What are dreams?

Humankind has always been fascinated by dreams. Throughout recorded history, dreams have been studied, analysed and debated, their meaning and purpose discussed among almost all cultures and ages. Are they merely a cleaning out of the mind, a processing of the information we have taken in during the day, or a mechanical necessity of the brain? Or are they, in fact, communications from a higher spirit, symbolic messages to be interpreted or an insight into our future?

The truth is, after thousands of years of questioning, there is still no universal consensus on the definition and role of dreams. For many, dreams are more than just the replaying of a day’s events — they offer an insight into your life and the world around you, and by studying them, you can gain a new level of understanding of your own journey in life.

The science of dreams

Humans, on average, spend about six years dreaming. We tend to have four to five dreams a night, lasting anywhere between five and 20 minutes each, with the whole cycle repeating itself every 90 minutes. Dreams are much shorter at the beginning of the night and gradually lengthen as the night progresses. In fact, the dreams we have right before we wake in the morning are often the longest and most graphic, a culmination of the dreams of the night — the best of the night, in a way.

While there were many theories on what is happening to the body while we dream, it was the scientist Eugene Aserinsky who first discovered that it’s in the rapid eye movement (REM) state of sleep that dreams occur. While observing the sleeping patterns of infants, he noticed their eyes fluttered beneath their eyelids for sustained periods of time in some stages of their sleep.

Under the guidance of physiologist and international sleep authority, Nathaniel Kleitman, Aserinsky later recorded the babies’ brainwaves using a polygraph machine. Through this, they discovered REM sleep was characterised by not only the movement of the eyes, but also a rapid, low-voltage EEG, or brainwaves, and a low muscle tone that effectively paralysed the body’s muscles. This, they concluded, was nature’s way of protecting us from acting out our dreams.

While REM sleep makes up 20–25 per cent of total sleep (though this declines with age), it is not the only stage of sleep we have each night. The other stage is the non-dreaming sleep known as slow-wave sleep (SWS) or non-REM (NREM) sleep. In SWS, a person’s breathing and pulse rate slow, their body temperature drops and their muscles relax. This stage of sleep is broken into four stages, depending on the amount of slow waves present. We tend to have more SWS in the early part of the night and more REM sleep later.

So what is the purpose of REM sleep and dreams? Science is still not agreed. One theory is that REM sleep is important in the consolidation of certain memories, in particular procedural and spatial memories. Another is that REM sleep is important in the development of the brain, especially as it has been shown to be essential in newborn babies for the maturing of the brain and the development of a proper nervous system. It may even play an important role in the foetus. There is also the theory that REM sleep is needed for certain neurotransmitter receptors in the brain to recover and regain full sensitivity. Yet another school of thought is that dreams are like a clearing out of “junk” and unnecessary information we have accumulated during the day.

While a scientific consensus on the biological and physical reasons for REM sleep and dreams is still to be reached, the belief that the information contained within a dream is of significance to our psychology has also been the source of much debate over the centuries.

The psychology of dreams

One of the pioneers of dream theories was Sigmund Freud. To Freud, the dream was the “royal road to the knowledge of the unconscious mental life”. Freud’s assessment of dreams was based on his assumption that our personalities are made up of three components: the id, a primitive, selfish part continually demanding gratification of basic sexual and aggressive urges; the ego, interacting with the real world and aware of what is possible; and the superego, made up of moral and ethical considerations, usually reflecting parental influences. Basically, Freud argued that because the conscious ego is absent in a dream state, the id’s constant demands of sex and aggression take over. However, as our superego — our morals and ethics — are still present, the unacceptable thoughts of the id are censored through symbols and disguises.

Since Freud, however, a number of different theories on the psychological meaning of dreams have emerged, many disputing Freud’s id theory. The main challenger to Freud’s argument was the Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung. At first a follower of Freud, he broke away in 1913 because he could not fully accept the sexual basis of Freud’s arguments. Jung believed dreams may, in fact, have a special role to play in balancing our personalities and enabling us to alter our behaviour.

Jung argued that the subconscious was more than just a warehouse of repressed wishes, as Freud saw it, but was also a guide and counsellor. If, for example, someone had a tendency to be a little arrogant, Jung believed their subconscious may guide them towards more tolerant behaviour through a dream in which they are humbled in some way. Jung’s theory also differed from Freud in that he believed dreams could look forward to future possibilities, as opposed to Freud’s backward-looking focus. In a way, the Jungian approach to dream analysis is more spiritual and positive, one of the first to focus on the role dreams can play in self-development and personal growth.

