that dreams play a role in our evolution, specifically in helping us identify and deal with danger.

A 2009 study compared the dreams of children with trauma experiences and children who didn’t have any. The results showed that this theory has some merit to it.

Threat simulation while dreaming is a form of rehearsal—it trains our brain to perceive and avoid threats or dangerous situations in real life.

In this light, dreams serve an important biological function.

4) Information processing theory

Cognitive psychologist George Miller offers another interesting way to interpret dreams.

Miller believed that the brain uses dreams as a way to sort through and organize new information, and to make connections between different pieces of information.

To better understand this theory, it helps to think of the brain as a computer—it collects, saves, modifies, and retrieves data.

However, your brain can’t take it all in—something’s got to give, and that’s all the irrelevant information you’ve collected.

So, while you sleep and dream, your brain is hard at work transferring only the relevant information you’ve learned during the day to your memories.

This theory also sees dreams as a way to simulate potential scenarios and practice problem-solving skills.

Aside from that, it suggests that dreams can help regulate emotions by processing and resolving emotional experiences from the day.

5) Activation-synthesis theory

In contrast to the theories I mentioned above, the activation-synthesis theory states that dreams are not really meaningful.

According to this theory by Harvard professors Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley, your dreams are nothing more than a collection of random thoughts and images.

They are simply byproducts of the random firing of neurons in your brain as you sleep.

Your brain’s cognitive areas then try to make sense of these random patterns by synthesizing them into a story or dream to give it some form or structure.

How to remember your dreams

Now that you know the various ways you can interpret your dreams, let’s talk about how to kick off your dream interpretation journey.

Obviously, knowing what your dream means hinges on one important step – remembering it.

Unfortunately, dreams can be difficult to remember. That’s because the brain’s ability to recall is at its lowest when you’re dreaming.

You’d be surprised to know that we typically dream around four to six times a night, but we forget more than 95% of our dreams.

In fact, your dream might be quite vivid and fascinating, but if you don’t wake up at the right time, you won’t likely remember it.

According to neuroscientist Thomas Andrillon, studies show that people can recall their dreams if they are awakened at the right moment.

Here are a few tactics you can do to improve your dream recall:

1) Before falling asleep, resolve to remember your dream

One way to help recall your dreams is to remind yourself as you’re falling asleep that you want to remember your dream.

It’s a way of tricking the mind. If that’s your last thought, you might have a better chance of waking up with your dream still fresh in your memory.

2) Wake up without an alarm

The problem with dream recall is that it’s so easily interrupted by the slightest distraction.

If you rely on an alarm clock to wake yourself up, the annoying and insistent sound will intrude into your consciousness. Your brain will then focus on turning off the sound, not on your dream.

Thus, you’ll remember your dreams better if you wake up naturally than with an alarm.

And once you wake up…

3) Take it slow in the morning

The moment you open your eyes, that wonderfully strange dream you’ve had starts drifting away into oblivion.

As I mentioned earlier, distractions have the power to interrupt and erase dream recall quickly. So, when you wake up, don’t jump out of bed just yet.

Spend a little time trying to remember the images in your dream. Don’t think of anything else – just focus on grasping what you can of the dream you’ve just had.

Which leads us to our next tip…

4) Keep a dream journal

As you solidify the memory of your dream, write down whatever images or memories you remember on a pad next to your bed or on your phone.

Dream journaling is the practice of recording your dream memories while they are still fairly fresh in your mind.

This practice helps you see any patterns or repeated symbols and imagery over time.

It’s also useful for developing an ability for lucid dreaming, which allows you to navigate dreams in a conscious state.

You can write it like a narrative or a list of bits and pieces, or you can sketch what you saw.

If that doesn’t appeal to you, try dictating your thoughts into a voice recorder instead.

It doesn’t matter what medium you use; the point is to keep a consistent record of your dreams.

As you record your memories, write them in the present tense, as if it’s happening in real-time. This keeps you connected to your dream state, helping you remember the details and actions more clearly.

More importantly, note down your emotions. How were you feeling while you were in the dream? Were you joyful? Scared? Did you have a feeling of dread?

These details are essential to figuring out the significance of your dream.

5) Notice patterns and themes

As you become more comfortable with remembering your dreams and keeping a record, you’ll begin to see patterns.

These patterns and themes can give you an insight into your innermost thoughts and feelings about those topics.

They may indicate unresolved issues or emotions. For example, dreams about falling may indicate a fear of failure or losing control in your waking life.

What are the common themes in dreams?

The strange and mysterious world of dreams is filled with countless themes that vary from person to person.

Here are the most common themes that pop up over and over in many people’s dreams and their typical interpretations.


A dream about flying can be interpreted in different ways, and it all depends on how you feel in the dream.

If you feel joyful, a common interpretation is that the dream signifies a triumph over something you’ve been struggling with.

On the other hand, if you feel stressed or anxious in the dream, it might be an indication that you need to escape from something in your life.

Losing teeth

Ever have this dream? I’m sure you’ve awakened from this one feeling anxious. I definitely was when I had one!

According to Penney Peirce, the author of “Dream Dictionary for Dummies,” this dream can mean a lot of things.

Teeth are a common symbol of power because of their ability to bite, cut, grind, and tear. Thus, one interpretation is that losing your teeth in a dream points to a feeling of loss of personal power.

It could also mean that you’re worried about your appearance since your smile is one of the first things people notice about you.

Being chased

Here’s another dream that leaves us feeling anxious and terrified. Tony Crisp’s Dream Dictionary suggests that being pursued by an attacker points to avoidance of something in your real life.

