For 90 minutes to two hours or more each night, every single person on Earth dreams. Sometimes, the dreams are straightforward in their meaning to the dreamer: a long-lost friend reappears, a tropical beach beckons or the lottery jackpot is within reach.
But dreams don't always tell a simple story, and the field of dream research becomes even more fascinating when people from different cultures and backgrounds report having similar dreams.
"Dreams are a universal language, creating often elaborate images out of emotional concepts," explains Suzanne Bergmann, a licensed social worker and professional dream worker for more than 16 years.
Bergmann, who is part of the experienced team of Dream Reflectors at DreamsCloud that provide feedback and insight about dreams, has identified 14 common images found in dreams posted to the DreamsCloud user-generated dreams database.
"There's no single, definitive meaning for symbols and images in dreams," Bergmann notes. "But just as a smile usually means that someone is happy, these dream images are so common, that they do have a generally accepted meaning."
1. Being Chased
This is one of the most commonly reported dreams. Mostly because the anxiety we feel in the dream is so vivid, that it makes it easier for us to remember them. Often, the reason for these dreams comes not from the fear of actually being chased, but rather what we're running from. Chase dreams help us to understand that we may not be addressing something in our waking lives that requires our attention.
Water frequently represents our emotions or our unconscious minds. The quality of the water (clear vs. cloudy; calm vs. turbulent) often provides insight into how effectively we are managing our emotions.
Whether a car, airplane, train or ship, the vehicles in our dream can reflect what direction we feel our life is taking, and how much control we think we have over the path ahead of us. Vehicles can give us the power to make a transition and envision ourselves getting to our destination -- or highlight the obstacles we think we are facing and need to work through.
Seeing other people in your dream often is a reflection of the different aspects of the self. The people in dreams can relate to characteristics that need to be developed. Specific people directly relate to existing relationships or interpersonal issues we need to work through. Dreaming of a lover, in particular, is frequently symbolic of an aspect of ourselves, from which we feel detached.
5. School or Classroom
It's a very common situation for people in dreams to find themselves in a school or classroom, often confronted with a test that they aren't prepared to take. This is a great example of a "dream pun" -- the mind using a word or concept and giving it a different definition. The "lesson" or "test" we face inside the school or classroom is frequently one we need to learn from our past -- which is one reason these dreams are often reported by people who have long since finished school.
Unknown to most people, the body is actually encountering a form of paralysis during dreaming, which prevents it from physically performing the actions occurring in their dreams, therefore dreaming about paralysis frequently represents the overlap between the REM stage and waking stage of sleep. Dreaming about paralysis can also indicate that the dreamer feels he or she lacks control in their waking life.
Although death is often perceived as negative, it's often more directly related to dramatic change happening for the dreamer -- the end of one thing, in order to make room for something new.
Flying in a dream, and how effectively or poorly it's done, relates to how much control we feel we have in our lives, and whether we are confident and able to achieve our goals. High flying is one of the most euphoric dreams imaginable, while flying or "skimming" low to the ground or being caught in obstacles like power lines can be immensely frustrating.
Not all falling dreams are scary and negative. Some dreamers report a type of slow falling that indicates serenity and the act of letting go. Often, falling uncontrollably from a great height indicates something in waking our life that feels very much out of control.
Emotional or psychological exposure or vulnerability is very often expressed in dreams through nudity. The body part that's exposed can give more insight into the emotion that our dreams are helping us to understand.
Dreaming of a baby often represents something new: It might be a new idea, new project at work, new development or the potential for growth in a specific area of our waking life.
Food symbolizes energy, knowledge or nourishment and is directly related to our intellect, emotions and spirituality. Food can also be a manifestation of idioms like, "food for thought," and reveal that we may be "hungry" for new information and insights.
Houses frequently represent the dreamer's mind. Different levels or rooms may relate to difference aspects of the individual dreamer and different degrees of consciousness. The basement often represents what has been neglected, or what the dreamer is not aware of in his or her waking life, while bedrooms relate to intimate thoughts and feelings -- those closest to the dreamer's core self.
Sex in dreams can simply be an outlet for sexual expression. But dreams about sex can also symbolize intimate connections with one's self and others, and the figurative integration of new information.
Despite the commonality shared by many dream symbols, it is important to point out that only the dreamer can truly interpret the meaning of their dream and how these symbols and their meanings may connect to the specific events occurring in their waking life.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this blog incorrectly attributed quotes by Suzanne Bergmann to Susan Baragia. Suzanne Bergmann made the statements.
DreamsCloud is a place to log and share your dreams, keep an online dream journal, learn more about dream meanings and receive professional dream reflections. They offer a free app for iOS, Android, Windows and Blackberry devices, in addition to a Facebook app.
About Reflections: DreamsCloud is of the belief that only the dreamers can truly know the meaning of their dream and that no other person can provide definitive dream interpretation. Upon the user's request, DreamsCloud Reflectors provide insightful feedback, gleaned from years of study in the dreams field, to help the user to better understand their dreams. DreamsCloud reflections are not a substitute for psychotherapy or other professional treatment and should not be used as such.