Outside these two main theories, there have been a number of contributions to the understanding of the role and meaning of dreams in psychology. In particular, research conducted by Calvin Hall in the 40s and 50s collected more than 50,000 dream reports and found that many of us actually dream about similar things. He found the most common experience in dreams was anxiety, the most frequent setting was buildings — more specifically, the living room — and the top activities were walking, running or riding.

The overall findings of Hall’s research were that most of our dream settings are very much like our daily lives, and from the last day or week. While this research furthered the logical exploration of what our dreams are most commonly made up of, none of the subsequent theories has found one simple explanation of the role of dreams, thus allowing the spiritual perspective of dreams to gain momentum.

The spirituality of dreams

For many cultures, dreams are the communication of gods and divine spirits. In the ancient societies of Egyptand Greece, dreams were considered messages from the supernatural, interpreted by certain members of society with special powers. In fact, there are many references to dreams as messages sent from God in the bible. References to dreams can also be found in ancient Indian Hindu texts, the Buddhist Tibetan Book of the Dead and Chinese Taoist manuscripts. There’s also a reference to dreams in Islam, with the belief that the archangel Gabriel appeared to Muhammad, the founder of the religion, in a dream and dictated the first chapter of the Koran.

In Native American culture, dreams are believed to fall from the night sky as messages from the spirits. In order to filter out the bad dreams and allow only the good dreams through, a “dream catcher” was invented. This dream catcher usually consisted of a cobweb-like structure (representing the web of life) stretched over a round frame, decorated with personal items such as feathers and beads. It was believed that the bad dreams disappeared with the morning sun, while the good dreams passed through the centre hole to reach the individual.

Australian Aboriginal culture is based on the belief that Earth and all its beings were created during an ancient mythological era called the Dreamtime or Dreaming. Aboriginal legend describes how great spirits took on various forms, particularly those of animals, and moved over the world. The Dreamtime is also where all Aboriginal values, laws and rituals of society are manifested. Each Aborigine has a personal Dreamtime forebear linked to a certain animal — Kangaroo Dreaming or Honey Ant Dreaming, for example. The Aborigines believe every person exists eternally in the Dreaming. This eternal part existed before the life of the individual began and continues to exist when the life of the individual ends. There are, however, some members of tribes that have special spiritual powers and are believed to be able to contact the Dreamtime.

For many people on the path of spiritual enlightenment and self-development, however, dreams provide an insight into the universe around us. For Diane Bellchambers, dream educator and author of The Definitive Dream Dictionary, dreams are not just the replaying of a day’s events, but a process in which we can begin to understand our lives and those around us. “Dreams tell us how we really think and feel about ourselves and what subconscious programming or beliefs may be holding us back from achieving our goals.” Diane and many other dream interpreters believe dreams are “glimpses of the internal mind” and are, in fact, a very safe way of accessing what is in your subconscious.

Analysing your dreams

After centuries of dream analysis, interpretation and study, a basic consensus of some of the symbols and images most common in dreams has emerged. “Dream dictionaries” are now widely available, allowing us to decode the often-obscure messages we receive at night. While each dream is individual to the dreamer and might translate into an entirely different meaning according to their personality and life circumstances, there is agreement on the meaning of some of the symbols and images that appear in our dreams. It is simply a matter of asking questions, working your way through your dream and eliminating other possibilities of meanings.

For Diane Bellchambers, who wrote her psychology honours thesis on dreams, there is nothing random about the images we receive at night. The symbols and their placement are very deliberate. “What most people don’t realise is that every dream is profound. The most important thing to understand in the analysis of a dream,” she says, “is that they are not just about symbols — they have a storyline and structure that are just as integral to the meaning as the images. “A dream is like a novel — it has an introduction and a storyline and it all builds to an end or conclusion. If you only look at the symbols, it’s like only reading the second chapter.” Diane also warns that by simply analysing the symbols, “dreams can be scarier than they need to be”.

