Decoding your dreams
This page shows you how to decode your dreams to reveal their meaning. First, I cover some history and, second, a background to personal associations. If you are familiar with both of these sections, you can skip them and go straight to “How to decode your dreams“. But you really need to read one of my decoded dream examples before you do your own decoding. There are four decoded dream examples in the “How to decode your dreams” section, they are: “The Lottery tickets”; “The Crossing“; “Bagpuss“; and “Trying to catch the train“.
The idea that dream analysis can reveal personally significant, “hidden” meanings has a long history. Freud made dream decoding popular, he called this revealing process “interpretation”. I call it decoding because “interpretation” has become linked to the idea of universal dream symbols. Some believe universal symbols are the key to decoding covert, hidden meanings. If symbols are the language of dreams- you can look up dream meanings in a universal dream symbol ‘dictionary’, just like reading off the meaning of words. For example, in a dream dictionary, “falling” means something in your life isn’t going well. For example, you are breaking up with your partner because of their infidelity. You dream of falling away from them.
Falling away from your partner
But, why not dream directly about what’s going wrong in the relationship? Why not dream about the infidelity? Why dream of falling instead? Why would dreams take indirect routes to meaning?
Most answers depend on the ‘dream as message’. Either the message comes from an external power, like a god, or an internal one, like the unconscious. This implies that gods and the unconscious communicate through symbols. For Freud, symbols disguised unconscious, repressed wishes, often sexual in nature. Strip away the symbolic disguise. The shock of the wishes would wake the dreamer. For example, suppose you want to have sex with your best friend’s son, Julian. A Freudian view would say: you repress this desire. It becomes unconscious (or hidden) and returns in a dream. But rather than dreaming of having sex with Julian in some hotel, you dream of something associated, say eating a forbidden fruit like a durian. Many hotels in Southeast Asia ban durians because some people are disgusted by their smell.
A durian cut into quarters
In Freud’s terms, eating a forbidden, exotic fruit, like the durian, symbolises having sex with Julian. He thought that, even in a dream, if you had sex with Julian you would be so disturbed, experience such inner conflict, you would awaken.
At the end of the 19th century Freud’s theory made sense to the liberal, Viennese, Jewish middle class. They were beginning to accept the pervasive influence of sexuality on human behaviour yet their sexual moral codes remained extremely oppressive. In the 21st century, Freud’s “dream to disguise” idea makes a lot less sense. At least in the West, we live in a confessional sexual culture, where people are, often, completely open about their sexual proclivities. Sharing their fantasies about best friends’ sons on daytime TV.
I don’t agree with universal dream symbols nor do I think dreams disguise repressed wishes. The part I do agree with is Freud’s stress on the associations between the unconscious wishes and the disguise. You can ditch the disguised wishes idea yet still maintain the highly associative nature of dreams. What are the associations in the Julian/durian dream? Having sex is associated with eating fruit because both are consummatory behaviours i.e they satisfy an innate drive. Julian is associated with durian because both sound similar. The phrase “forbidden fruit” means a taboo source of pleasure. Some would be disgusted by you having illicit sex with your best friend’s son in a motel, some find eating durians in Asian hotels disgusting. Both are associated because they are forbidden fruit in furtive places. Also, both may result in bad consequences.
To decode your dream- identify the associations
I think dream scenes present images of a complex associative pattern in your experience. Suppose you did fancy your best friend’s son, Julian, and fantasised about being with him in a motel but didn’t feel you should do anything about it, you had eaten durians in an Asian hotel where they were banned and had been involved in an affair when you sometimes used hotel rooms. These are all elements of your experience, which are associated in the ways outlined in the above paragraph.
For me, decoding a dream means revealing its pattern of associations. Why is this pattern significant? The pattern uncovers meaningful associations between your experiences. Ones you probably hadn’t thought of while awake because your mind/brain during wakefulness is best at deciphering logical, sequential patterns, like realising 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64 is a pattern of doubling numbers to get the next one. Or noticing this pattern: day follows night with the sun rising in the east and setting in the west.
Night is associated with the setting of the sun
Recognizing patterns means you can predict. You know day will follow night. Do dream patterns mean you can predict what will happen next? Well, you can’t be certain because human behaviour isn’t determined- like night follows day- rather people tend to do some things and not do others. What does your Julian/durian dream tell you about yourself? It reveals you are someone who is drawn to the illicit but it doesn’t mean you are definitely going to have sex with Julian. You may decide “once bitten, twice shy”. The hotel threw you out for eating durians and that affair was a disaster but you could end up in a motel with Julian because you really fancy him. If I had to predict, based on the associations in this one dream alone, I don’t think you will because you’ve learnt from experience.
Originally, back in evolutionary time, I think we dreamed to survive. Dreams patterns associated elements of experience that predicted the danger of predators at a frequently visited place that offered food, water or shelter. My book chapter “Dream to see patterns” (on this website) explains this. Why do dream patterns seem so odd? You don’t find it easy to understand how these associations make a pattern simply because, physiologically, your mind/ brain in wakefulness is not adapted to detecting visual, associative non-obvious patterns. But your dreaming mind/ brain is.
