Say you have a dream about your ex that greatly resembles the scene in “Titanic” where Jack and Rose fog up a car window.
Does this mean you want to get back together with your ex? Does this mean you should book a cruise for your next vacation? Or maybe it just means you need to watch “Titanic” again, alone in a dark room.
We often wonder if our dreams carry meaning. But to understand the message behind them, it’s important to first understand the stages in which we dream, how our brain gets the content of our dreams and how we can play an active role in the recall process.
Here’s what you need to know and do to interpret your dreams:
It’s unlikely that you’ll remember more than 10% of your dreams in any given night.
Dreams are most vivid and frequent during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep, according to Tore Nielsen, retired psychologist and current director of the Dream and Nightmare Laboratory at Montreal’s Sacré-Coeur Hospital. When people are woken up from REM sleep in the lab, Nielsen said, they tend to have the greatest recollection of their dreams.
REM is the stage that provides energy to your brain and body, which is essential to your performance the next day. Your muscles are “shut off,” but your brain is still active, feeding the content of your dreams.
The quality of your dreams typically varies depending on the time of night. In the beginning of the night, the REM period might lead to a short dream, like a movie trailer, Nielsen said. Later in the night, during a much longer REM period, you might have a dream that’s more like a movie.
Adults will typically have four to six dreams per night, according to the National Sleep Foundation, although they won’t remember all of them.
“It’s unlikely that anybody remembers more than 10 percent of their dreams in a night,” estimated Robert Stickgold, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “We’re just dreaming too much.”
In other words, you probably won’t have the full picture once you’re awake.
Your experiences and emotions drive your dreams.
So, where does the script come from for the trailers and movies that play in your head?
Dreams are a combination of early remote memories, recent memories and everything in between, Nielsen explained. Many of the images in your dreams come from the previous day (psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud called this the “day residue”) or from the previous week (known as the “dream lag effect”).
Oftentimes you’ll have an image in your dreams that appears random, but isn’t actually at all. Maybe you visited a flower exhibit the previous weekend, Nielsen said as an example, and then flowers appeared in your dream the next week.
Although images from your memories may appear in your dreams, you never replay memories back as they occurred, except in the case of post-traumatic stress disorder, Stickgold said. Instead, the brain determines what you dream about by calculating which of your newly-formed memories are most valuable and yet not fully understood, he explained. Additionally, you also dream about the things your brain connects to that recent memory.
Here’s an example Stickgold provided: Let’s say you nearly get into a car accident. That event might appear in a different form in your dreams — like driving bumper cars with your son at an amusement park. He might be laughing away, but you might feel a great deal of stress.
“Emotional memories seem to have priority for our dreams,” Stickgold said.
As a result of the near car accident, he explained, you might have a negative association with bumper cars in the dream. Or the dream might help you to downplay the risk you originally associated with the event.
“It could make me realize that, you know when I’m on bumper cars, about 100 other cars crash into me and I’m just fine,” Stickgold said.
Most dreams have some kind of emotion in them, which usually comes from real emotions you’ve experienced, said Lisa Medalie, a behavioral sleep medicine specialist at the University of Chicago.
“Many of my patients will explain that, in times of stress, they experience more anxiety-provoking dreams,” Medalie said. “Based on my clinical experience, it seems that daytime emotions play some role in the emotional undertone of dreams.”
There are some common dream themes, but their meanings are unique.
There are some dream themes that studies have shown are more common than others. One study found that 81.5% of participants reported having a dream where they were being chased, 76.5% had a dream about a sexual experience and 73.8% had a dream about falling.
Other typical dreams — such as losing your teeth — can be traced back to experiences from our early childhood, Nielsen said, adding that insights in this area are somewhat speculative due to limited information.
As children, we all lose our baby teeth. Your emotional reaction to that event, as well as that of your parents, might be different from someone else’s and that of their family, Nielsen said.
Those reactions get stored in long-term memory — and may come out again later, as a template, with other things attached to it. For that reason, your teeth-falling-out dream should be examined in context.
“What things happened recently in your life?” Nielsen asked. “What emotions were brought up? Is there anything in your life that’s similar to what your emotional template was from that time?” Your answers to these questions are what make your version of the dream different than someone else’s.
A teeth-falling-out dream might be very positive for one person, he said, because they were getting $5 for every tooth and loved the tooth fairy. To them, a tooth falling out might have been a great thing. Another person may have gotten their teeth knocked out in a fist fight, which would lead to a more negative association.
As a result, Nielsen doesn’t support the “dream dictionary” approach, which assigns a general meaning to each type of dream.
Recalling your dreams is the best way to decipher them.
When you first wake up, Stickgold recommends lying in bed with your eyes closed. Opening your eyes and moving around can overwrite the memories with new sensations.
“You want to remember being in the dream,” he said.
After recalling what occurred in your dream, you might use a dream diary or app to record the details, Nielsen suggested.
Joining a dream group is another great way to process your dream content, Nielsen said, even if the group isn’t led by an expert. It can stimulate your desire to recall dreams, in order to participate in group discussions.
If you do want to speak to a professional about a dream, Nielsen recommended looking for a psychologist who uses dream analysis in their practice. Some therapists may not necessarily be trained in dream interpretation, but they may use dreams or nightmares as a starting point to talk about deeper issues or a patient’s emotional reactions.
“I think dreams can really unlock very quickly the underlying emotional problems that people have and that they need help with in psychotherapy,” Nielsen said.
Dreams show the possibilities, not the answer.
“Many people’s dreams evoke emotions that they struggle with during the day,” Medalie said.
You can learn from your dreams by paying close attention to the emotions you feel when you wake up from them, she added.
“Knowing that dreams are a reflection of our waking life, I suspect our dreams can then inform us of the emotions we are not yet well managing or tapping into during the day,” Medalie said. “We can then think of how we can address our emotional struggle more directly from there.”
If you wake up feeling anxious from your dreams and exercise helps to reduce your anxiety then maybe the takeaway is that you need to exercise more, Medalie said.
So then, does all this mean your dreams are trying to tell you something?
No, Stickgold said ― they’re trying to show you something. He compares it to the difference between a textbook and a play. A textbook gives you information, whereas a play shows you the possibilities.
“Dreaming, [in] that way, is like a good play,” Stickgold said. “You don’t walk away from a good play saying, ‘OK, now I know what I should do if X happens.’ You come away sort of saying, ... ‘a whole world opened up to me that I had never thought of before.’ I think that’s what the brain is trying to show you — trying to show you a world of possibilities.”