Dream Interpretation and Analysis: What Do Your Dreams Mean

Transparency Disclosure: We may receive a referral fee for products purchased through the links on our site

Most people spend around a third of their lives asleep. Much of this is spent dreaming. The night-time realm of dreams has fascinated scientists and philosophers for centuries.

Yet despite this, few people really know much about dreamland. Some people even claim that they never dream!

Sleep and dreaming are an important part of life. You owe it to yourself to learn more about this fascinating subject and on this website I’ll share some of the stuff I’ve learned over many years of reading about the subject.

Please note that I’m not a trained specialist, nor do I claim any qualifications or authority. I’m simply an ordinary guy who’s interested in the subjects covered here. The information on this site is for background interest only.

This is not a medical site. You should always discuss medical issues with your doctor.

If you have any comments on this site or would like to suggest other areas for me to cover, I’d love to hear from you – email me at the address at the bottom of the page. I regret that I cannot give any form of individual interpretation / advice.

Joseph and the Dreamcoat

The story of Joseph interpreting the dreams of the Pharaoh is one of the best known dream events in the Christian Bible. It has also inspired one of the most famous musicals of the 20th century: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat (or, for my American friends, Technicolor Dreamcoat).

The show, written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, has been performed in London’s West End and on Broadway and was made into a 1999 movie. After more than thirty years it’s still very popular with many people keen to buy tickets to any revival.

The Story

Warning: Spoilers follow

Although Dreamcoat is clearly inspired by the Genesis Bible story, it doesn’t stick to it with great accuracy. The usual presentation is a light-hearted even humorous one. Some Christians find this disrespectful, others consider it an effective way of getting the story across to a modern audience.

Act One

The musical takes place in two acts. Act one begins with Joseph’s early life where he has been given his amazing “coat of many colors” by his father Jacob. (As an aside, some people think that “coat of many colours” is a mistranslation of the original Hebrew which might just have meant “long silken coat”).

Joseph also dreams of ruling over the family and this, combined with the presumed favoritism of Jacob, makes his brothers jealous of him. They sell him into slavery and pretend he’s been killed.

Act Two

In Act 2 Joseph is taken to the Pharaoh of Egypt who want help understanding his famous dream of seven fat and seven skinny cows. The Pharoah is so impressed by Joseph’s explanation that he gives him a court position. Later, Joseph’s brothers come begging for food. They fail to recognize their now successful brother and, after a trick with a planted “stolen” cup, Joseph finally reveals himself and is reunited with his father. They all, we assume, live happily ever after.

[su_divider top=”no” divider_color=”#f3a023″ margin=”5″]

“What is the meaning of dreams?”

Finding out what dreams mean has been of intense interest to philosophers for thousands of years – one of the first “dream dictionaries” was the ancient Greek Oneirocritica of Artemidus. It seems a universal human trait to want to crack the “code” and find out what your dream is about. Unfortunately nobody has yet completely decoded them.

Psychologists have been studying dreams since the discipline began and they are a staple diet of psychoanalysts. Despite that, there is still no single agreed upon what causes dreams, let alone their interpretation. The phenomenon remains the subject of a number of conflicting theories of dreams.

There are three fundamental psychological questions to be answered:

  • Dream Formation
    Where do our dreams come from?
  • Dream Function
    What purpose – if any – do they serve?
  • Dream Interpretation
    What – if anything – do they mean?

Different schools of psychology have different answers to these questions. To further complicate matters the first two questions overlap with the physical neurosciences whilst the latter two questions are of great interest to philosophers. Attempting a synergy of neuroscience, psychoanalysis and philosophy is a major task.

Any school of psychology or analysis must of necessity consider the question of dreams, however some treat them as more significant than others – for example many mainstream academics do not accept that dreams have any coherent meaning worth interpreting.

The two most well known (relatively) modern schools of dream analysis are those of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung who attempted to discover the hidden meaning he believed lay behind the dreams of his patients. Other dream interpretation approaches which build on these include depth psychology, neurocognitive theory, activation-synthesis and Fritz Perls’ gestalt theory.

