Everyone dreams. Some people remember their dreams—others don't. Some people dream in black and white, but most dream in pastel colors. Some dreams have clear narratives, but some are wild, confusing smorgasbords of places, people, and things.
Technically speaking, a dream is a "succession of images, ideas, emotions, and sensations that usually occur involuntarily in the mind during certain stages of sleep." Essentially, they are stories that our brains create while we sleep.
As naturally curious creatures, it's hard for us to wake from a dream and not wonder what it meant. Humans have been trying to understand the meaning of our dreams for all of the time. Throughout human history, poets, philosophers, psychologists, and more have attempted to explain why we have dreams and what they mean.
That said, we still do not fully understand the exact purpose of dreaming. Decades of neuroscience still can't tell you why your brain thought it necessary to have you kiss a vampire or show up late to class completely naked. But regardless of this, dreams can still provide us with an opportunity to understand ourselves better.
When it comes to the psychological interpretation of dreams, people are most familiar with Freudian ideas. And this is for a good reason; Freud's book The Interpretation of Dreams is a very influential text on dream analysis and laid the foundation for his theory of psychoanalysis. Freud believed that dreams are expressions of repressed sexual desires. But a lot of his ideas haven't aged well and have since been debunked.
When it comes to analyzing our dreams from a psychological perspective, it might be more fruitful to consider the work of Carl Jung. As a contemporary to Freud, Jung's work too has been challenged in the decades since its release. But Jung's theory on the purpose of dreams still offers interesting and helpful tools for self-exploration. Jung believed that dreams actually reveal a lot about who we are and how we can grow as individuals.
Dreams and the collective unconscious
Dreams, according to Jung, are a bridge between the conscious and unconscious mind. Jung believed that dreams themselves have their own purpose in our journey of self-exploration. At the root of this was his belief that some dreams are expressions of what he called the "collective unconscious."
Jung believed that we don't come into this world as "clean slates" and that we inherit part of our unconscious mind from the past collective experience of humanity. So, when we are born, part of our unconscious mind already knows things about sexuality, spirituality, and life and death instincts, thanks to thousands of years of human experience.
The collective unconscious doesn't communicate in the same way that our conscious minds do. It has its own language of symbols, patterns, motifs, and images that Jung called archetypes. Archetypes symbolize basic human motivations, values, and personalities.
Here are the main Jungian archetypal figures:
- Great mother
- Wise old man
- Wise old woman
- The trickster
- The hero
Jungian also described archetypal events and motifs like birth, death, marriage, and the apocalypse.
Jung thought that the conscious mind's role is to translate messages from the collective unconscious into visible reality. Jung saw dream interpretation as the opportunity for individuals to do this and learn more about themselves based on what archetypes appear in dreams.
The purpose of our dreams
It's worth noting that Jung saw dreams as having many different functions, such as creating a balance between the ego and the unconscious mind. But he also believed that dreams (specifically ones with vivid images) provide us with important insight from the collective unconscious.
In other words, vivid dreams that use the symbolic language of archetypes are trying to help you grow as a person. This archetypal dream content is meant to help you achieve individuation, which is the process of integrating your conscious and unconscious life and, ultimately, achieving self-realization.
This might be a little confusing, but here's the gist: The ancient wisdom of the collective unconscious communicates through dreams using the symbolic language of archetypes to help you become who you are truly meant to be.
Our dreams want to help us achieve the ultimate developmental goal: wholeness. Dreams are lighthouses on our voyage of self-exploration.
How to understand your dreams
While Jung's archetypes provide a guide for finding meaning from vivid dreams, he also believed that the best way to interpret them is to understand them within the context of your own life.
According to Jungian psychotherapist Robert A. Johnson, there is a five-step process for analyzing your dreams and uncovering personal insights from them.
- Write it Down. When you wake up from a dream, make sure you write down all the details before forgetting them. Trying to recall what happened later will get more difficult if you don't record it right after waking up.
- Make Associations. When you think about the dream and the images, what comes to mind? Do the images or stories mean anything to you personally?
- Connect it to What's Happening in Your Life. What is going on within your internal life that could be showing up in your dream? Are you missing your family or stressed at work? Consider what is happening emotionally for you and connect it to your dream's content.
- Interpret. Based on these things, interpret your dream. According to Jung, the meaning of your dream shouldn't stroke your ego or reaffirm something you already know. Your dream should provide you with an "a-ha" moment and new knowledge.
- Do a Ritual. Johnson suggests you do a ritual to solidify the learning you gleaned from your dream. This could be lighting a candle or journaling about it.
Dream analysis can be a source of self-exploration and empowerment. Jung saw dreams as just one of many paths to individuation. We each have our own unique journey towards personal growth. Like our dreams, therapy can help provide guidance and insights to help you live as your fullest self. Connect with us today.