Dream Interpretation: The Real Meaning of Dreams

By Kristen
Content Updated on January 2, 2007

Visit any new age section of a bookstore and you're guaranteed to find a book that promises to interpret your dreams for you.

"I had a dream about a monkey. What does it mean?" you ask.

The book says, "A monkey in your dream means that your friends are deceiving you."

Don't worry; you don't need to start suspiciously second-guessing every friend you have. Instead, just throw that dream dictionary straight into your recycling bin.

Dreams are windows into the mind, but they can't be interpreted like a deck of novelty tarot cards. (But the makers of those dream dictionary books don't want you to know that.) If you want an honest interpretation of your dreams, you'll need to dig a little deeper for their meaning.

How Did You Feel During Your Dream?

This is probably the most important part of dream interpretation. How did the dream make you feel?

Dreams are triggered by the limbic system of our brain. This is also the part of the brain that controls emotion. Nobody is certain whether dreams are initiated by emotion or if emotions are initiated by dreams during sleep, but they certainly seem to influence each other.

One theory (the one that I agree with most) is that dreams are ways for your brain to work through emotions. If your dream made you feel afraid, angry, overwhelmed, happy, free, etc. then you probably have some situations in reality that are also making you feel these emotions.

No one knows exactly why we need to dream, but dreams often do help us work though problems in reality. They force us to face challenges we would rather not face while we're awake. They show us what we're afraid of. The show us what we want. They can even help students figure out homework problems (several dreams helped me through my biochemistry exams in college).

At the root of all of this is emotion, so pay attention to how your dreams make you feel. How did you feel in your dreams? How do you feel about the scenes in your dreams now that you're awake?

What Do Weird Dreams Mean?

Some dreams are just weird. You're eating a bowl of cereal while standing on the table in the middle of a strange room. You're surrounded by smiling people holding squirrels and throwing spatulas in the air. Suddenly, somebody hands you an eggplant and tells you to put it in your cereal because eggplant chunks in cereal is even better than banana chunks in cereal. You start to argue that you don't like eggplant, but then you suddenly find yourself sitting on the roof and watching the evening news on an old black-and-white television. Throughout all of it, everything seems completely normal, but when you wake up, you're struck with how bizarre the whole thing was and you wonder what it all meant.

Well, maybe it didn't mean anything. Maybe throughout the day you saw a bowl of cereal, a table, an eggplant, spatulas, smiling people, squirrels, an old television set, a roof, and the evening news, and your brain is just replaying the images to process the events of the day (like a series of flash cards). It's human nature to find meaningful patterns in things, so we turn the random images into a story (because storybooks are far more interesting than flash cards).

If you have a bizarre dream that doesn't seem to evoke much emotion, don't worry about it. Just accept that your brain was simply trying to make a story out of random scenes, and your dream was the best it could do. Write it down and laugh about it later.

What Do Bad Dreams Mean?

Bad dreams come in in the forms of memories and fears.

A bad memory dream usually includes scenes from painful events that actually happened. Sometimes these are memories that were simply triggered by something you saw during the day, like seeing a dead animal on the side of the road may trigger a memory seeing your dog get hit by a car. Other times they are reminders of experiences that you have buried away in your mind and don't want to deal with. If bad memory dreams are extremely painful or cause anxiety, depression, or anger during your conscious life, then it may be time to talk to a psychologist about them.

Fear dreams are much more symbolic. I'm afraid of alligators (caimans included) and crocodiles. I've had quite a few nightmares that involve these creatures.

If I decided to look them up in some of those dream dictionaries, I would get a variety of interpretations, from vague ones, like "you have unresolved issues that you need to manage," to specific ones that could ruin relationships, like "your lover is a dangerous person."

In reality, alligators and crocodiles just scare me because they're deadly, stronger than I am, and unconcerned with how their victims feel (which is why I'm also scared by lions, tigers, bears, angry dogs, sharks, serial killers, cruel warlords, large fires, strong currents in large bodies of water, and lava). For me, being faced with an alligator means that I'm being faced with something that could hurt me, something I can't control.

For the kid down the street, though, alligators aren't symbols of death or victimization at all. For him, they're all about power. In his dreams, having an alligator as a pet is the ultimate symbol of being cool and in charge. He loves his alligator dreams. This is why those dream dictionaries are completely wrong. Dream symbolism changes from person to person.

The symbol itself is also generally not important. The important part is knowing how that symbol makes you feel. I could have a bad dream about an alligator, but I could have just as easily had the same bad dream about a bear or a wave of lava. The underlying emotions in such dreams are fear and helplessness. Perhaps when I have dreams about large, powerful things that are trying to kill me, my brain is just letting me know that I'm feeling dangerously helpless about a situation. After that, it's up to me to figure out what situation in reality is evoking those emotions.

Likewise, when you have something bad in your dream, think about what that object or creature symbolizes to you. (No dream dictionary can figure that out for you.) Then consider how the underlying emotions of that symbolism may be influenced by real life experiences.

What Do Good Dreams Mean?

Good dreams generally come in the forms of memories and desires.

In happy memory dreams, you remember happy things that have happened. Sometimes you simply replay the scene. Other times you only get bits and pieces of the scene, and sometimes those bits and pieces are mixed up with scenes from other memories. The mix-up of scenes doesn't mean that those scenes are related, though. Sometimes they just happen randomly, so it isn't always necessary to try to figure out how one leads to another. However, this isn't always the case. Sometimes these scenes are connected through a theme. The best way to interpret happy memory dreams is to not try to interpret them at all. Just accept them for what they are, happy memories, and enjoy them. You may even want to write them down, so you can put it in your memoires.

Desire dreams are typically about happy things that you wish would happen. These dreams are important because they help you realize what you really want out of life. Sometimes the desires are obvious. If I dream about winning the lottery, there's probably a part of me that thinks it would be nice to win the lottery. Sometimes the desire appear symbolically in dreams. For example, a dream about flying (like a super hero) may symbolize a desire to be free, not actually a desire to fly.

Again, like in bad dreams, you need to decide what the symbolism means to you. (Don't expect a book to do that for you.)

What's the Theme of Your Dream?

Let's say that you've had a series of bad dreams. The first one was about losing your keys. The next one was about getting lost on the way home from work even though you've driven that route hundreds of times. The third was about your cat running away. The fourth was about your spouse disappearing for a few hours. The fifth...

Are you starting to see a theme?

Perhaps your brain is trying to deal with issues of loss. Maybe you're afraid of losing something important to you. Maybe you've already lost something important to you, and you don't want to think about it because it hurts too much. Maybe you've been very unorganized, keep losing little things like keys, wallets, etc., and you wonder if your bad habit of being disorganized will lead to your losing everything.

Look at themes in your dreams and consider how they may be influenced by challenges in your daily life. For this exercise, you may want to keep a dream journal. Just keep a notebook and a couple of pencils next to your bed. As soon as you wake up, write down any dreams you remember. After you have several entries, look at them for similarities. You may make some surprising discoveries with this method.

Happy Dreaming!