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Dreaming is one of the most universal of all human experiences. Yet, for much of the last few decades, dreams have largely been overlooked or minimized in the context of psychological theory and treatment.

This wasn’t always the case. In the first half of the 20th Century, many psychologists considered dreams to be a window into the psyche, essential to understanding and healing our real-life struggles. Interest waned for some time, but the field is finally waking up again as advances in neuropsychology, coupled with technology that enables scientists to “watch” the brain during sleep, shed new light on the form and function of dreams.

Read on for a look at how dream theories have evolved, why dreams may provide more insight than you think, and how you can start tapping into their potential.

A Brief History of Dream Theories

Sigmund Freud, often referred to as the father of psychoanalysis, called dreams the “royal road” to the subconscious. Freud believed that by analyzing a patient’s dreams he could identify urges and impulses repressed during their conscious lives.

Freud’s protégé Carl Jung expanded on this notion. He emphasized the connection between the unconscious (dreaming) and conscious (waking) thought processes. He believed that accurate interpretation of dream content requires a thorough understanding of the dreamer’s waking life, as the dream serves as its “unconscious compliment.”

According to Jung, the human psyche is a self-regulating system designed to maintain equilibrium: Too much one-sidedness necessitates “compensation.” Dreams, he believed, can serve this compensatory function.

For example, someone who operates under a rigid set of social beliefs in their waking life — resisting the urge to express emotions or “lose control” around others — may compensate through dreams in which they shed their inhibitions. Jung considered recurring dreams especially illuminating, as they represent deeper subconscious dilemmas in need of resolution.

During the 1950s, psychologists began dismissing the importance of subconscious processes in favor of observable behavior. Behaviorists were primarily concerned with what people do: phenomena that can be measured rather than interpreted through the subjective lens of an analyst. Interest in and research into dreams — about as subjective phenomena as it gets — declined and, for a long time, never truly rebounded. That’s finally changing.

The Dream Re-Awakening

As the field of neuroscience has grown increasingly sophisticated, researchers have begun to understand the mechanics of dreams and reconsider their utility.

For well over a decade, functional imaging technology has allowed neuroscientists to capture changes in brain activity during various stages of sleep, including rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the stage in which we do most of our dreaming. But until recently, whether the content of the dream impacted brain activity remained largely unclear.

In a 2010 study, researchers mapped out areas of the brain activated during certain types of dreams. They found that vivid, intense dreams — the kind that stick with people after waking — lit up parts of the amygdala, which stores and processes emotional reactions, as well as the hippocampus, which houses long- and short-term memory functions. In other words, our most powerful dreams relate to our most powerful personal experiences.

Dreams pull from real-life memories and the very real emotions attached to them, and when we’re deeply asleep we can engage with those memories and emotions in a looser, freer manner.

Dreams pull from real-life memories and the very real emotions attached to them, and when we’re deeply asleep we can engage with those memories and emotions in a looser, freer manner. Researchers have found that brain activity during REM sleep showed activity in regions associated with abstraction, novelty, and creativity, while parts of the brain that regulate logic, decision-making, and impulse control were suppressed.

“[When dreaming], the brain becomes actively biased toward seeking out the most distant, nonobvious links between sets of information,” explains neuroscientist Matthew Walker, PhD, in Why We Sleep.

Humans are experts at avoiding or downright denying our emotions — in fact, Freud posited that we use defense mechanisms to protect our psyches from emotional discomfort. Though necessary at times, constant emotional repression makes us more vulnerable to depression, anxiety, and even physical disease.

Dreams seem to offer a safe place in which to engage with the difficult feelings we suppress while awake. In this way, dreaming is akin to meeting with a confrontational therapist: you’re forced to confront whatever you’ve been avoiding.

This suggests that we can learn to treat our dreams as a source of insight — and maybe even inspiration.

Mining Dreams for Meaning

In order to find meaning in a dream, you must remember it.

Jacquie Lewis, PhD, coauthor of Working With Dreams and PTSD Nightmares, suggests silently repeating an affirmation reiterating the importance of dreams before going to sleep. Upon waking, spend a few moments lying still, eyes closed, reflecting on the dream. Next, record as much as you can. Don’t worry about capturing every detail, but note evocative images or feelings.

“Even the oddest word or phrase is worth recording,” Lewis writes, “because, upon reflection, it can offer a clue to the dream’s meaning.”

While there’s no single, official approach to dream interpretation, most theories share a few key principles:

  • Look for connections between your dream and real life, focusing on associations and feelings — especially “loaded” feelings like fear, desire, or disgust — rather than dream specifics. (Your third-grade gym teacher probably matters less as an individual than as a proxy for authority.)
  • Consider how emotions evoked in your dream might reflect emotions related to waking-life issues. Lewis suggests asking yourself why the dream may have occurred at this particular time. In doing so, you may identify hopes, fears, or wishes that are unaddressed or unresolved in real life but have ‘permission’ to manifest in your dreams.
  • Try “rewriting” a dream so it offers some form of resolution. Then, consider how you might translate that revision into your own life: How might you address or resolve “unfinished business”?

Dreams are highly personal. Sharing those that touch on our deepest hopes, fears, or insecurities can feel extremely vulnerable. But if the goal is to mine the dream for insight into real-life struggles, it can be worth eliciting feedback from a close friend or family member who may be able to help you see beyond your blind spots.

Still, remember that dreams are above all subjective and that your interpretation — or anyone else’s — is just that: an interpretation. What matters is what you make of it. (Also see “How to Analyze Your Dreams” for more ideas to help capture your dreams and their meaning.)

Why Nightmares Also Matter

Research suggests that our brains tend to self-regulate when dreaming, enabling us to act out emotions that were not expressed or resolved during the day — just as psychiatrist Carl Jung speculated.

Nightmares, however, can be so emotionally charged that the self-regulation process breaks down. And this is especially true if the nightmares stem from trauma.

Researchers speculate that trauma-related nightmares activate fear-memory structures that were encoded during the real-life traumatic experience. The ensuing emotional distress can generate a physiological panic response — picture bolting up from bed, heart pounding and drenched in sweat — rendering sleep no longer a space to work through our issues but one in which we relive them, often harrowingly.

An estimated 80 percent of individuals diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) endure troubling dreams in the aftermath of their experience. And nightmares, especially recurrent ones, can interfere with mood and functioning and may exacerbate other symptoms of PTSD.

In these cases, professional treatment may be desirable. Medication can help with sleep but does not address the traumatic memories causing the nightmares.

One treatment that does is Image Rehearsal Therapy (IRT). Backed by substantial research, IRT involves recording the nightmare, then “rescripting” it into a more positive, affirming narrative. Individuals then rehearse the new version of their dream for 10 to 20 minutes per day. Over time, the dream may change, desist, or simply become more benign.

This article originally appeared as “Why Dreams Matter” in the March 2023 issue of Experience Life.

Alexandra Smith, MA, LPCC

Alexandra Smith, MA, LPCC, is a licensed professional clinical counselor in Minneapolis and an Experience Life contributing editor.

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