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Everybody dreams but not everyone remembers his or her dreams. Even if you wake up recalling a dream, it is very easy to forget the dream in a short space of time unless you write some notes.

What happens in a dream and how we, other people, and the world in general behave in it, is usually illogical and impossible in real life but does not seem so at the time we are dreaming.

There is no convincing evidence that dreams are associated with paranormal, religious or supernatural phenomena.

Dreaming has a healthy purpose. However, for the most part the specific details or elements of the dream (by that I mean the objects and people that appear in the dream) are of little relevance. The common exception would be where the dream is obviously directly related to worries and fears that are preoccupying you at the time. For instance, if you are very worried that you are going to be made redundant you might actually dream that your boss calls you into his or her office and informs you that you have lost your job. Another exception is the nightmares of people with post-traumatic stress which are actual memories of the traumatising incident (e.g. a car accident) or variations of this. (It is thought that these nightmares occur because the memory of the traumatic event has not been adequately processed.)

People make a lot of money selling books on how to interpret dreams. The interpretations offered are based on the idea that each of the elements (objects, people, activities, etc.) in any dream has a universal symbolic significance. So if we dream, say, about swimming across a river, losing a tooth, meeting the Archbishop of Canterbury, or running out of petrol, we can look up the meaning of the dream in a kind of dream dictionary.

Such books are a complete waste of money. Even if each element of a dream did have a particular interpretation, it would be different for different people and even for the same person it would not necessarily have the same meaning at different times.

In fact, as I said earlier, the elements of which a dream is composed probably have little significance. So, for example, if you dream about an old school friend whom you have not seen or even thought about for years, or if you dream you are driving along a road signposted to Swansea when you have never been there and don't even know anyone from there, don't waste time puzzling over this. Neither is probably of the slightest significance.

And yet…. Dreams may not be just random activity in the brain while you sleep. Although it may not be that the purpose of your dreams is to convey some sort of message to you, it may be that some, if not all, dreams have some sort of meaning and that sometimes it is worth your paying attention to that meaning. This may well be the case when, now and again, we have a dream that is particularly intense and seems stay with us during the day.

Actually, it may so happen that the meaning of a dream seems very obvious to you. For example, I once dreamt that I was carrying my briefcase and it was so heavy that it took all my effort to hold it up as I was walking. At that time I was studying very hard for some exams and I had little time for other things. It seemed clear to me that this was why I had the dream. However, it is always a good idea not to immediately assume the most obvious interpretation. Thinking about my dream now, and applying the technique I shall shortly describe, I think there may have been a more important meaning I could have derived from the dream.

Perhaps there really is no single correct interpretation of a dream. Perhaps, like the 'inkblot' tests, it is the one that makes most sense to you that is the best.

The Technique

The technique seems very simple but in practice it may need much thought. Let's suppose you dream that you are walking down the road and the wind blows your hat off. You run after it but you never seem to catch up with it. People keep getting in your way and eventually you resort to pushing them aside in order to keep your eye on where your hat is. 'Why did I have that dream?' you ask yourself in the morning. Perhaps you immediately sense an answer. But wait!

The first step is to identify the predominant feeling or feelings you had in the dream (the emotions or what psychologists call the 'affect'). Were you frustrated, afraid, determined, excited, exhilarated, angry, empowered, helpless, hopeful, pessimistic, etc.? Think carefully about this and take as long as you need.

The second step is to think of the dream in its most abstract sense. Forget about the elements of the dream - the hat, what colour it was, the wind, where all this was taking place, and so on. What was the major theme (or themes) of the dream at its most abstract? You were trying to catch up with something, achieve something, overcome some problem, etc. but obstacles kept getting in your way and it was eluding you. Think carefully about this and take as long as you need.

Now, keeping just the abstract theme of the dream and the associated feelings in mind, the third step is to ask yourself, 'How is this related to what is going on in my life at the moment?' Again think carefully about this and take as long as you need.

Perhaps in your dream you identified feelings of excitement and optimism but also frustration, as obstacles (not necessarily people now) got in your way. Perhaps in real life you are engaged in a project at work, or hoping to form a relationship with someone to whom you are attracted, or trying for a baby, or whatever. Or maybe you identified in your dream feelings of hopelessness and anger as, however much effort you made, there was always something between you and your goal. Perhaps you can then identify something significant going on in your present life that relates to those themes and feelings.

Often, the answer to step three (relating the dream to present circumstances) can prove the most elusive. As I stated earlier, dreams can be related to unresolved emotionally-charged events from the past, but always make sure to ask the question, 'Why dream about it now?' The following examples illustrate this.

