The Psychology Of Dreams: Do Your Dreams Have Any Meaning That’s Based In Reality?

Medically reviewed by Brianne Rehac, LMHC
Updated October 14, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Dreams are a vast world we go to while sleeping that can be friendly, scary, or just plain bizarre. Maybe you are a person who doesn’t remember your dreams, or maybe you have vivid dreams every night that feel like a form of virtual reality.

Dreams can be pleasant: you can be transported to a party or go on an exciting journey. Nightmares occur sometimes as well: you can dream of being chased by a criminal or being back in high school and taking a final without having studied. Sometimes, dreams can bring bittersweet sadness, like when a loved one who has passed visits in a dream, bringing both comfort and longing. Different cultures around the world uniquely interpret their dreams. Psychologists and sleep experts study the meaning of dreams as well, which we will explore further in this article.

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A Dream: What Is It?

A dream is a succession of images, ideas, emotions, and sensations that occur for the most part involuntarily during certain stages of sleep. There are other definitions of the word “dream,” too. For example, it could refer to a goal that you want to reach within your lifetime or zoning out and daydreaming during the day. In this article, we will focus on the dreams that occur after you fall asleep.

Dreams are not necessarily based on real life. As anyone who has dreamed knows, in a dream you can walk through landscapes you have never visited, spend time with friends you haven’t seen in 20 years, or fly high above your hometown, all in just one dream. Dreams have been studied by science, religion, and philosophy throughout history, and yet they are still not fully understood. 

We do know that most dreams occur during the rapid-eye-movement stage of sleep, which is also known as the REM cycle. During your REM cycle, the activity in your brain is high, much like when you are awake, which is why your brain concocts stories that can look and feel real. While we sometimes know we are in a dream state, and that what we are experiencing isn’t real – like how lucid dreaming can feel – dreams can feel very real while they are happening and sometimes even after we wake up, especially if they bring on negative emotions. Dreams can occur during other cycles of sleep, but when they do, they tend to be less vivid and memorable than REM dreams.

Dream lengths can range from five to about 20 minutes, although that amount of time in the dream world can feel warped. If you happen to be awakened during the REM phase, there is a higher chance that you will remember the dream after you wake up. The average person seems to have between three and six dreams per night and can spend up to two hours dreaming. One study found that dreams that are used for emotional memory processing take place in REM sleep, while dreams that relate to experiences in our waking lives are usually associated with theta brainwaves.

Some people remember their dreams and others don’t. Various theories exist regarding how dreams effect short term and long term memory. It may be that dreams assist the brain in removing redundant information and shifting short term memories into long term memories.

Studying Dreams: What Do They Mean?

When it comes to understanding the psychology of dreams, there is no single answer: it depends on whom you ask. You’ve probably heard theories about the meanings of common dreams such as flying or teeth falling out, but those theories aren’t universally agreed upon. Some people currently believe that dreams reflect the unconscious mind, as Freud did, representing buried memories and deepest desires. Others believe that dreams can help us solve problems and consolidate memories, or that the images symbolize things that are important to us. Those who take a more biologically based approach might say that dreams can occur simply as the result of random brain activity.

There may also be differences for lucid dreaming. Lucid dreaming occurs when the dreamer is aware that they are in a dream and that they are able to control events within that dream whereas regular dreaming often includes symbols and narratives that are generally outside of the dreamer’s control. Although there are many theories about inducing lucid dreaming and why it happens, not much is known for sure. But any dreaming, including lucid dreams, may include images and events that can be the source of creativity or inspiration that may change the dreamer’s life upon waking.

What Dreams Mean To You

Everyone dreams and our dreams can affect us strongly. Going through a process of dream interpreting can help you determine what aspect it represents in your life. If your dreams are disturbing you, if they’re contributing to another mental concern such as anxiety or post traumatic stress disorder, or if you are simply interested in deciphering the psychology of dreams, dream therapy may be a good option.

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Dreams And Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) was an Austrian neurologist who is considered one of the founders of psychoanalysis. Along with many other elements of psychology, Freud is known for his work on dreams. Freud’s writings about dreams are considered groundbreaking because, for the most part, his contemporaries thought that dreams had no significance.

In his book The Interpretation of Dreams (Die Traumdeutung,1899), Freud explained his dream theories at length. Freud believed that dreams were a manifestation of our deepest and sometimes darkest anxieties, as well as our deepest (and again, sometimes darkest) desires. He tied dreams to repressed childhood fixations and memories. He believed that one function of dreams was the release of sexual tension, and his dream interpretations often held sexual meanings. Psychologists now know that sex dreams are normal and common.