Returning to decoding dreams to reveal their meaning, my dreaming mind/brain makes meaningful associations between elements of my experience. Nothing means anything on its own— to ask about the meaning of my dream is to ask how people, events and things are associated with other people, events and things for me. In contrast, some meanings are established through cultures and become universal for that culture. For example, a wedding ring means “love” because the ring ( or band) is associated with the union of two people who promise lasting commitment to each other.
A ring is associated with being bound to each other
Dream meanings are, I think, essentially, personal meanings which we create through the way we associate elements of our experience. I hope you can see this through the four dream illustrations in this decoding section.
I also think we retain dreams unconsciously. They work at an unconscious level- influencing our attitudes, actions and decisions during wakefulness. Even a person with good recall only remembers a small fraction of their dreams. You don’t need to remember your dreams for them to have a big impact on your life.
How to decode your dreams
If you are interested in decoding dreams, I think you can identify their personal meanings under three conditions. First, if you consciously recall the dream after waking. Second, if you remember the dream in some detail. Third, if you can access the memory elements and identify the associations in the dream. All three conditions imply recording and working with the dream soon after experiencing it.
To identify the memory elements it helps to be clear about what we remember. Some of the things we remember are events, like your best friend’s birthday party or the meeting you had with your dissertation students yesterday. Others are concerns, like hoping your best friend will like the present you have for her or thinking that your dissertation students didn’t seem to understand what you explained to them. Still others are knowledge, like my best friend lives in Edinburgh, which is the capital of Scotland or I have five dissertation students.
While you are awake your mind is associative but it tends to associate things in a logical, obvious way. So thinking of my best friend is associated with remembering it’s her birthday next month, which is associated with travelling to Edinburgh to attend the party which is associated with wondering if she is going to like the scarf I have bought for her and being concerned she may not like the colour. But, in a dream, your memory elements come from diverse experiences, they are associated but in ways that aren’t obvious to your awake mind. For example, suppose I dream of being at my best friend’s birthday party and my dissertation students are there.
Why are my students at my best friend’s party?
This would seem odd to my awake mind because my best friend doesn’t know my dissertation students. But my dissertation students gave me a scarf as a thank you present for helping them with their work. I was pleased by this but, unfortunately, I didn’t like the design. When I dream my dissertation students are at my best friend’s birthday party this is false- it never happened. But to my dreaming mind it isn’t strange because there is a non-obvious association- the (possibly) unwelcome scarf.
You need the highly associative state of dreaming to identify these non-obvious associations. You can think of a dream as an associative pattern of elements from memories of different experiences. How do you to start to decode the pattern?
Many, perhaps all, dreams incorporate a memory of an event or concern from the previous day. Freud called this a “day-residue”. We re-organize our memories during sleep. Day-residues may trigger this re-organization, producing the dream pattern. Identifying the element of an experience from the previous day (a recent memory) is often the easiest way to begin to decode the associative dream pattern.
After starting with a recent memory, try to identify the remote memories that appear in the dream, where “remote” means a memory that is more than a week old. Also, concerns usually feature in dreams. These are also memories but are memories of things you care about rather than memories of events. Dreams don’t embed memories of knowledge, at least in the way we now think of knowledge. So, in a dream, you don’t usually think “ Ah, yes, Stockholm is the capital of Sweden.” but you do have some knowledge. For example, you know that a kite is something that flies in the air.
Knowing about kites
And, even when dreaming, you know that kites come in different shapes and sizes.
The dreams that follow illustrate how recent and remote memories, along with concerns and rudimentary knowledge feature in actual dreams. Some of the dreams are mine but others are from my friends or colleagues. The dreamers comment on what they think the dream means and what it reveals about them. All the dreams refer to “I” to mean the dreamer. The dream characters are anonymized through giving them names which aren’t their own.
(click on links for full dreams)
What do dreams mean? What do they reveal about you?
Once you have identified the memories and concerns in a dream you will ask, “What does the dream mean?”. You may also wonder “What does this dream reveal about me?”. These two questions are connected. Earlier, I said meaning is all about association, that the meaning of a dream lies in the way it associates elements from different memories or concerns. You may resist this idea because nowadays we think of meaning in the context of language – to find out what something means, you look the word up on Google. But we had meaning before we had language because we knew what things meant in relation to our needs and desires. For early humans, a predator meant “threat to my survival”. Even now I think first of what something means for me. For example, a large car driving right at me means threat.
Association between car-threat-injury to me
If I’m badly injured but survive, “car” becomes associated with “threat” just as the sight of a lion became associated with “threat” for early humans. Equally, if I’m presented with a durian, which looks spiky and intimidating but, for me, is actually delicious, “durian” becomes associated with “nice surprise”. The associations we make during dreaming are often ones that wouldn’t occur to us while awake, which is why they are called non-obvious. Sometimes, dreams reveal hidden aspects of ourselves. Ones that aren’t obvious. Needs and desires we may deny while awake. Your dreams can surprise you!
