Dream Psychology

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“Once upon a time, I, Chuang-tzu, dreamt I was a butterfly, flittering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly…suddenly I awoke… Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man.” Chuang-tzu Chinese philosopher.

The origins of the word “dream” are rooted in several languages. Words from which “dream” is likely derived, including “draugmas” (illusion, deception or phantasm), “druh” (to harm or injure), and “druz” (to lie or deceive), indicate the perceptions our ancestors held of dreaming. The original Middle English “dreme” meant joy, mirth or music.

Here are the answers to a number of commonly asked questions about dream psychology.

Why Do We Dream?

There is no definitive answer to the question of why dreams occur, but there are many compelling theories.

Psychological Release

Nightmares are thought to be a means of dealing with fears and releasing psychological pressures. In line with this theory, some believe that dreaming keeps people sane because sleep deprivation causes symptoms of insanity. However, psychotic behaviors may be the result of general sleep deprivation rather than a lack of opportunities to dream.

Enhancement of Learning

A theory that is gaining ground is that dreams may serve to enhance learning or offer solutions to problems that the dreamer encounters in the waking world. Researchers note that older children and adults dream less frequently than toddlers and babies, which suggests that one purpose of dreaming may be to rehearse or practice recently acquired skills and consolidate new information. Dreams may also be useful for intrapersonal growth, empowerment, and self-improvement by indicating suppressed issues that dreamers need to attend to in their waking lives.

Spiritual Guidance

Some believe that dreams can provide spiritual guidance because they tap into the subconscious mind’s higher wisdom. As such, dreams may be analyzed from the perspective of mysticism rather than science. For many people, dreams have a mystical or even religious significance, and offer a means by which to access higher powers or other realms. All major religions contain references to dreams that tap into the divine.


Dreams can be a source of creativity. The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson was inspired by a dream, as was Einstein’s theory of relativity. Many musicians, artists, writers, inventors, and even athletes have claimed inspiration from dreams.


There are those who claim that dreams give them insight into the future, but it’s difficult to study precognition in a laboratory. Many who believe that they have had prophetic dreams have actually been exposed to an indication of probable future events shortly before sleep. In other cases, an apparently predictive dream may be nothing more than coincidence. However, there have been a number of famous prophetic dreams.

Abraham Lincoln, prior to his assassination, dreamed that he wandered through empty rooms and heard the sound of mourning. In the east room, he discovered a corpse in funeral vestments, its face covered. Asking who the man was, he was told that it was the president and that he had been killed by an assassin.

Is It Possible to Control Dreams?

Those who wish to influence their dreams can do so by giving themselves suggestions just before sleep. Some people have even become quite successful in the art of lucid dreaming, in which they have some degree of control over dream events. However, full dream control is probably not possible.

What Are Dream Symbols?

Numerous websites and books claim to offer comprehensive and accurate dream symbol interpretations, but in reality, the meaning of dream symbols will vary from one person to another based on a number of factors, including values, life experiences, culture, preferences, and personality. For example, dreaming of snakes will have a very different meaning for a person who is phobic of them than one who loves snakes and keeps them as pets.

However there are a few themes or archetypes that are considered nearly universal. These icons, which show up in fairy tales and other early literature, include death, rebirth, gods, demons, wise old men or women, earth mothers, tricksters, heroes, and magic.

When interpreting symbols in your dreams, it’s important to think about what these symbols mean to you personally. How do you instinctively respond to a given symbol? This can provide insight as to what your subconscious mind may be attempting to convey.

How Can I Improve My Dream Recall?

People forget much of their dream content within minutes of waking. To improve dream recall, you need to keep either a pen and paper or a means of recording audio next to your bed and record everything you remember immediately upon waking.

There are a number of substances that can decrease dream recall, including alcohol, marijuana, and sedatives. There are also supplements that some people claim improve dream recall, including B vitamins, ginkgo, zinc, and choline.

What Is the Significance of a Recurring Dream?

Angel Woman
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Many people have recurring dreams, which usually represent subconscious attempts to resolve longstanding issues or solve problems that the dreamer faces in his or her waking life. Such dreams may point to an area of life that requires conscious attention and perhaps the implementation of changes. A recurring nightmare may represent an area of life that causes significant anxiety in the waking world.

What Is the Meaning of Colour in Dreams?

Colour has great significance in human psychology. Researchers have found that blue induces relaxation, while red inspires arousal and alertness. Renowned psychiatrist Carl Jung associated green with sensation, red with feeling, yellow with intuition, and blue with thought. Other colour associations that have been established include:

    • Black – the unconscious realm, need for extreme action, the unknown
    • Blue – tranquility, sensitivity, belonging, calmness
    • Brown – need for physical satisfaction, need for security
    • Gray – anxiety, compensation, barriers, isolation, detachment, shielding
    • Green – retreat, meditation
    • Orange – adventurousness
    • Red – desire, excitement, passion, focus, energy, aggressiveness
    • Violet – intimacy, fantasy, mysticism
    • White – isolation, transformation, rebirth, newness
    • Yellow – joy, hope, need for escape

Are Children’s Dreams Different from Adult Dreams?

According to Hoss (n.d.), as the child’s brain matures, dream content changes, evolving from fragmented images to full storylines. Children below 5 years of age tend to dream in bland, static images and thoughts related to daily events. Before the age of 3 or 4 they don’t even star in their own dreams. Between the ages of 5 and 8, dreams become more like stories, with interaction and movement.

