When we wake up in the morning from a shaky nightmare, we want this to end. And when we are forced to exit a beautiful idyllic dream, we wish it could last forever. But though we have tried several times to figure them out, do we truly understand what our dreams mean? Probably we never will, or maybe this is the first step towards it. But until then, all we can do for now is understand and try to apply the hypotheses that have already been formulated regarding the interpretation of dreams.
Centuries ago, people used to believe that dreams were a voice from beyond, a mean to communicate with some supernatural or untouchable force. And even today those beliefs persist, both in local traditions and cultures and in some religions. For instance, according to the Catholic Religion and the Bible, God appeared to several of his disciples in a dream, instructing them to do perform a specific action. Undoubtedly, this belief is justified and supported by many. However, not all dreams have a prophetic meaning.
Other peopple used to believe that dreams were created as a sort of warning regarding events and life changes to come. In that sense, dreams were just like prophecy. With regards to that, not everyone was thought to be able to prophesize, and not all prophecies were to be taken seriously, as they would automatically have a strong social and cultural connotation.
Freud’s Work on the Interpretation of Dreams
Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis published a wonderful piece of artwork to help us understand what our dreams mean. His commonly cited masterpiece, The Interpretation of Dreams, uses the theory of the unconscious to explain how dreams are formed, and how they are categorized into dreams and nightmares.
Many psychoanalysts have also studied this topic, and luckily their theories somehow corroborate with Freud’s work.
This includes but is not limited to painful childhood memories, traumatizing events (such as the loss of someone dear) or any other traumatic experiences. In that sense, the repressed feelings that those negative experiences created in us are forcing themselves to be liberated and are expressed in our most vulnerable state: when we dream.
In that same logic, dreams can also be the perfect media of expression of our repressed internal impulses that are morally unacceptable. Additionally, dreams can also be made from the repetition of our daily routines, simply because they are the images most frequently played in our head. The mind is more likely to play and work with newly created images compared to older ones. In addition, the stronger the impact a recent memory had on us, th more likely it is to appear in our dreams. This could also explain the reason why when we compare trivial events (going to the store to get some milk) might not appear to our dreams, unless there is a specific punch line or strong emotional connection to it (going to the store to get some milk, falling flat on the floor and get laughed at).
The Dream Process
Dreams come in different shapes and forms, and sometimes the mind use elements of our past traumatic experiences and combines them with elements of our current life to form a dream that is sometimes difficult to understand. Whether you are having a dream or a nightmare, there is a complex intra-psychic process that takes place during which different elements of our life (past and present memories, family members, memorable places, etc.) are combined and integrated in a seemingly random way to form a dream: this is called the dream process.
When dreams are formed, our mind ensures that the images that are created are morally acceptable, and this function is carried out by the dream censor. For instance, it wouldn’t be socially acceptable to kill someone, and if such idea germinates in your mind while you dream, the dream censor would instantly block it and prevent it from progressing further in your subconscious.
However, if all the negative ideas and dream themes that we had were effectively stopped by the dream censor, we would never experience nightmares, isn’t that right? However, we still do! This simply means that despite the presence of a dream censor, some strongly repressed negative feelings still manage to penetrate our mind.
Bypassing the Dream Censor
Freud has described one main process through which negative repressed thoughts and feelings could bypass the dream censor: through condensation. Through the condensation process, morally acceptable images are attached to images that are thought to be harmful and non-acceptable, thus making them more acceptable and allowing them to bypass the dream censor. For instance, if a certain “John Doe” is struggling with persistent urges to kill or hurt his siblings (as an example), John Doe’s mind would replace John Doe (as the perpetrator of the harmful act) by an unknown character (somebody that John Doe has never met before); and that newly inserted character would be the one with the uncontrollable urge to kill. More interestingly, the new character will absolutely share some original features of John Doe (same height, same mustache, same fragrance, same style of clothes, etc.).
Another important finding is that when negative thoughts and emotions manage to bypass the dream censor and enter our dreams, and when the intensity of those emotions is high enough to the point where our subconscious mind cannot control it, the dream censor sends an immediate alert that causes us to suddenly wake up from our sleep. This is why people tend to wake up abruptly from a nightmare.
Dreams for Hope
Lastly, our dreams could also be dreams for hope. A hope to achieve or obtain things that we cannot obtain in real life. A hope to satisfy the innermost desires that we have but we can’t talk about or a hope to be free from our deepest fears.
With all that is said and done, understanding your dreams is a multistep process. Dream content is not made of only one, but several components coming together to create an image of a memory that had (or still have) a strong impact on us. Unlike what people might say, our dreams are not mere fantasies, because they are closely linked to our innermost and most vulnerable self. Our dreams are unique and cannot be compared to somebody else’s. They are a mix of our background, our emotions, our experiences, what makes us “us”. As to whether or not that “mix” is random or planned, we cannot say for sure. But all we know is, it all happens in our subconscious mind.
Remember that there will be some dreams you won’t be able to understand, and that’s ok. Maybe that is part of the magic of life!