Dreams are a common sleep experience. You likely spend two hours each night dreaming, though you might not always remember your dreams. When you dream, you may see images in color or black and white. You may also experience other sensations, such as sound, smell, touch, and even taste. The most vivid dreams occur during REM sleep, though you can dream in any stage of sleep.
Experts have several hypotheses for why we dream:
Experts have found the frequency and content of dreams can be impacted by trauma or pregnancy. Dreams can also affect your quality of sleep. Because dreams may be strange, exciting, or disturbing, you may look for meaning in your dreams.
Perhaps you have woken up after a memorable dream and wondered what it meant. For years, neurologists and psychologists have studied the meaning of dreams. There is not yet a conclusive answer as to why we dream or what our dreams mean, if they mean anything. However, experts have posed many theories.
Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud believed dreams were the door to the unconscious. He found that dreams were composed of a combination of personal experiences, external stimuli, internal stimuli, and mental processes during sleep. Essentially, Freud felt that dreams concealed and distorted the unconscious meaning of the dream. By studying and interpreting dreams, Freud believed we could better understand ourselves and our hidden desires.
Psychiatrist Carl Jung agreed with Freud in some ways. However, Jung believed that dreams revealed unconscious desires explicitly, rather than distorting them. Jung also believed there were symbolic elements in our dreams. For example, a dream in which you are being chased might represent stress or inability to take on a challenge.
Contemporary researchers have proposed alternative theories on the meaning of dreams. In one model, called activation-input-modulation, dreams are viewed as an attempt to make sense of the high activity in your brain as you sleep. A neurocognitive theory of dreaming suggests that dreams are based on stored memory. In this theory, dreams are unique because they reflect our personal ways of making sense of information. However, dreams cannot necessarily be traced back to specific moments in our lives and are not recollections of the previous day.
Further collaboration between psychologists and neuroscientists can help us more deeply understand how dreaming works and how to uncover the meaning of dreams.
While your dream experiences may feel unique, there are many common dreams. For decades, researchers have studied different types of common dreams and hypothesized their causes and meanings. The most frequent types of dreams are similar even across different cultures. For example, in studies of Canadian, German, and Chinese sleepers, the most frequent categories of dreams were related to school, falling, being chased, and arriving late.
If you’ve dreamed of your teeth falling out or rotting, you are not alone. One study found 39% of participants had experienced a dream of teeth falling out at least once. Research suggests that teeth dreams are likely caused by dental irritation, such as grinding your teeth in your sleep.
While some researchers have proposed that teeth dreams indicate psychological distress, others have not found sufficient evidence that teeth dreams are directly linked to stress. However, other common dream types, such as dreams of falling and being unable to breathe, have been associated with distress.
Flying dreams are often associated with sexual desire or exhilaration. However, research shows that flying dreams more commonly occur alongside dreams of falling or being chased. As a result, researchers suggest that flying dreams may also represent a response to persecution or stress in life.
A study of people who dreamed about sexual imagery and infidelity found several possible meanings. There was a strong correlation between lived experiences of cheating partners and dreams of infidelity. This correlation indicates that the cheating dreams may be a reflection of reality. Dreams about cheating are also linked to personal feelings of romantic jealousy or low intimacy in relationships when awake.
However, in some theories of dream interpretation, symbols are a key to unlocking meaning. According to this theory, cheating in a dream may be a metaphor for another type of insecurity in the waking world. If you cheat or are cheated on in a dream, you might consider what situations outside of romantic relationships are causing distress or insecurity.
Nightmares are an unsettling or frightening type of vivid dream. As many as 8% of adults frequently experience nightmares. These unsettling dreams occur more often for people who have:
Although the content of nightmares varies from person to person, nightmares typically indicate distress or stress in life. Behavioral therapy can help reduce the frequency of recurrent nightmares.
Dream analysis is not an exact science. Most dreams can have multiple interpretations, whether positive, negative, or neutral. If you are interested in analyzing and interpreting the meanings of your dreams, consider one or a combination of the following approaches:
You might also be interested in lucid dreams, or dreams in which you are aware that you are dreaming but remain asleep and in the dream state. In some instances, you may be able to control what happens within your lucid dreams. Lucid dreaming can also give you an alternative perspective to interpret your dreams.