For example, In “Trying to catch the train” the mistake over the track, which the train was leaving from, is associated with the mistake over academic authorship because, first, the same two people are involved and, second, both were mistakes over the source of something. For the book, the source was the author whereas for the train it was the track. The second association between the two mistakes is non-obvious- at least to the mind during waking hours, which only readily spots more obvious associations. For example, your waking mind could spot if the same two people were involved in two different mistakes.
Aside from the non-obvious associations, working out what your dreams mean is also tricky because your dreams often use hybrids and metaphors. Let’s look at hybrids first.
Dreams sometimes combine different things in the same image when they mean the same to the dreamer. Going back to the evolutionary origins of dreams may reveal why we see hybrids in our dreams. For example, lions and hyenas are different animals but, for early humans they were both an everyday danger. Like lions, hyenas will attack humans and have been known to kill them. Lions and hyenas both meant “lethal threat”.
Also like lions, hyenas hunt at night, will kill prey at waterholes and have yellow fur. They also tend to be in the same places at the same time because they scavenge each other’s food. Incidentally the popular notion that hyenas scavenge from lions but not the other way around is incorrect. From the point of view of early humans avoiding predators, a hyena at a waterhole has the same significance as a lion.
The liena- associating a lion with a hyena
Imagining a “liena”- a hybrid creature which merges a lion and a hyena- is an efficient way of combining elements of the pattern with the same meaning into one. The liena is a patterned element I created through associating a lion and a hyena but a liena doesn’t actually exist. The evolutionary imperative to obtain food and water and meet with mates whilst avoiding predators and competitors may have driven us to imagine the impossible in our dreams!
But what about now? We don’t spend our lives avoiding the threat of predators at the waterhole, or only metaphorically! But we still create hybrids in our dreams. For example, in “The Crossing” the man in Scene 2 is a hybrid- he is created out of four men who mean “threat” to the dreamer. Some dreams may create hybrids out of objects or places that have similar meanings for the dreamer. For example, if you have enjoyed swimming in the sea at two different places these may be combined in the dream. This produces that familiar dream feeling that Barcelona at the same time. The meaning of these two places is the same for the dreamer: seaside holiday enjoyment.
Dreams also seem puzzling because of metaphors. Do they have an evolutionary explanation too?
I think dreaming evolved in our pre- linguistic days, when, like animals, we thought through images. Over time, we acquired language. Also, as we evolved, we began to do more than meet our basic needs for food, water and shelter. Our world became more complex. Consequently, it would have become harder to represent our personal memories and concerns in images. Concrete things (people, rivers and trains) are easily visualised in dreams, but abstractions (the role of chance in lives) and concerns (fear of going blind through glaucoma) are not. During our waking lives, we can use language to talk about abstractions and concerns. In contrast, because dreams are mainly visual (dream characters do sometimes speak but their speech tends to be short and not very sophisticated), I propose that dreams remained constrained to represent abstractions and concerns through images of concrete things.
We don’t think of metaphors as originating in dreams. We think of them as “figures of speech”. But our use of metaphor may have predated our use of language. Metaphors may have arisen through the images we create during dreaming. If so, they are just a special instance of the associative picturing that goes on in our dreams. Metaphors use a concrete thing to refer to an abstract one, where the abstraction is associated in some way (or ways) with the concrete thing.
For example, in the first scene of “The lottery tickets“ the three packets of tickets are concrete items but they may represent the role of chance in the lives of the dreamer’s three children. The role of chance is both an abstraction and a concern for the dreamer. This doesn’t mean that whenever someone dreams about lottery tickets these are symbols for the role of chance in life.
Lottery tickets mean chance for one dreamer
Or that dreamers will image lottery tickets to equal the number of children they have! This association is a meaningful one for this particular dreamer but will probably not be for many others.
A short guide to decoding the meaning of your dreams ( to be read with one or more of the dream examples)
- If you remember a dream upon waking, keep your eyes closed, to shut out distractions, and try to re-live the dream in as much detail as you can.
- Record or write down your dream.
- Try to note down any memories or concerns that are associated with the dream.
- Sort the memories into recent (within the last week) and remote (older than one week) ones
- Try to identify any previous day memories, day-residues in Freudian terms, that may have triggered the dream through re-organizing your memories.
- Identify the non-obvious associations between your dream elements.
- Note down any hybrids– associations between people, objects or places which mean the same to the dreamer.
- Think about metaphors, whenever a concern or memory cannot be easily visualised and, therefore, is presented through an associated concrete image.
Finally, don’t expect to decode a dream immediately. Often, an elusive dream association will pop into your mind weeks after the dream occurred. This is particularly the case for emotionally challenging associations. Dreams are often hard to work with!