Dreams are a normal part of healthy sleep, with the average person spending around two hours Trusted Source National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) NINDS aims to seek fundamental knowledge about the brain and nervous system and to use that knowledge to reduce the burden of neurological disease. See Full Reference dreaming every night. Despite the amount of time people spend dreaming, there is a great deal researchers still do not understand about the phenomenon. It is still unclear whether individual dreams carry deeper meaning.

Dreams can weave a complex narrative that feels deeply personal. Many people are eager to share the content of their dreams and work to understand their underlying meaning.

We’ll cover the science of dream interpretation, from the psychoanalysts of the early twentieth century to the most recent science-based theories examining the underlying meaning of dreams. We’ll also take a look at the most common dream topics and tips to help with dream interpretation.

Theories of Dream Interpretation

People have tried to decipher the meaning of dreams since the dawn of civilization, though scientific research on dreams is relatively new. The most prominent theories of dream interpretation include pioneers Trusted Source National Library of Medicine, Biotech Information The National Center for Biotechnology Information advances science and health by providing access to biomedical and genomic information. See Full Reference from the early twentieth century to modern neuroscientists Trusted Source SpringerLink SpringerLink provides researchers with access to millions of scientific documents from journals, books, series, protocols, reference works, and proceedings. See Full Reference .

Freud

Freud, the most cited psychologist of the 20th century, published The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900. This book represented a significant milestone Trusted Source American Psychological Association (APA) APA is the leading scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States, with more than 121,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students as its members. See Full Reference in the field of dream interpretation.

According to Freud, dreams represent a form of wish fulfillment Trusted Source National Library of Medicine, Biotech Information The National Center for Biotechnology Information advances science and health by providing access to biomedical and genomic information. See Full Reference and hold the key to a person’s desires. He indicated that the subject of a person’s dreams stems from reality, but dreams are not identical to waking life and cannot be taken at face value. Instead, the underlying meaning of a dream is hidden in a person’s unconscious mind, the thoughts and feelings that lay outside of their conscious awareness.

Jung

Carl Jung was a contemporary of Freud and was greatly influenced Trusted Source National Library of Medicine, Biotech Information The National Center for Biotechnology Information advances science and health by providing access to biomedical and genomic information. See Full Reference by Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. But as Jung matured, his thoughts on dream interpretation began to diverge from Freud’s.

Jung believed people experience different types of dreams that can be viewed through the lens of “compensation.” According to his theory of compensation, dreams are a mechanism that allow the unconscious mind to fully develop or balance parts that are in conflict with one another.

Hall

Psychologist Calvin S. Hall theorized in the 1950’s that dreams were images that represent a person’s thoughts or ideas. Hall proposed that dreams are akin to plays or enactments based on the ideas a person has about themself, other people, conflicts, impulses and urges, and their external environment.

Hall suggested that dream interpretation could help a person better understand themselves and inform their behavior in daily life.

Domhoff

William Domhoff’s career spanned from the 1960s to the publication of The Emergence of Dreaming in 2018 and combined the analysis of dream content with brain imaging techniques Trusted Source National Library of Medicine, Biotech Information The National Center for Biotechnology Information advances science and health by providing access to biomedical and genomic information. See Full Reference and electroencephalogram (EEG) .

According to Domhoff’s research, dreaming is similar to the daydreams most people experience in waking life. His work suggests that dreams do not serve a specific function and are likely a byproduct of the way the brain works.

 

Modern Theories

The complex theories developed by early pioneers of dream interpretation have largely been replaced by a neuroscience-focused approach.

  • Emotional processing: One prominent theory suggests that the contents of a dream may help the dreamer process Trusted Source National Library of Medicine, Biotech Information The National Center for Biotechnology Information advances science and health by providing access to biomedical and genomic information. See Full Reference difficult life experiences. In particular, the vivid dreams of REM sleep may help the brain process waking experiences and regulate emotions.
  • Memory consolidation: Dreaming may also play an important role in forming Trusted Source National Library of Medicine, Biotech Information The National Center for Biotechnology Information advances science and health by providing access to biomedical and genomic information. See Full Reference new memories. This theory asserts that dreams are a key part of the nervous system process that converts short-term memories formed during the day into long-term memories.
  • Performance and creativity: According to the overfitted brain hypothesis, the typical experiences of daily life do not prepare the brain for unexpected events. Dreams offer people a hallucinatory narrative that serves to improve cognitive performance and boost creativity during waking hours.

Common Dreams and Possible Meanings

Individual personality and interests can influence Trusted Source National Library of Medicine, Biotech Information The National Center for Biotechnology Information advances science and health by providing access to biomedical and genomic information. See Full Reference the narratives of a person’s dreams. However, certain consistent themes are known to arise in dreams for many different people.

