Whistling babies. Flying executives. Missed college exams. Passionate love trysts. Being chased by bears or your high school teacher. What do you dream about? Better yet, why do you dream?
No one really knows exactly why our brains put on these bizarre nighttime movies, but dreams are more than entertainment. Most experts agree that they are reflections of what is going on in our psyche and daily life. “Dreams and sleep help us digest information from our waking state and assimilate it into our brains,” explains psychologist Marc Schoen, PhD, an assistant clinical professor at the UCLA School of Medicine.
Dreams can also be tools you use to identify issues in your life and your true feelings about them. “Dreams can serve a problem-solving function,” asserts Schoen. “If you can’t find a solution to a problem in your waking life, at times you can find solutions in your dream life.”
Ultimately, making an effort to decode the meaning behind your dreams can enhance your perspective and suggest solutions for everyday problems, says Schoen. If you pay attention to the stories that are created in the Land of Nod, you might realize, for example, that you’re running away from a problem. Or that you feel threatened by a coworker. Or that your life is drifting away from your deeper values.
To extract maximum value from your dreams, though, you have to remember them in the morning. You may also have to probe and prod a bit to reveal their true meaning.
Remember the Night
The best tool for putting your dreams to work is a dream journal, which can be as simple as a notepad next to your bed. “A dream journal improves dream recall,” explains San Francisco dream analyst Gayle Delaney, PhD, founding president of the Association for the Study of Dreams and author of All About Dreams and Living Your Dreams. “It gives you a context for understanding your dream life. And it helps you figure out patterns you didn’t know existed. Because it offers you new insights and solutions to problems, it enriches your life.”
Here’s how to start keeping and using a dream journal.
1. Set the stage. Keep a pen and a journal or lined paper on a clipboard by your bedside. Before you turn in for the night, Delaney recommends that you write the date in your journal, followed by three or four lines about the highlights of your day, namely, what you did and felt that was significant.
2. Record waking images. When you wake up the next morning, immediately jot down a description of the major images that are in your mind. Do you remember people, actions, places, moods? Even if all you remember are fragments of images, write those down. Unable to remember any actual dream footage? No problem. Delaney suggests that you simply “write down the last thing that was on your mind before you woke up or the first thing that was on your mind after waking.” Be specific about details, as if you were describing them to someone else.
3. Remember feelings. Be sure to write down your feelings upon awakening. If you had a dream you can’t recall, are there any residual feelings or emotions? “It’s how you feel in the dream that gives you the personal interpretation of the dream’s symbology,” Schoen says.
4. Add a title. Even the words you use to title your dream can be useful later when you’re looking for commonalities between dreams.
5. Make connections. Finally, take a few minutes that day to look for parallels between your dream and your daily life. Ask yourself: Based on my description of my dream, is there anything similar going on in my life? Is there any part of myself that’s like the qualities or characters in my dream? Bridging the dream to real life is essential if you want your sleep-induced images to help you understand your waking hours, Delaney explains.
Looking for Patterns
Regardless of whether you choose to record your dreams every night, or only after especially dramatic dreams, after a few entries look through your dream journal for recurring patterns. These repeating elements might be actual dreams or characters, but they could also be themes or feelings.
Search for common words, feelings, and even titles in your dream journal. “If you’re having an obstacle dream, say, in which you’re trying to get someplace and all these things keep getting in your way, that’s a frustration dream,” says Schoen. “Examine what the theme means, then ask yourself where the theme is most relevant in your life right now.”
Recently, Schoen worked with a woman in her early 30s who was a high-powered attorney about to have her first child. The woman’s plan was to stop working when the baby was born, and she was having recurring dreams about losing things – her wallet, her keys, her car in the parking lot, and so on. “For her, these dreams were about her fear of losing her sense of identity and security – because those elements had been entirely wrapped up in her work,” Schoen explains.
Armed with themes and images from your nightlife, you’re ready to shed a little light on matters. To apply your dream analysis to your life, you have to ask yourself, “What else?”
For example, if you’ve been having dreams about getting lost or losing things, you might ask yourself, “What else am I in danger of losing? What else have I lost?” If you’re continuously facing obstacles or grappling with frustration in your dreams, you might ask yourself, “What else is in my way?”
Every night, your dreams offer up insights that can be applied to improve your life.
When a nurse dreamed that a bear was chasing her, she at first reached out to him. “Then I realized that he was dangerous so I started running away from him again,” the nurse recalls. “The next day, I couldn’t figure out why I was dreaming about a bear.” While interviewing herself about the dream, the woman described the bear as “cute and cuddly but dangerous.” When she asked herself, “What else is cute but dangerous?” and looked for a connection to her daytime life, the dream made sense: “That description fit my boyfriend to a T,” the nurse explains. “My dreams were showing me a side of him that I didn’t want to look at – that I wasn’t a priority in his life, that he was seeing other women, that his intentions toward me were not good.” In short, her dream was telling her to break up with him, which she did.
Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide how you want to use what you learn from your dreams. But every night, your dreams offer up insights that can be applied to improve your life. As Delaney says, “Dreams add to your fund of knowledge and insight, but only if you use that insight to make the necessary shifts in your life.”
Using Your Dreams to Solve Your Problems
When dealing with a problem or challenge, the old advice to “sleep on it” may be more useful than you thought. Reflecting on your dreams is not the only way to use them as problem solvers, says San Francisco dream expert Gayle Delaney, PhD, author of All About Dreams and Living Your Dreams. You can actually focus your dreams to work on issues before you go to sleep, with a process called dream incubation.
Here’s how dream incubation works: Before turning off the lights, write down a question that describes your concern: “How can I give a first-rate presentation for my project at work?” or “What’s really going on between my partner and me?” Then, repeat the question over and over as you fall asleep.
As soon as you wake up, write down whatever is on your mind. “It may not be a dream; it could be an instinct or an image or the title of a song,” Delaney explains. Think back to the question you posed before bed, says Delaney, then ask yourself, “What does this message remind me of in my waking life?”
For example, let’s say you dreamed of a film. Do characters in that film use a technique that you could adopt for your upcoming presentation? Or does the deaf person in the film help you realize that your power struggle in your relationship stems from you and your partner not really listening to the other? “Your dreams reflect what you really feel and what you really think, things we often pretend we don’t know,” Delaney says. “When you look at dreams honestly, they can help you realize what’s bothering you and what you can do about it.”
This article originally appeared as “Looking Into Your Night Life” in the November 2004 issue of Experience Life.