By age 11, the dreamer has become an active participant in his or her dream stories, and by age 13, dreams take on content and length similar to those of adults, as well as being shaped to a greater degree by the dreamer’s individual personality. This may reflect waking life, in which older children have greater power to choose their actions as opposed to early childhood when their choices are shaped by adults.

Are There Differences Between Men’s and Women’s Dreams?

According to Hoss (n.d.), the subconscious minds of men and women produce symbols in different quantities. One such difference is that women dream of both genders equally, but 67% of those in men’s dreams are male. Another is that men’s dreams tend to have more aggressive symbolism or activity. Other gender differences include the fact that there tends to be more emotional content in women’s dreams, as well as more home-based settings and more characters (particularly family members). Additionally, women’s individual dreams tend to last longer than men’s.

Men’s dreams involve more strangers and are more inclined to feature violence, cars, and roads. Men’s anxiety-related dreams are more often about work, particularly financial security and the possibility of being fired. However, as the percentage of women in the full-time workforce rises, women’s dreams are increasingly focusing on work themes as well.

According to Hitti (14 June 2007), approximately 8% of both men’s and women’s dreams include sexual activity, but there are gender differences in overall sexual dream content. As with other types of dreams, the primary gender difference is that men’s sexual dreams are more inclined to occur in unknown or public settings, and are more likely to feature strangers. Women are less likely to dream about multiple or unknown sexual partners than men. However, despite these tendencies, there are many people whose dreams do not conform to the trends for their gender.

What Causes Nightmares?

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The majority of people experience nightmares as a result of psychological problems; stress; trauma; illness; or the use of drugs, alcohol, or medication. Some people also experience nightmares as a result of eating certain foods or sleeping in certain positions.

The average is one to two nightmares per year, but approximately 5%-10% suffer frequent nightmares (International Association for the Study of Dreams, 2003). There are indications that those most likely to suffer from frequent nightmares are sensitive, trusting, open people.

Unfortunately, people tend to have more bad dreams than good ones. According to Hoss (n.d.), people dream about aggression more often than friendliness, misfortunate more frequently than good luck, and negative emotions more than positive ones. Overall, approximately 64% of dreams are predominantly negative, though not necessarily nightmares. Of negative dreams, about half involve being chased or attacked, while another 40% focus on a feeling of danger or witnessing someone other than the dreamer being injured or killed. These dreams tap into primal anxieties regarding predation, which were once very relevant but are now buried deep within the human psyche. In contrast to negative dreams, most positive dreams involve enjoyable pastimes, receiving a gift, or having a desired possession.

If You Die in a Dream, Will You Actually Die?

Despite a pervasive belief that if a person dies in a dream, he or she will die in reality, there is no basis for this. Plenty of people have died in their dreams without dying in actuality. Dreaming of death is thought to be a way of dealing with anxieties regarding mortality, rather than a prophesy of impending doom.

Does Pregnancy Cause Nightmares?

According to Doheny (4 September 2007), a study of pregnant women found that at least 88% had regular dreams and nightmares about pregnancy and the time shortly after birth with their newborn babies. Common themes included an infant in danger (59% of pregnant women and 73% of new mothers). Pregnant women were also inclined to suffer nightmares about complications during childbirth.

Another common nightmare theme is that the baby has been lost in the bed. The mother searches through the bed sheets frantically but cannot find the infant. Many pregnant women and new mothers also dream about leaving the baby in a place or with a person and forgetting to pick her up.

Such nightmares among pregnant women and new mothers are perfectly normal and reflect common anxieties about the ability to be a good parent. The sleep deprivation suffered by new mothers may increase the likelihood of experiencing nightmares.

Should You Wake a Sleepwalker?

Contrary to popular belief, sleepwalkers are usually not dreaming (although those who talk in their sleep sometimes are). Despite the popular myth that waking a sleepwalker is dangerous, the opposite is true. Sleepwalkers need to be woken because they are likely to injure themselves. There have been cases of sleepwalkers driving cars while asleep, presenting a serious danger to themselves and others, and in one obscure case, a female sleepwalker found that she had been having sex with strangers in her sleep.

Can Dreaming Cause Someone to Attack Another Person?

People normally cannot move during their dreams, so they will not attack another person during a scary dream (though it’s possible that a person might lash out if startled awake). However, there is a rare condition called REM Sleep Behavior Disorder (RSBD) that most often afflicts elderly and middle-aged men. The sufferer is inclined to act out his dreams, with the risk that he may injure his bed partner. Unlike the normal dreamer, the RSBD sufferer is not paralyzed during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep when dreams occur. He will often have intense and even violent dreams, accompanied by kicking, punching, and other aggressive actions.

Are Night Terrors Caused by Nightmares?

Often mistaken for nightmares, night terrors, which can be caused by stress, sleep deprivation, fever, or certain medications, do not occur during REM (dream) sleep. These episodes, characterized by intense fear and screaming or crying in sleep, affect up to 6% of children. Night terrors last for 1 to 30 minutes, during which the child appears to be awake but is unresponsive, and will not usually remember the episode upon waking (WebMD, 1 January 2007).

For more psychology articles, visit the main Psychology page.


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