Posted on: February 17, 2017 at 2:23 pm
Last updated: September 22, 2017 at 1:16 pm

Before you read any further, do this: recall the last dream you remember having. What did you dream of? Was it pleasant or nightmarish? Did you wake up with a sense that you dreamt, but without any memory of details? Do you notice the same dream keeps happening? And of course, what does the dream mean!?

More often than not we can answer the questions above without having to dig too deep. The last question, however, is always the hardest. Some people might argue that you can never really know the true meaning of your dreams.

For millennia, people have explored religion, philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience in attempts to decipher the dream realm, what goes on there and why. Together, humanity has formed five dream theories that might provide you with some structure or comfort.

Top 5 Dream Theories

Yes, there are others, although these ones best capture what our minds seem to do when we sleep.

1. Pragmatic Prophecies

Do you know Siddhartha Gautama, the boy would eventually become the Buddha? His mother, Queen Maya had a dream which foretold this reality through an image of a white elephant entering her side.[1] In the Book of Genesis, Joseph affirms Pharaoh’s dreams of what would lead to a seven-year nationwide famine.[2] People’s dreams have prophesied the future throughout history and you may have experienced something similar in your own life.

In the Book of Genesis, Joseph affirms Pharaoh’s dreams of what would lead to a seven-year nationwide famine.[2] People’s dreams have prophesied the future throughout history and you may have experienced something similar in your own life.

If you think about dreams in this way, they closely mimic how we go about our daily lives. That is, preparing for what’s to come which could look like leaving twenty minutes early to avoid traffic, or saving money early on to prepare for retirement.

Our ability to think into the future allows us to better prepare for it, and that preparatory thinking seems to occur when we sleep in a way that could help us in our waking lives.[3]

From a more scientific viewpoint, evolutionary psychology maintains that our dreams include people, objects, situations, etc. that can pose threats to us.[4] By dreaming of these things, we can better react to them if they come up in real life or at the very least be more aware of such things.


2. Instructions

Upon waking up from a dream, it can be tough trying to attach words to images you saw in your sleep. However, Sigmund Freud’s and Abraham Lincoln’s dreams supposedly urged each of them to take certain actions in life.

For example, a dream that Freud had the night before his father’s funeral revealed a sign that read “You are requested to close the eye(s).”[5] This dream prompted him to write The Interpretation of Dreams. His text reasoned that dream interpretation allowed access to knowledge of the unconscious part of the mind.

In another example, Lincoln had had a bad dream about his sons and their guns.[6] While nothing happened, the dream affected his decisions in waking life.

We wouldn’t suggest to base everyday decisions around your dreams. However, dreams as instructions seem to be an interesting and tangible interpretation.

3. Subconscious Communications

dream log book

When it comes to dream-interpretation, Carl Jung took Freud’s theories a bit further. Jung argued that the meanings of our dreams took form in universal, yet personal symbols. These symbols would ideally communicate a message to our conscious self about certain aspects of our lives that are likely important to us.[7]

For example, if you dream of someone or something taking away a favorite childhood toy – this could be recurring – you could be worried about losing out on time with your children, or longing for your own youthful years.

While this theory is like the second one, it suggests that we can learn more about our personalities and identity.

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4. Data

Researchers have been studying dreams – that is, the rapid-eye-movement phase of sleep – since the mid-twentieth century.[8] You can imagine that psychologists researching something as subjective as dreams didn’t have it easy.

Over the years, however, they have scanned and studied the brains of over twenty-thousand voluntary dreamers.[9] Researchers have begun to identify psychological themes. A couple of these themes are rarely being alone and often dreaming of someone with whom they have deep emotional ties.

The more data that becomes available on dream patterns, symbols, and themes might allow researchers to better understand the things humanity tends to dream about and what those things mean. How we would choose to act on those meanings completely depends on our personal situations.5

5. Memories

In addition to helping with the learning process, sleep promotes (especially long-term) memory.[10] While you dream, you may see kaleidoscopic imagery or semi-familiar pictures which neuroscientists attribute to the memory-making process. The mass combining of images from earlier in the day, your past, or random thoughts you may have had can result in some wild dream manifestations.

One independent study confirmed a hypothesis that explored the link between episodic memory encoding and what we dream about.[11] Faculty of Humanities Professor Sue Llewellyn from the University of Manchester suggests that our memories are at work when we dream.[12] In a way, the memories we dream about further solidify themselves or other memories we have. But the question of how reliable those memories are remains.[13]

Why Do We Have Similar Dreams?

You can arrive at a general answer to this question if you walk into a bookstore and see the various dream dictionaries that line the shelves. As humans, we experience similar events, types of people, and places. While we may not share exact reactions or thoughts or feelings about these things, we likely see the same physical reality.


The similarities appear to be so common, in fact, that a certain image or experience (e.g., teeth falling out) can generally mean the same thing from person to person.

Some other reasons include:

  • Having close or intimate relations with another person (e.g., a best friend or spouse).
  • Being linked to someone via a previous life, if you subscribe to the idea of karma.
  • Your subconscious trying to tell you and a friend, family member, or stranger of something that may happen in the future.

We understand these things are not always measurable by science, but this doesn’t mean these theories are any less valid.

Remember Your Dreams Better

Are you someone who wants to remember your dreams or maybe even control them? Well, you’ll want to start doing a few things.

Keeping a Proper Dream Journal

Logging your dreams should improve your ability to remember them better.[14,15]

  • Be patient with yourself. You may not double your dream recall overnight. Being too hard and adding unnecessary pressure to yourself may hinder this process.
  • Make a habit of writing in your dream journal every day. This will depend on your schedule but once you find a time to record your dreams, try to stick to it as best you can.
  • Make sure your pen and journal are close enough to you so you can grab it with your eyes closed and without getting out of bed.
  • Record your dreams as soon as you wake up. Admit it – every time you’ve told yourself you’ll remember a dream, you often can’t. Whether you have time for whole paragraphs or only enough to jot notes, record what you can remember as soon as you wake up.
  • In addition to objects, people, places etc., be sure to record how you felt during your dream. If you want to take this one step further, you can note how you felt before going to sleep and after waking up.
  • Title your dreams! It may seem weird or be challenging at first, but after a while, you may notice a pattern or see links between certain dreams.


















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