On this piece I’ll give a brief introduction to the main competing theories of the meaning behind dreams. Each of these approaches has its advantages, each is worthy of a complete website in itself. At the same time, all models of dreaming have flaws and critics, all are controversial. I’ll attempt to present the theories themselves without judgement. Although you’ll probably be able to tell which ones I’m more enthusiastic about!

At the end of the day the decision as to which school to go with is a subjective one – it’s your mind, they’re your dreams and your symbols.

Please note that I’m not a doctor or trained specialist, nor do I claim any qualifications or authority. I’m simply an ordinary guy who’s interested in the subjects covered here and who has read a great deal.

1. Alfred Adler Psychological Theories

Alfred Adler was born in Vienna in 1870. He obtained a medical degree and went on to join with Freud in his psychoanalytical school. Adler split with Freud in 1911 and went on to form his own school.

The Will to Power

For Adler the main driving force in life was to overcome our insecurities, inferiority and imperfections. This is often summarized as “the will to power”. It was Adler who coined the term “inferiority complex”.

For Adler many of these feelings of inferiority were based in early infancy when we are literally powerless. We spend the rest of our lives trying to compensate for this early lack of power and to go on to gain more control of our lives. We spend our lives striving for the impossible goal of perfection – the fictional finalism.

Adler believed people to be more conscious than unconscious. What we are and how we relate to the world is a conscious choice not one we can blame on unconscious influences. He divided social styles into four basic types: Ruling, Getting, Avoiding and Socially Useful.

Adler and Dream Theory

For Adler, dreams were a way of addressing our insecurities. In a dream we can safely face things that would otherwise scare us. We can try out strategies for overcoming our shortcomings or simply compensate for them via wish-fulfillment.

Adlerian dream analysis involves looking at the parts of a dream and analyzing what problems or inferiorities they might represent. Then how we act in response to those dream elements represents a way of overcoming the issue. The method indicated by the dream might be realistic – a dress-rehearsal for life – or totally unrealistic wish-fulfillment.

For example, a dream about falling could express a direct fear – especially if the dreamer is soon to fly or climb a mountain. However it could be subtler, representing a “fall from grace” or loss of face and social standing. If the dreamer were then to be caught by an angel it might have religious or spiritual meaning or simply refer to trusting and relying on one special person.

By showing us our innermost fears and our preferred strategies for dealing with problems, dreams also tell us a lot about our personality and style of life.

IMPORTANT: Dream analysis can be traumatic. This is not a medical site. If you suspect you have a medical problem or serious emotional disturbance you should consult your doctor.

External References
  1. What Life Should Mean to You- Chapter 2

The Activation-Synthesis Theory of Dreams

The “activation synthesis” model of dreaming was first proposed in 1977 by Hobson and McCarley . It answers all the questions about the meaning of dreams by the simple expedient of declaring them meaningless.

A Physiological Basis For Dreams?

According to the activation-synthesis theory, dreams are merely the brain’s reaction to random biological processes that occur during sleep.

Various parts of the brain – in particular the pons, part of the brain stem – continue to function and produce stimuli during sleep and REM sleep in particular. The brain then takes these internal stimuli and attempts to make some sort of sense of them. To do this it uses other random stimuli and memories, especially those easily accessible in the short-term memory.

Random Brainwaves

For example, the randomly produced stimuli might resemble those produced when running. The sleeper’s mind could then interpret those stimuli as a dream of running. If, in addition, they had earlier that day been startled by a cat then the brain might latch on to that memory and produce a dream of being chased by a lion. Thus cortical attempts to explain random signals from the lower brain produce a random dream with no deep or hidden meanings or purpose.

As the pons continues to fire random stimuli at the forebrain, the latter constantly attempts to interpret them. This is why dreams sometimes shift so suddenly in content. The forebrain is attempting to respond to totally new random stimuli and needs to build a completely new situational model to incorporate them.

