–Dr. Dylan Selterman, University of Maryland
You are standing in the middle of a field and all around you are trees and hills, and over there are some buildings. You extend your arms and suddenly, with no more effort than a blink or a breath of air, you lift up into flight. Like Superman, you need no wings; you are carried on the wind, and you can rise and fall, go faster, slower, higher, lower, all at your own will. You look down at the tops of trees and soar over buildings and you decide to land, gently touching down, knowing that you can choose to fly again, whenever you want. Then, you wake up and wonder, what does this all mean?
Of all life’s mysteries, our nightly dreams are among the most confounding. Science, therapists and curious laypeople throughout time have tried to understand what dreams are made of, yet no one knows, definitively, how dreams work or where they come from.
Nonetheless, researchers continue to explore our nighttime adventures. Recent studies have shed some light on how our dreams can affect our waking lives.
DREAMING OF YOU
If you’ve ever woken feeling angry or less than romantic toward your partner because of something they did in your dream, consider yourself normal, according to a 2013 study published in The Social Psychological and Personality Science journal. The study showed for the first time that people’s nighttime dreams play a role in their daytime relationship behavior.
Researcher Dr. Dylan Selterman of the University of Maryland’s DREAM lab asked 61 people in committed relationships to keep a two-week dream journal and to record both their dreams and the activities of the following days. After having a dream that included infidelity or jealousy toward a partner, participants reported feeling less love and feelings of intimacy with their partners the next day. Also, when a person dreamed of fighting with their partner, they were often more likely to fight with them on the subsequent day.
Selterman said that dreams “prime” us to think or feel something related to the dream content. Once a thought or emotion is active, it then influences our behavior. In this case, a dream is a trigger that can put us in a good or bad mood the next day.
“So, the take-home message is pay attention to your dreams and your partner’s dreams. They may affect your relationship behaviors. If you have a fight, ask yourself if you or your partner misbehaved in a dream the night before,” Selterman said.
WHEN DREAMING IS BELIEVING
Carey Morewedge, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University, led a second study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. It asked 182 commuters at a Boston train station to imagine that one of four possible scenarios had happened the night before a scheduled airline trip: The national threat level was raised to orange, indicating a high risk of terrorist attack; they consciously thought about their plane crashing; they dreamed about a plane crash; or a real plane crashed on the route they planned to take. Participants reported that a dream of their plane crashing was more likely to make them avoid a future flight than either thinking about a real crash or a government warning.
FINDING PURPOSE IN DREAMS
Sandy Hyde, a Ketchum psychotherapist who has led dream groups for more than 30 years, said dreams come to tell us things we have overlooked or repressed in our lives. “They’re not coming to tell us something we already know,” she said. “They are bringing insights to us that we may have forgotten or missed, or that are emerging into consciousness.”
Hyde, who primarily follows the dream theories of Carl Jung, said that many aspects of a dream, including the characters in it, represent ourselves. “Say you have a dream of an old forgotten friend. You might wonder, ‘Why now? What does this person represent in my life?’” Hyde said. “On an outer level, it may have meaning about that old friend, but it can mean something to us on an inner level as well, as all aspects of the dream are parts of ourselves.” Hyde said recurring dreams are common and, depending on the dreamer’s feelings, they could be trying to get one’s attention about something in his or her life or help one resolve an issue.
And flying dreams can also have several meanings. “Sometimes it’s a joy factor. Ask, what is bringing me the joy to be able to fly high and be on top of the world? Or what am I trying to escape, rise above? Maybe it’s a reflection on being too grounded in my thoughts and behavior, and I am being offered another perspective.”
So, then there’s that scary dream about being chased, or a dream in which one is naked at work. How does one figure out what they mean? Dream experts agree that dream dictionaries and online interpretation sites offer only common metaphors and a “one size fits all” interpretation, and whether or not it is meaningful depends on the dreamer’s own experiences.
However, some common metaphors might help dreamers start finding their own interpretations. One online site, dreammoods.com, provides an A-to-Z dream dictionary, discussion boards, common dream types, information on notable dream therapists and more.
Hyde said that understanding our dreams begins with keeping an ongoing dream journal. “Upon waking, write down the dream in the present tense as if you’re still in the dream. Make associations to the symbols. Note the actions taking place. What’s going on in your life when you have the dream? Who were the main characters, what were their characteristics and what parts of you are like them?”
She suggested that before going to sleep, encourage your dreams and ask for what you want. “Say, ‘I want to remember, I want some more information. Please comment more on this subject.’
“A dream is like a scene in a movie and our movies are ongoing. If you take a dream all by itself, one scene, it may not mean as much as if you collect your dreams for a period of time and look for themes,” she said. “Dream work is all about personal growth, which is a lifelong process,” Hyde said. “Remember, you’re the dreamer. You write the dream, you write the script and the screenplay, and your psyche or soul is the director.”