The meaning of a chasing dream depends on the identity of the pursuer. Here are the common interpretations for this:

  • An animal: you’re hiding from your own emotions like anger, passion, and other feelings
  • A stranger: this might represent a past trauma
  • A member of the opposite sex: this could mean that you’re afraid of love or haunted by a past relationship

Being naked in public

Have you ever dreamt that you’re in your birthday suit in a room full of people?

That’s definitely an awkward and embarrassing dream, but it’s one of the most common dreams people have.

Public nudity could indicate that you have a fear of revealing your imperfections or secrets. Your dream could be your unconscious asking you to consider why you have this fear.

Some psychologists point to trauma as the root cause of this type of dream. A study showed that this dream might be triggered by feeling neglected or deprived of attention in childhood or adolescence.


A cheating dream doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re unhappy in your current relationship.

Remember that dreams aren’t always literal—they rarely mean what they look like on the surface.

According to psychologist Dr. Sarah Gundle, a cheating dream could point to something else—either a secret, a truth you’re avoiding, or a desire for something missing in your life.

With so many different interpretations, one thing emerges as the most important clue to the meaning of your dreams – how you were feeling.

What are the benefits of dream interpretation?

Given the dream interpretation theories I’ve tackled above, there are many benefits to knowing the meaning of your dreams.

1) Dreams can help you confront emotional issues in your life

Dreams can reveal your unconscious thoughts and feelings and help you understand your own motivations and emotions. They can provide insights and show you how to resolve your real-life issues.

All of this boils down to an overarching benefit of dreams: they can increase self-awareness and lead you to personal growth.

2) Dreams can serve as fight-or-flight training

As I mentioned in the discussion on the threat simulation theory, dreaming can serve to train you to deal with dangers in real life.

That’s because when you dream, your amygdala lights up – that’s the part of your brain that’s associated with the survival instinct.

So how does it work?

While you sleep, the brainstem sends out nerve signals that relax your muscles.

This frees up your amygdala to build your mental capacity for handling dangerous situations without the risk of your body actually moving to run or punch in your sleep.

3) Dreams can help you be more creative

How can dreams boost creativity?

Well, when you think about it, most dreams rarely make sense on the surface.

You’ll find things that don’t normally go together and strange situations that can’t really happen in real life—it’s a rich source of ideas and imagery!

Not only that, but dreams occur during REM sleep, which is when our brains make new connections.

Thus, they improve our problem-solving skills and our capacity to connect abstract and unrelated experiences.

4) Dreams help improve memory

Again, the fact that dreams occur during the REM stage comes into play here.

During REM sleep, the brain is thought to strengthen the neural connections that were formed during the day.

This process of consolidating memories is vital for long-term memory storage and retrieval.

A 2010 Harvard study of healthy college students affirms this.

Based on the results, the students who took a nap after learning the given material performed better on memory tasks compared to those who didn’t.

What are the risks of dream interpretation?

Dream interpretation is a vast field that still isn’t fully understood yet. Thus, it carries with it several risks:

1) Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias refers to our natural tendency to seek validation for the beliefs and ideas we hold.

Simply put, we see what we want to see and reject what we don’t want to believe.

How does this affect dream interpretation?

With the brain being the tricky thing it is, it can use our dreams to “affirm” our beliefs.

I put quotation marks because, in this specific situation, it really isn’t affirming so much as it’s deceiving ourselves.

2) False memories

Another risk is that dreams can create false memories or associations based on dream interpretation.

It does this by incorporating elements of past experiences, emotions, and imagination in an unusual way that creates new, but false, memories.

Think about it – have you ever had a dream so vivid you thought it was real?

Such dreams can blur the line between real and imaginary and cause dream-reality confusion.

3) Emotional distress

Dream interpretation can cause emotional distress if the dreamer interprets their dream in a way that conflicts with their beliefs or values, or as something with a negative or traumatic meaning.

For example, it can be upsetting if you experience a dream that you interpret as a reflection of your deepest fears or anxieties.

Similarly, if your dream’s meaning contradicts your understanding of yourself, it can make you feel confused and disoriented.

Lastly, the dream could simply be so terrifying or upsetting that it can trigger feelings of fear, anxiety, or sadness. Some examples are those that involve death or an accident.

4) Inaccurate diagnosis

In the hands of an inexperienced interpreter, your dream might be misconstrued as an indication of a mental or physical health condition.

Remember that dreams are in no way a substitute for medical or psychological diagnosis, and should never be used as a sole basis for diagnosis.

5) Inappropriate or harmful advice

Appropriate dream interpretation relies heavily on the context of the dreamer’s life.

If a dream interpreter is not aware of the cultural, social, or personal context in which the dream occurs, they may interpret it in a way that isn’t appropriate or respectful.

The interpreter’s biases can also play a role if they don’t approach the interpretation with a critical perspective.

For example, let’s say you’ve had a dream about a same-sex relationship, and you ask an interpreter to tell you what it means.

If the interpreter isn’t aware of their own biases against same-sex relationships, they may interpret the dream in a negative light. They may advise you to seek therapy or change your sexual orientation.

Final thoughts

As you can see, the world of dreams is a mysterious land, one that’s still largely uncharted. It’s not an exact science, and different people may assign different meanings to the same dream.

Psychologists have many theories to explain why we dream, but even then, more research is needed to completely understand the purpose of dreams.

In the meantime, instead of assuming that only one theory is correct, we’re better off viewing our dreams through a variety of lenses.

Despite this uncertainty, one thing is clear – dreams make our lives richer and more interesting and unlock doors to the hidden world inside us.

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