Credit: painting by Giorgio Conrad (1827-1889)
Everyone dreams, but everyone does not remember their dreams; some people dream in color while others dream in black and white. The meaning of dreams is a topic of many discussions. Dream interpretation is not exactly an exact science in the views of many.
Psychologists base dream interpretation on the particular theory to which they ascribe; thus the meaning of dreams can depend on how the dreams are interpreted by that particular theory. Two of the most well known psychologists, Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, have differing views of dream interpretation.
Dream Interpretation According to Jung
Jung believed dreams have several purposes; one is to give dreamers a more accurate sense of balance. He outlined two types of dreams: the “great” dreams of the collective unconscious and the “little” dreams which occur from personal experiences. Little dreams are concerned with our everyday life and use symbols from our lives while great dreams are infrequent and only happen during important stages of life.
Jung believed in order to understand a dream one must first establish its content by unraveling the connection between the dreamer and the images in the dream in order to discover what the images symbolize to the dreamer. He believed a symbol could represent different things to different people and also to the same dreamer in different circumstances. Jung believed even explicit sexual themes in a dream could symbolize the higher creative process of the individual.
Dreams Interpreted by Freud
In contrast to Jung’s theory of dream interpretation, Freud believed dreams were an attempt to satisfy ambitions and desires the dreamer was unable to fulfill during waking life. The dreams were desires which the dreamer would find offensive in the waking life. He suggested a mental device he called “the censor” attempts to translate dream content into acceptable symbols for the conscious mind. He claimed in every dream there is a point of contact with the experiences of the previous day; though those contacts may not be easily recognized.
Freud gave a fixed meaning to all dream images. Many objects represented sexual objects; images of knives, teeth, doors, steeples all represented sexual objects according to Freud. Freud believed sexual imagery was the driving force of dream symbolism. To Freud, dreams tended to be treated as symptoms of a neurosis.
Houses in dreams were symbolic of the body according to Freud. In addition, the heart was represented by baskets or hollow boxes, the lungs by a blazing furnace, and the bladder by round objects shaped like bags. Freud believed dreams could warn of illness; illnesses felt in dreams but not yet realized in waking.
The Meaning of a Recurrent Dream
According to numerous theorists recurring dreams happen when the individual does not act upon the information of the dream the first time around. These theorists explain recurring dreams are a way to solve problems. They are trying to tell the dreamer something and the dreamer should listen and read the signs of the dream.
Other theorists claim recurring dreams are remembered because they wake up the dreamers. The dreams indicate deep-rooted anxiety or sexual repression needing to be resolved. The only way to stop a recurring dream is to confront the fears according to these theorists. Freud believed recurring dreams were first dreamed in childhood then reappear in adulthood, occurring constantly from time to time.
Recurrent dreams are often nightmares which often stem from deep-rooted anxiety. Not all anxiety dreams are nightmares, but most nightmares are anxiety dreams. People frequently share anxiety themed dreams such as actors dreaming they are on stage and have forgotten their lines.
What does My Dream Mean?
Jung’s “great” dreams, authentic warning and precognitive dreams have wider implication, but the majority of dreams are personal. So how do individuals decode the meaning of their dreams? Some symbols are easily recognized, but most often, the symbolic nature of the objects in dreams need to be decoded by personal experiences and require a look into the past or deeply into the conscious.
The best way to interpret dreams is to keep a dream diary. Immediately upon waking describe the dream in as much detail as possible. To decode the message of the dream, take the main images and focus on the symbolism of those images. If the dream is in color, the objects’ colors can also be a factor in decoding the message.
Psychologists who use dream interpretation as part of the therapy process often have their clients use a dream diary. It is common for the client to focus on key words or phrases of the dream and conduct the technique of free association to aid in decoding the dream. Free association is a technique which entails the individual to immediately recall what the word brings to mind. For example, if the word is cat a free association may list whiskers, napping, playful, cat’s eye, graceful, aloof, and soft. Of course many other words can come to mind depending on the individual’s experience with cats. The psychologists can use these word associations to help their clients decode the symbolism of the dream images.
With any object, the initial symbolism must be associated with the individual’s experiences and life. The representation must be fleshed out to understand it completely. Some common initial symbolisms in dreams are:
- Cats-elegant femininity
- Birds- a fortunate omen, freedom (or lack of if caged), messengers
- Dog- loyalty and devotion
- Horses- beauty and power
- Lion- strength, pride, mastery, dangerous
- Pig- selfish, chauvinistic
- Elephant- health and friendship
- Running- escape
- Walking- steady progress
- Machinery- the body and mind
- Blood- life
- Black- a void
- Yellow- intuition, faith and goodness
- Blue- truth, justice and inner spirituality
- Green- nature in its purest form
- Red- vitality, passion
- White- simplicity, chastity, purification of the soul
- Tree- wisdom and knowledge
- Sea- part of collective unconscious; deep emotions and maternal instincts or relationship with mother
- Rocks- a large boulder can represent security or an obstruction
Each of these must in turn be analyzed for the full understanding of the dream. For example, if the dream included rusty and aging machinery, perhaps the dreamer needs to look at health of the body. Dreamers dreaming about running may need to look at something they are ignoring or avoiding (running from) in their waking life.
Not everyone remembers their dreams; psychological tests suggest people who do not recall their dreams tend to avoid facing their anxieties in waking life. However, it is also suggested it is possible to activate the recall mechanism in our brains if adequately motivated. The meaning of dreams can be intriguing and eye-opening. Dream interpretation can help individuals resolve issues from childhood, solve life problems and avoid possible troubles.
Beare, Beryl. Dreams & Destinies The Mysteries of Your Dreams Explained. North Dighton, Ma: JG Press, Inc., 1995
Fordham, Frieda. An Introduction to Jung’s Psychology (3rd Ed.). New York: Penguin Books, 1986
Freud, Sigmund with Strachey, James (Translator & Editor). The Interpretation of Dreams. New York: Avon Books -Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, 1998.
The copyright of the article “How Dreams are Interpreted” is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.