People have pondered the meaning of dreams for centuries. Dreams can be detailed or vague, cheerful or frightening, realistic or implausible. So while we all dream, what do psychologists have to say about why we dream? What purpose do dreams really serve?
While many theories have been proposed, no single consensus has emerged. Some researchers suggest that dreams serve no real purpose. One prominent neurobiological theory of dreaming is the “activation-synthesis hypothesis,” which states that dreams don’t actually mean anything: they are merely electrical brain impulses that pull random thoughts and imagery from our memories. Meanwhile, most other researchers believe that dreaming is essential to mental, emotional and physical well-being. These scholars encourage individuals to pay very close attention to their dreams.
Clinical psychotherapist Jeffrey Sumber explains, “Dreams are the bridge that allows movement back and forth between what we think we know and what we really know.”
Psychoanalytic theorists defend that dreams are an opportunity to work through feelings and drives that are not consciously expressed. These experts suggest that through the creation of images, impressions, and narratives, dreams are the means of daily information-processing.
What we see and experience in our dreams might not necessarily be real, but the emotions attached to these experiences certainly are. Dreams allow us to process information or events in an environment where the emotions are real, but there is no physical danger; therefore, they can be a helpful tool to attend to the most frightening of situations. Dreams can be beneficial because they may allow the individual to address unpleasant emotions, like fear, unconsciously.
If your dreams are persistently sinister and unnerving, you might be more frightened than you consciously know. Common dream symbols of fear and anxiety can include being chased, falling, public nudity, teeth rotting or falling out, being late to an important engagement, or losing something valuable.
Although “dream dictionaries” that feature very specific meanings for objects have flooded the internet, the key is to figure out what the symbols mean to you.
“While there may be a trace of collective meaning for certain universal symbols that do have some bearing on our internal analysis and growth, I am far more interested in where the dreamer goes with the symbol and what the dreamer connects to as a result of the dream,” Sumber explains. “I believe we are all unique and carry very personal histories that impact the symbols, objects, tastes and smells that we associate with a particular dream story or event.”
Even though there may be some universal feelings tied up with different objects, symbols can have different meanings for different people.