The Psychology Of Dreams: What Do They Mean?

Medically reviewed by Brianne Rehac, LMHC
Updated January 31, 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. Dreams can be pleasant: you can be transported to a party or go on an exciting journey. Nightmares are possible too: 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 study the meaning of dreams as well, which we will explore further in this article.

Want To Understand What Your Dreams Mean To You?

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 while you are sleeping.

Dreams are not necessarily based on waking reality. 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 dreams occur mostly 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 and that what we are experiencing isn’t real, dreams can feel very real while they are happening and sometimes even after we wake up. Dreams can occur during cycles of sleep other than REM, but when they do, they tend to be less vivid and memorable.

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 waking life experiences are usually associated with theta brainwaves.

Studying Dreams: What Do They Mean?

When it comes to figuring out what dreams mean, there is no one answer: it depends on whom you ask. Some people currently see dreams as connected to the unconscious mind, as Freud did, representing buried wishes and memories. 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 a difference between lucid dreaming, where the dreamer is aware that they are in a dream and that they are able to control events within that dream, and regular dreaming— where the dream symbols and narrative are generally outside of the dreamer’s control. Whether in a lucid dream or a regular dream, dream images and events 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. If your dreams are disturbing you, or if you are simply interested in deciphering what they mean, therapy may be a good option. 

The study revealed that dream work was used not only in psychoanalysis but also in therapies such as Gestalt therapy, client-centered therapy, and cognitive-behavioral therapy. Many of the therapists surveyed stated that dream work could have a significant impact on the success of treatment. 

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 theories about dreams 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.

Freud believed 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. 

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 approach to 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 dreaming. 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.

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.

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.”


Dreams can also be doors into our unconscious thoughts and desires. Although there are many theories about why we dream and what dreams mean, thus far there seems to be no one answer to these questions. In the context of therapy, discussing dreams can help you heal from any mental or emotional challenges you may be facing. Further, an online therapist specialized in dream work can support you in understanding your dreams in more depth. 

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