The activation-synthesis hypothesis has the advantage that it renders dreams meaningless and removes any need to understand or interpret them. Some would argue that this is also its biggest disadvantage.

IMPORTANT: Dream analysis can be traumatic. This is not a medical site. If you suspect you have a medical problem or serious emotional disturbance you should consult your doctor.

Sigmund Freud’s Theories of Dreams

Sigmund Freud was born in 1856 in what is now the Czech Republic. He began studying as a doctor then specialised in psychiatry. In 1896 Freud coined the term psychoanalysis to refer to the study of mental – as opposed to physical – causes of psychiatric disorder. He is thus known as the father of psychoanalysis (“the talking cure”).

Much of Freud’s work is today considered dated or suspect, however there is no denying the influence he has had on modern psychology and personality theory. Even those who reject Freud’s theories will usually accept that he has had some influence on the evolution of their own approach.

One of Freud’s main themes was the amount of activity that goes on in our minds without our awareness. This resulted in his proposing the now famous model of Ego, SuperEgo, ID.

Freud was fully aware of the importance of dreams and described them as the “royal road” to understanding the unconscious. His most famous work was The Interpretation of Dreams, first published in 1899.</a href=”http:>

What Do Dreams Mean?

Wish Fulfilment

According to Freud, dreams are spyholes into our unconscious. Fears, desires and emotions that we are usually unaware of make themselves known through dreams. To Freud dreams were fundamentally about wish-fulfillment. Even “negative” dreams (punishment dreams and other anxiety dreams) are a form of wish-fulfillment; the wish being that certain events do not occur. Very often such dreams are interpreted as a warning.

Freud believed that although our dreams contain these important messages, they are encoded – disguised. The unconscious mind doesn’t speak any verbal language therefore it must communicate with us via symbols. Some of these symbols are near-universal, others very personal to us and our individual life experiences.

Manifest vs Latent

Freud thus distinguished between the “manifest content” of dreams (what we actually dream) and the “latent content” of dreams (the unfulfilled wish that the dream represents).

Dream content is rarely presented by the mind in a simple and direct fashion. Instead a complex dream is constructed from the basic elements. The raw dream symbols are distorted via condensation (compression, conflation and omission of dream elements) and “displacement” (shifting emphasis). This is followed by a process of “secondary revision” that takes all these (by now distorted) elements and assembles them into some more or less coherent narrative structure.

Freud went further and suggested that very often our conscious mind actively tries to reject the messages of our dreams; we “repress” this knowledge. Dreams are often an expression of a repressed wish that we would rather not admit to – they thus indicate psychic conflict that can in turn be at the core of mental disturbance.

Freudian Dream Analysis & Interpretation

Because of this complexity dreams require analysis to discover their true meaning. This process takes considerable time as a body of recorded dreams needs to be built up and analysed.

Freud’s main technique for analysing the dream was free association. Here the dreamer is encouraged to look not at the direct content of the dream but at the thoughts and emotions it generates.These will then lead to other thoughts and emotions and so on. At its simplest free association is simply saying whatever comes into your head.

As a simple example, assume your dream included birds. This image might remind you of feeding the birds as a child, which might lead to a memory of one particular day in the park, which might remind you of your mother, etc.

The job of the Freudian analyst is to record the chain of associations and assist the dreamer’s self-understanding. Freud would look at each individual component of a dream and use each as a starting point for free association then attempt to pull all the threads together into an overall analysis. In this way the dreamer can “sneak up” on repressed emotions.

Jungian Dream Interpretation

Carl Gustav Jung (C.G.Jung) was born in 1875 in Switzerland. He initially began a career in archaeology before studying medicine and finally settling on psychiatry. Jung met Freud in Vienna and the two worked closely together on psychoanalysis. However after a few years Jung began to develop his own theories that differed from those of Freud in a number of important ways.