Teeth Falling Out

Dreams about teeth falling out are one of the most common Trusted Source National Library of Medicine, Biotech Information The National Center for Biotechnology Information advances science and health by providing access to biomedical and genomic information. See Full Reference dream narratives. Numerous theories have been proposed to explain the deeper significance of dreams involving teeth.

The ancient Greek Artemidorus believed these dreams could be interpreted based on which specific tooth or teeth a dreamer loses. The early twentieth-century psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud theorized that dreams about teeth had a sexual basis. Other experts have proposed that this type of dream represents anxiety around aging.

Recent research suggests that dental irritation from tension in the teeth, jaw, or gums while sleeping may contribute to dreams about teeth.

Sex and Cheating

Dream narratives that include sexual content are frequently reported, with more than 70% of people Trusted Source National Library of Medicine, Biotech Information The National Center for Biotechnology Information advances science and health by providing access to biomedical and genomic information. See Full Reference experiencing dreams about sex. These types of dreams may mirror a person’s feelings about sex and sexual behavior including unsatisfied desires.

A similar topic that finds its way into people’s dreams is infidelity. One study found that dreaming about a cheating partner may be linked to low levels of intimacy or feelings of jealousy in a relationship.

Natural Disasters

Dreams about natural disasters may involve a flood, fire, earthquake, or apocalyptic narrative.

Natural disaster dreams are a type of nightmare and may be related to the traumatic events Trusted Source Medline Plus MedlinePlus is an online health information resource for patients and their families and friends. See Full Reference and stressors of a person’s lived experience. People affected by natural disasters such as hurricanes Trusted Source The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) SAMHSA is the agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that leads public health efforts to advance the behavioral health of the nation. See Full Reference and tornadoes Trusted Source The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) SAMHSA is the agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that leads public health efforts to advance the behavioral health of the nation. See Full Reference may experience feelings of depression, anxiety, or fear about the storm in the form of nightmares.

Falling

The feeling of falling through the air while dreaming is a frequent theme that has emerged from dream research.

Falling is a common sensation people experience before a hypnic jerk. Hypnic jerks are involuntary lurches that can involve a part of the body or the body as a whole.

What Do Nightmares Mean?

Nightmares may signify that a person is struggling with stress, trauma, or a sleep disorder. Nightmares are vivid dream sequences that involve distressing events and often wake a person from sleep. They can invoke feelings of fear and anxiety, but nightmares can also cause embarrassment, anger, and disgust.

Nightmares occur in people of all ages from time to time, though they are more common in children. Occasional nightmares can be disturbing but many people who experience nightmares do not require treatment. They may be a sign that a person is experiencing a stressful life event like a move, starting a new school or job, or having troubles at home.

Other reasons a person may experience nightmares include starting or stopping a prescription medication, the use of illegal drugs, drinking too much alcohol or sudden alcohol withdrawal, using non-prescription sleep aids, or having an illness accompanied by a fever.

People who experience repeated nightmares may want to speak with a health care provider. Frequent, distressing nightmares can be an indication of sleep apnea or another sleep disorder. Persistent nightmares may also be a sign of a mental health condition such as an anxiety disorder, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Tips for Analyzing and Interpreting Your Dreams

Interpreting dreams is far from an exact science. But a few tips can help people better understand their dreams.

  • Keep a dream journal: Using a journal Trusted Source American Psychological Association (APA) APA is the leading scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States, with more than 121,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students as its members. See Full Reference or smart-phone app to record your dreams shortly after waking up can help you document the details of your dream. Researchers have used dream journals and dream diaries to help study participants recall their dreams with more accuracy Trusted Source National Library of Medicine, Biotech Information The National Center for Biotechnology Information advances science and health by providing access to biomedical and genomic information. See Full Reference .
  • Consider your biases: Research suggests that your interpretation of a dream may be influenced by religious beliefs and interpersonal relationships. When reflecting on a dream, consider whether you are looking for information that confirms Trusted Source SAGE Publishing SAGE produces high quality educational resources that support instructors to prepare the citizens, policy makers, educators and researchers of the future. See Full Reference your current beliefs.
  • Talk with a professional: Consider speaking with a health care professional if you have recurring dreams or nightmares that negatively affect your well-being. These may be a warning sign of another medical condition such as anxiety, depression, or a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea or nightmare disorder. A health care provider can help make a diagnosis and discuss treatment, if needed. If you feel that your particular situation does not warrant the help of a medical professional, you can consider speaking with a sleep consultant. Sleep consultants are trained to handle a number of sleep issues and can guide you in the right direction toward a better night’s sleep.
Thanks for the feedback - we're glad you found our work instructive!

