Dream interpretation has fascinated people since ancient times and in more modern times, we have been fascinated by the neurobiology of dreaming. We now know that we dream during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and that this stage of sleep is important in processing the day’s events. We also know that the hippocampus, which is located deep inside the temporal lobe of the brain, is central to our ability to remember, imagine and dream.
The importance of dream interpretation is also commonly accepted in the psychotherapeutic world as a way of better understanding ourselves. In the first chapter of his classic The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud discusses ancient methods of dream interpretation; how the focus was on the one doing the interpreting, how ancient interpretation was based on dream books that in turn were based on language and word play. He reflected on how this affected the translation of these works into our modern languages, how a lot was lost in translation and how these modern “dream books” were often completely unhelpful.
He then proposed two things that are important; that the focus for interpretation is not the one deciphering the dream but the dreamer and that there is no one interpretation that fits every dream. Meaning will be different for every dreamer.
Maybe this seems obvious to us now but at the time, when dreams were dismissed as being unimportant, Freud’s thinking was revolutionary. Freud had other things to say about dreams, for example he distinguished between the manifest content and the latent content of dreams and also, he believed dreams to be a form of wish fulfilment.
Freud may have started us on the road to accepting that our dreams have meaning but in terms of understanding how to uncover that meaning, C.G. Jung took us from Freud’s ideas to the idea that dreams do not distort nor disguise and are more than wish fulfilment. Jung proposed that dreams are trying to make conscious to the ego something that is unconscious. Our dreams are trying to point to situations or circumstances that are in some way one-sided, incomplete or unbalanced.
From a Jungian perspective, our dreams are sometimes difficult to decipher because they make use of symbols and these symbols can be interpreted on many levels. For example, there is the objective level where aspects of the dream represent people and things other than the dreamer; or the subjective level, where aspects of the dream represent aspects of the dreamer. Dreams can also work on what is called an archetypal level, where meaning can be related to cultural myths, stories and legends. Psychotherapists might also pay attention to anything in their dreams or their clients’ dreams that could shed light on the direction or progress of the therapy sessions.
What does all this mean for our dream life?
It will probably come as no surprise that some therapists place as much emphasis on dream life as what could be called ‘wake life.’ Clients are encouraged to be curious about their dreams. Keeping a dream journal can be an interesting and rewarding endeavour. If you are someone who tends to forget your dreams when you wake, start with whatever you can remember – including how you felt as you came out of the dream. Don’t discard or censor anything! Journaling can help you spot any recurring themes in your dreams – an indication that you have not yet grasped what Psyche is trying to tell you. You might also try these things to enhance your dream life: a bedtime ritual, for example, no TV, phone or tablet for at least half an hour before sleep as well as making an affirmation to remember your dreams.
When trying to decide what a dream means, start from the idea that everything in the dream is an aspect of yourself. For example, a person related a dream in which they were in a house they knew well and was surprised to find rooms in it they didn’t know existed. They had this dream at a difficult time in their life and the rooms discovered in a very well-known house could be interpreted as aspects of themselves. These rooms could represent qualities that they perhaps did not know they had but would have need of in the times ahead. One message of this dream could be that this person had what they would need to get through the current difficulty.
And what better symbol for one’s psyche than a house with many rooms! Dreams help us explore these rooms, the ones of which we are aware and the ones we are not even aware exist.
To summarize, here are some suggestions to improve your dream life:
1) Be curious about your dreams.
2) If you have trouble remembering your dreams, try an affirmation before sleep, for example, “I will remember my dreams.”
3) Start a dream journal and record anything you can remember about your dreams, including how you felt when you came out of the dream. Don’t discard anything! If you find you really can’t remember anything at all, simply write something like ‘no dream to record’ for that date in your journal. By following this simple routine, in two weeks you will begin to remember your dreams.
4) Look for recurring themes.
5) Limit the use of your electronic devices before bedtime.
Jung said about dreams: The dream is the small hidden door in the deepest and most intimate sanctum of the soul. (The Meaning of Psychology for Modern Man; 1931 lecture by Jung.) Taking a peek behind that door starts us on a wonderful and mysterious journey to the essence of ourselves.
Tarot card: The Moon, from the Millennium Thoth tarot deck