Whereas Freud was a reductionist – breaking things down into their constituent elements – Jung was more of a connectivist – joining elements together to produce a larger picture. Jungian dream analysis involves more synthesis.

Like Freud, Jung divided the human psyche into three parts, however his categories differed. For Jung the human mind consisted of the ego, the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious.

The Collective Unconscious & Jungian Archetypes

It is the latter, collective unconscious that has been most controversial. There are clear mystic and “unscientific” connotations to the term. Does the collective unconscious “exist” or is it simply a convenient label for those mental linkages we all share by dint of similar physiology and being brought up in broadly similar fashion? At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter.

A central element of Jung’s psychoanalytic work was the idea of the archetype. This was a fundamental, powerful symbol that we all share through the collective unconscious. One example is the “mother” archetype. We all share this, yet how we experience it depends on our personal psychology – good mother, earth mother, motherland, etc. Other archetypes include hero, trickster and – most important of all – self.

Jung was especially interested in studying the archetypes related to mythology and old religions. For example, the Dragon (or serpent) was an archetype representing the unconsious mind that had to be slain by the Hero.

Jungian Dream Interpretation

Like Freud, Jung believed that dreams are important gateways to unknown parts of ourself. Dreams are an expression of the personal unconscious through the archetypes of the collective unconscious.

Whereas Freud believed that dreams were frequently distorted in a subconscious attempt at repression, Jung believed that any such distortion was usually unintentional. The dream was a direct message from the personal unconscious.

Freudian analysis was based on free association, a technique that led ever further from the original dream. Jung preferred to stay with the dream symbols themselves and analyse each one in detail – a process of amplification. The dreamer was encouraged to “brainstorm” all the different symbolic associations for each aspect of the dream. These would include personal, cultural and archetypal associations.

As an example, say a dream included birds. Possible associations with this symbol would be flight, freedom, cage, etc.

Another stage of Jungian dream analysis is active imagination. Here, the dreamer mentally evokes a character from the dream and asks it questions. Through this approach the unconscious can be questioned directly.

The various symbolic associations would then be examined and the most important ones combined to give a holistic view of the dream’s meaning as related to the individual’s personality.

Fritz Perls’ Theory of Dreams

Gestalt Therapy

The basis of gestalt therapy is looking at the moment – the whole moment and nothing but the moment. Rather than hide behind intellectual analysis, gestalt therapy emphasises direct perception of what one is feeling at the moment and how one is behaving. Fritz Perls began as a Freudian analyst then during the 1940s went on to develop “gestalt therapy”. As the name suggests, gestalt therapy takes a very holistic approach to psychotherapy.

A major goal of gestalt work is to live fully in the present and in doing so to gain insight into ourselves and hence stimulate growth.

Perls’ Dream Interpretation

The Gestalt Approach

Perls’ theory of dreams follows the holistic nature of gestalt therapy. Dreams are seen as being projections of parts of oneself. Often these are parts that have been ignored, rejected or even suppressed. One aim of gestalt dream analysis is to accept and reintegrate these.

The dream needs to be accepted in its own right – not broken down and analysed out of existence.

As with all gestalt therapy, dream analysis involves much dialogue and acting out. The dreamer is encouraged to enter into dialogue with the various aspects of the dream. The dreamer will also be encouraged to take the part of the dream elements, to act out the dream from their perspective. This applies as much to inanimate as to animate objects.

So, for example, if you dream of being chased across a field you might begin a dialogue where you turn to face the pursuer and start asking him/her/it questions. Then you might take the place of the pursuer and start describing the chase from that point of view. This process could then be repeated from the perspective of a tree in the field overlooking the chase – a new perspective that could bring unexpected realisation.

An important factor of Perls’ theory of dreams is that little if any emphasis is given to “universal” symbols. All symbolism is unique in that it comes from the dreamer and only the dreamer can truly interpret it. In this way gestalt dream analysis does away with the concept of the analyst as expert.

Leave a Comment