Two examples

John was a wealthy businessman who was experiencing all the symptoms of stress - insomnia, constant tiredness, mood swings, over-indulgence of alcohol, and so on - and his marriage was suffering. A number of years ago John served a prison sentence for fraud. One day he told me he was having recurrent nightmares of his life in prison. In these dreams he experienced the claustrophobia of being locked up in his cell for hours and some bullying by prison officers. An obvious explanation for his dream (and perhaps his current symptoms) was that he had never got over his bad experiences in prison: they were still haunting him. However, when we went through the above technique, and in particular considered the question 'Why are you dreaming about this now?' a new understanding emerged. At that time, in his business John had considerable debts. He also had a huge mortgage to pay off. He was confident that if he kept on working things would come right as the economic cycle turned to his advantage. In the meantime he had to work excessively long hours and commute long distances in his car. He felt trapped in his present life. Perhaps this is what his dream was about: it was not simply a recurrence of bad memories.

You may now be anticipating a fourth step, namely to say, 'So what?'. Surely John was aware of how he felt about his life before the dream was interpreted in this way? Well, I think it is going too far to say that a dream literally has a purpose and that purpose is to communicate something important to the dreamer. However, it may help to see it in that way. I can best sum up the communication with the words 'Please pay attention to this and (if the dream is highlighting a problem) do something about it'. In John's case the 'message' would be something like 'Please realise that you are suffering because you have made yourself a prisoner of your own life. Please attend to this'. But what could John do? He could only remain in his 'prison' until things got better and only then could he allow himself more freedom. Nevertheless, it was helpful to John that the insight that he was 'a prisoner in his own life' came from himself and not from me. At the next appointment he brought his wife and she was able to understand better why he was so tired and ill-tempered at times, why he helped himself to a drink as soon as he arrived home from work, and so on.

It is so much better if people arrive at their own understanding and insight, however obvious this might seem, even of they can't do much to change the situation, and this applies to the dream technique. Nevertheless, I have sometimes been very surprised by how 'blind' people can be to the meaning of a dream when, knowing that person, the interpretation seems so obvious to me. Indeed I experienced the same 'blindness' for myself on one occasion when a psychiatrist colleague helped me understand a particularly memorable dream I once had. (This was not done under ideal conditions: we were drinking in a pub at the time!) In the end my colleague had to provide his interpretation of the dream. My immediate reaction was 'Of course! How obvious! Why didn't I see that?'. This reluctance to acknowledge the obvious makes me confident in the value of the technique and the salience of the message 'please attend to this'.

So, I do not think that dreams necessarily communicate to you things that you don't already know; but you might not be giving these thing sufficient attention. This is strikingly apparent in the example of Richard, who described to me two vivid dreams he had had the week prior to his appointment. In one of these dreams the washing machine had overflowed at home and was flooding his whole house. He was desperately trying to rescue his wife and children. In the second dream he was desperately trying to hold on to the edge of a cliff to stop himself from falling! Clearly, if these dreams had any meaning at all they were about the fear of losing something very important in his life. However, as often happens, Step 3 ('Why am I having this dream now?) proved the most difficult to negotiate. Richard insisted that at the time there was nothing in his life that could go wrong in such a catastrophic way as his dream might be suggesting. We came to a standstill and, being quite new to this approach, I was left thinking that there might be nothing in it after all.

The next week, Richard returned with some shocking news. He had awoken one morning to find a message from his wife saying that she had left him and taken their children with her! I was astonished, as up until now he had insisted that he and his wife were on good terms. However, as he began telling me about his marriage it became clear that he and his wife had been having problems for some time.

There is a happy ending to this story. Richard had already contacted his wife and they were going to meet up to talk about their problems. They were soon reconciled and back together. After this, the problem that Richard had come to see me about (a stress-related medical problem) eased considerably. Hence, the events that I have described, including the improvement in Richard's condition, would probably have happened had Richard not come to see me in the first place.

One elaboration of the technique

Here's one more hint. There is one technique, rather more elaborate than the one presented here, that is based on the assumption that each object or person in the dream represents some part of the dreamer in his or her waking life, say an aspect of his or her personality or emotional experience. I am not happy with this kind of dogmatic approach but it may sometimes make sense when, in the dream, you are affected by the behaviour of other people. An example is a dream I had about a colleague about whom I had been speaking to someone else that day. In the dream, I was in my colleague's car. He was driving too fast and being quite reckless and I was pleading with him to slow down and take more care. Why was I having that dream at that particular time in my life? Maybe I had fears about coming to harm owing to the recklessness of some person or people, or some thing, in my life (not necessarily the person in my dream). However, Step 2 requires me to think about the theme of the dream in its most abstract sense. This allowed me to consider whether I had some concerns about my own risky behaviour or lack of caution in some important aspect of my waking life. In this way my colleague represented that part of me in my dream.

A note of caution

Please remember that by no means is it the case that every dream has some significant meaning for the dreamer. This is far too dogmatic a statement. Also, when it comes to making sense of a dream there may be no right or wrong answer. It is the interpretation that makes most sense to the dreamer that is the most useful one.