In Diane’s Definitive Dream Dictionary she argues that although there isn’t really one catch-all explanation of dreams, there is a step-by-step process you can follow to work out your individual dream’s meaning. Take a dream that is centred on the anxiety leading into an exam, for example. Perhaps you’re actually preparing for an exam in real life; your dream could be interpreted to mean you are not really prepared. It’s more than just nervousness about the upcoming exam — is your dreaming mind telling you you’re not ready for the test? However, if you do not have an actual exam in your future, then the dream is more symbolic about your life in general. It’s more likely that your dreaming mind is showing you that you aren’t prepared in life. With this dream it’s important to look at the other symbols and structure as well: were there other symbols that may represent a particular part of your life or a particular person? What was the conclusion of the dream? The exam itself cannot be analysed alone, but must be only a part of the message you try to decipher from your dream.

Dream themes

One of the best ways to analyse your dream and make sure you see the real meaning behind it is to identify the theme. Write the dream down and then try to look at it from a different perspective. Try taking out all the minor details — the names, places and things — and leave only the action. Once you have an action — say, something precious is destroyed — you then ask yourself what specific area of your life does this theme tie into? If you suddenly get an Ah ha! feeling, you know you have just stumbled on the meaning and message your dreaming mind was trying to tell you. If, however, it’s not immediately apparent what the theme has to do with your life (or occasionally those around you), perhaps the symbols and other images will make it clearer.

The next step in understanding your dream’s message is to look at the symbols and their meanings. This is where a dream dictionary comes into play and, coupled with the understanding of the theme of your dream and where it fits into your life, you can begin to interpret the specific symbols. There are some common meanings to what we see in dreams: animals tend to symbolise our own traits, good and bad; automobiles and vehicles usually reflect either the direction you are heading in life, or your body; children represent something new, different and joyous; clothing often represents your mood or your emotions (therefore a dream of being naked in public is actually about your emotions and feelings); and anything to do with death pertains to change.

Just remember, though, that each symbol has a personal meaning, too. As Diane Bellchambers suggests, “Some symbols have a universal meaning, but all have a unique personal relevance … if you look at how the story unfolds, you can begin to understand your dream’s true message.”

How to “catch” your dreams

If you want to harness the messages the universe and your subconscious mind are sending you, there are several steps you can take to “catch” your dreams more easily. For many of us, remembering the details of our dreams is quite hard, if not impossible. The alarm goes off, we jump out of bed and into the shower, throw down a coffee and begin our day. If we’re lucky, we may remember a small detail or two of the previous night’s dream, or bits and pieces may come back to us later in the day. This is because 80 per cent of your dreams are lost if you are woken quickly or suddenly. The minute your mind is jolted out of sleep, most of the details of your dreams disappear.

Waking naturally and slowly, however, is an impossible thought to most of us. The idea that we would leave it to our own internal alarm clocks to wake for the day is quite foreign — and even scary for some. However, if you want to really tap into the power of dreams, start with the last thought of the night before you fall asleep. Say to yourself, “I will remember my dream in the morning” and visualise yourself waking up five minutes before your alarm (yes, still set your alarm, just in case!). Visualisation and affirmations are very important. Picture yourself waking refreshed and rested with a clear memory of the images you received overnight.

When you do wake in the morning, try not to over-think the dream. Putting too much pressure on yourself and frantically trying to “reach back in your mind” for all the details will only make the dream disappear even quicker. As Diane explains, “Conscious thought will blast the dream away. It moves your thoughts into the conscious mind, but you need to return to the subconscious mind to remember the dream.” Try to lie in bed and let your mind wander back into the dream. Have a notebook next to you and record everything you remember to analyse later. While there are also dream-catching cards and other items you can buy to help “catch” your dreams, Diane says, “The best way to remember dreams is to learn more and develop an interest in them.”

Dreams as part of your spiritual journey

After centuries of scientific research and psychological analysis, dreams are still mostly a mystery. Whether simply a process of our brain dumping unnecessary information or sexual wishes disguised as symbols, for so many on the path to spiritual awareness dreams are divine messages. Paying attention to your dreams is one of the most profound ways to tap into your sixth sense and to really begin to listen to the universe’s divine intelligence. As Diane Bellchambers believes, “Dreams offer solutions and the gift of insight into the issues you are currently facing in order to bring the mind, body and spirit into balance.”


Amy Taylor-Kabbaz

Amy Taylor-Kabbaz

Amy Taylor-Kabbaz is a journalist with more than 15 years' experience, specialising in health, mindfulness and motherhood. She is also the best-selling author of Happy Mama: The Guide to Finding Yourself Again, and is the creator of the website Happy Mama.

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