Freud’s theory suggests that the actual meaning of dreams might be so unpleasant or taboo to the dreamer that their mind disguised them using less threatening images or symbols. Freud maintained that you could analyze the content of dreams to find their latent, or hidden, meanings. In other words, he believed that during a dream, an individual's thoughts, memories, and feelings were turned into objects and symbols that could be interpreted to discover what the dream meant to that person.

Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams included guidelines that could be used to interpret various dream images. Although many other books on interpreting dreams have been written since, Freud’s study remains a seminal one.

Other Theoretical Approaches To Dreams

Freud’s approach to dream theory was mainly psychoanalytic or psychodynamic because it was based on the idea that the underlying causes for many mental processes, such as dreaming, were essentially unconscious. Further, Freud believed that the purpose of therapy was to bring those unconscious ideas, feelings, or urges into the light of waking life. 

Alternate theories of interpreting dreams come from other psychological approaches. In addition to psychodynamic theory, some major approaches to psychology (and dreams) are humanistic, behavioral, cognitive, and neuroscientific. Each orientation views dreams as serving a different purpose, although some theories overlap.

The humanistic perspective psychology asserts that humans are constantly trying to better themselves and reach their full potential. As a result, dreams are interpreted as being about the self of the person having the dream, and how that person deals with external environments and stimuli. Humanistic theorists view the purpose of dreams, in part, as the mind regaining a sense of balance.

The behavioral approach views dreams as a result of environmental stimulation experienced by the dreamer. Since behaviorists do not believe in mental processes that cannot be directly observed, they do not focus on the memories or desires represented by dreams.

The cognitive approach focuses on the internal mental processes that occur while people dream. Cognitive theory explores how individuals understand, think, and know about the world around them. Thus, the cognitive approach to dreaming holds that the purpose of dreams is to process information received throughout the day, and that dreaming is a way to remember, learn, and survive. Like the behavioral approach, the cognitive approach to dreaming does not view dreams as representing repressed memories or desires.

One study published by the journal Brain Science Advances relates dreaming to memory. This study’s evidence suggests the brain goes through a process while we sleep called sleep dependent memory consolidation, and that dreaming is a result of the sleeping brain’s information processing.

The threat simulation theory suggests that threatening concerns can be rehearsed subconsciously when the person is in REM sleep, thus helping them process the threat in their waking life, or real life.

Finally, the neuroscientific approach focuses on biology, or the brain itself. The brain is filled with neurons that fire to process information. The neuroscientific approach to dreaming maintains that REM sleep triggers and releases memories that are stored in the brain. Dreams are not unconscious wishes, therefore, but rather a collection of random memories activated by electrical impulses.

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Want To Understand What Your Dreams Mean To You?

Online Therapy With BetterHelp

Some people may benefit from therapeutic techniques such as dream work, but in today’s busy world, it can be hard to make time for in-person therapy. Online therapy through a service such as BetterHelp is a solution that may be more convenient for you. There’s no need to sit in traffic or take time out of your busy workday to drive to your appointment; you can speak with your licensed therapist from wherever you have an internet connection.

The Effectiveness Of Online Therapy 

Studies have shown that online therapy can be an effective treatment for a variety of mental health concerns. In one study, researchers even found that psychotherapy delivered via the internet was just as “good if not better than face-to-face consultations.” Licensed therapists have helped clients overcome different problems using a variety of techniques, including dream work. 

Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp therapists from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

“Jammie is an exceptional active listener. She takes what I say and repeats it back to me so I know that she understands what I am saying. That way she helps me interpret what I am feeling which helps me put my anxieties into perspective.”

“Carla is great. She is able to understand my issues and concerns and address them in a very thoughtful manner. She is very timely in her responses and always gives me some things to think about, which I think is important when you are trying to work through things. I very much recommend her.”

Takeaway

Dream interpretation may help people understand a particular dream, as well as the dreaming process.

Many believe that dreams play an important role in opening doors into our unconscious thoughts and desires. Although there are many theories about why we dream and what dreams mean, thus far dreams remain a mystery for the most part. In the context of therapy, discussing dreams can help you process emotions and heal from any mental or emotional challenges you may be facing. Further, an online therapist specialized in dream work can help you heal from psychological distress manifesting in your dreams and support you in understanding them in more depth.

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