How To Interpret Your Own Dreams

It's hard to deny the complete phenomenon that is dreaming.  Your body and brain are in such an utterly unique state when you dream.  

Once you hit REM sleep, your brain paralyzes all your muscles except the ones in your eyes, and your frontal cortex (the linear, logical part of your brain) is essentially switched off.

Meanwhile, here's what Dr. Alan Hobson, a Professor of Psychiatry in the Sleep Division of Harvard Medical School, says gets turned up and fully activated when you dream:

Your visual cortex - the part of your brain that matches visual images with meaning.

Your hippocampus - the memory storage center of your brain.

Your amygdala - the part of your brain that connects emotions to your memories, secretes hormones and interprets whether or not you should be afraid of something.

In fact, your brain is just as active during your dreams as it is during your waking life.

Yet, despite years and years of research, no one really knows why we dream.

The two basic camps are that dreams carry hidden messages from our unconscious that are disguised symbolically so as not to overwhelm us with truth, and that dreams are just daily residue being flushed out of our brains as a way of organizing information.  

Regardless of which side you're on, paying attention to your dreams is a powerful practice.

Just like horoscopes, dreams can serve as ambiguous stimuli that only gain meaning subjectively.  What you graft onto the dream is what gives it meaning, whether that meaning was latent in the dream or not.

Have you ever heard the expression, "You know the truth by the way it feels."(?) Your dreams provide rich terrain for sussing out what you believe to be true or not true about the experiences you're moving through.  When someone offers an interpretation of your dreams that you know is not true, the reason you deem it a false interpretation is because on some level, you know what is true.

One method of dream interpretation that bodes particularly well for independently exploring your dreams is to assume that every single thing in the dream is representative of a part of you.  For example, lets say you dream that you're riding a Ferris wheel and it stops unexpectedly at the top. As you're swinging back and forth, you look down and see that you're barefoot.  You suddenly hear the horn of a ship, then you wake up.

Here's how you might begin to independently explore that dream:

A Ferris wheel goes around and around in a circle and is intended to be ridden for fun, typically by children.  Is a part of me going around and around in circles just for fun? Is a part of me acting childish about something? 

The Ferris wheel stopped.  Does a part of me want to stop doing the same thing I've always been doing for fun? Does a part of me want to stop going in circles over a certain decision or juvenile behavior? 

The cart rocked back and forth as it was suspended in mid air, which is not supposed to happen and which is typically a dangerous/scary situation.  Does a part of me go back and forth in deciding whether to stop or to start something? Does a part of me feel stuck? Is there a part of me that is engaging in dangerous activity?  Is there something happening in my life which should not be happening and which is causing me anxiety? 

You noticed you weren't wearing shoes when you normally would be in waking life.  Does a part of me feel unprepared to walk down a new path?  What else could I be unprepared for? Does a part of me think that I'm missing something basic that I should really have?  Does a part of me feel I have lost a basic need? What could that be? 

You suddenly hear the horn of a ship.  Is a part of me calling myself to get on board with something?  Is a part of me feeling left behind while a person or opportunity 'sails off'?

The more you ask yourself these types of exploratory questions, the more clarity you'll likely encounter about what you're feeling and why.  As dreams can be muddled and non-linear, writing down your interpretations and questions can be particularly helpful in organizing them.  If you continue to experience dreams which feel salient to you but from which you can’t seem to extract clear meaning from, have them analyzed by a professional.  

Dreams can be powerful invitations to parts of yourself that you may be dimming in your waking life.  What would happen if you turned the lights up?

Katherine Schafler is an NYC-based psychotherapist, writer and speaker. For more of her work, join her monthly newsletter, follow her on Instagram, or read her blog.