Thanks for the feedback - we're glad you found our work instructive!

Submitting your Answer...

References

+20 Sources
  1. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. (2022, April, 1). Brain basics: Understanding sleep., Retrieved May 18, 2022, from

    https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Understanding-Sleep
  2. Hughes, J. D. (2000). Dream interpretation in ancient civilizations. Dreaming, 10(1):7-18.

    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/227247381_Dream_Interpretation_in_Ancient_Civilizations
  3. Yeung, A. (2021). Is the influence of Freud declining in psychology and psychiatry? A bibliometric analysis. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 631516.

    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33679558/
  4. Shaw, B. (2016) Developments in the neuroscience of dreams. Activitas Nervosa Superior, 58, 45–50.

    https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF03379951
  5. Webb, W. B. (1994). Retrospective review: Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. Dreaming, 4(1), 54–58.

    https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2012-14403-001
  6. Zhang, W., & Guo, B. (2018). Freud’s dream interpretation: A different perspective based on the self-organization theory of dreaming. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 1553.

    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30190698/
  7. Zhu, C. (2013). Jung on the nature and interpretation of dreams: A developmental delineation with cognitive neuroscientific responses. Behavioral Sciences, 3(4), 662–675.

    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25379263/
  8. Domhoff, G. W., & Fox, K. C. (2015). Dreaming and the default network: A review, synthesis, and counterintuitive research proposal. Consciousness and Cognition, 33, 342–353.

    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25723600/
  9. Scarpelli, S., Bartolacci, C., D’Atri, A., Gorgoni, M., & De Gennaro, L. (2019). The functional role of dreaming in emotional processes. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 459.

    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30930809/
  10. Wamsley, E. J. (2014). Dreaming and offline memory consolidation. Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports, 14(3), 433.

    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24477388/
  11. Nir, Y., & Tononi, G. (2010). Dreaming and the brain: from phenomenology to neurophysiology. Trends in cognitive sciences, 14(2), 88–100.

    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20079677/
  12. Rozen, N., & Soffer-Dudek, N. (2018). Dreams of teeth falling out: An empirical investigation of physiological and psychological correlates. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 1812.

    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30319507/
  13. Shao, X., Wang, C., Jia, Y., & Wang, W. (2020). Sexual dream and family relationships in frequent sexual dreamers and healthy volunteers. Medicine, 99(36), e21981.

    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32899040/
  14. Clarke, J., DeCicco, T. L., & Navara, G. (2010). An investigation among dreams with sexual imagery, romantic jealousy and relationship satisfaction. International Journal of Dream Research, 3(1), 54–59.

    https://journals.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/index.php/IJoDR/article/view/472
  15. A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia. (2020, May 10). Nightmares. MedlinePlus., Retrieved May 18, 2022, from

    https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003209.htm
  16. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2022, April 14). Hurricanes and Tropical Storms. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration., Retrieved May 25, 2022, from

    https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/disaster-distress-helpline/disaster-types/hurricanes-tropical-storms
  17. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2022, April 14). Tornadoes and Severe Storms. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration., Retrieved May 25, 2022, from

    https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/disaster-distress-helpline/disaster-types/hurricanes-tropical-storms
  18. Barrett, D., & Luna, K. (2018, December). Speaking of psychology: The science of dreaming. American Psychological Association., Retrieved September 16, 2021, from

    https://www.apa.org/research/action/speaking-of-psychology/science-of-dreaming
  19. Mangiaruga, A., Scarpelli, S., Bartolacci, C., & De Gennaro, L. (2018). Spotlight on dream recall: the ages of dreams. Nature and science of sleep, 10, 1–12.

    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29391838/
  20. Nickerson, R. S. (1998). Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises. Review of General Psychology, 2(2), 175–220.

    https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1037/1089-2680.2.2.175

Learn More About Dreams

Woman writing in journal while in bed wearing pajamas

What Are Precognitive (Premonition) Dreams?

By Jay Summer | January 31, 2023
woman sleeping in bed

Dreams

By Eric Suni | December 15, 2022
woman in pj's

Vivid Dreams

By Alexa Fry | December 15, 2022
A man standing on top of a mountain

How Trauma Affects Dreams

By Rob Newsom | December 15, 2022

How to Lucid Dream

By Danielle Pacheco | November 3, 2022

Lucid Dream Masks – Do They Work?

By Sarah Shoen | August 29, 2022

Is Lucid Dreaming Dangerous?

By Jay Summer | August 29, 2022

False Awakening

By Danielle Pacheco | August 25, 2022

Recurring Dreams

By Jay Summer | June 30, 2022