The Psychology of Dreams: Common Themes, Theories and More

It’s a question we’ve all asked ourselves at some point: “What does my dream mean?”

As a journalism/psychology major, I was always fascinated by dreaming and “The Psychology of Dreams” turned out to be my favorite class in college. I wondered: do our dreams reveal hidden truths in our subconscious mind? Can we analyze our dreams to better understand who we are?

What Happens In Your Brain When You Dream

Most of our dreams happen during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. When you dream, all parts of your brain are activated – imagine all the light switches in your mind getting turned on at the same time.

The cortex controls the content of dreams, whether you are falling, flying or getting chased (all common dream themes, but more about that later…) The limbic system manages the emotions in both our waking and dream life. This includes the amygdala, which is tied to fear and excitement.

If you’re curious about nightmares, check out More Than Just a Dream: The Science Behind Nightmares.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, the average person dreams four to six times per night. That means over a lifetime the average person dreams for five or six years!

Dream Interpretation Theories

If you start Googling what your dream means, you’ll go down a rabbit hole and read a ton of conflicting answers. For example, according to many dream dictionaries, snakes can symbolize betrayal or transformation – which are completely different.

That’s why, as a general rule, psychologists suggest focusing on what you feel during the dream. Did the snake scare you? What is aggressive? Or was it just there, in the distance?

There are numerous theories to explain what dreams mean:

  1. Psychoanalytic theory

According to this theory, dreams symbolize unconscious desires and personal conflicts. Dreams allow us to act out these desires in the safety of a dream setting, because acting them out in the real world would be inappropriate or unrealistic.

  1. Activation-synthesis theory

This is the idea that our dreams are simply a byproduct of our brains trying to process messages from our limbic system – the part of our brains that deals with emotions and memory.

  1. Continual activation theory

This theory suggests our brains are continuously processing and storing memories, even when we’re asleep. It supports the belief that our dreams provide a place to store our memories while they make the transition from our short-term memory to our long-term memory.

Common Dream Themes Explained

  • Falling

Dreaming about falling is the mind’s way of alerting you to a situation in your waking life where you feel out of control.

  • Flying

Dreaming about flying is a positive omen. It symbolizes freedom, happiness and an escape from the pressures of the real world.

  • Getting chased

In this case, you’re literally running away from something or someone. This suggests you’re avoiding an emotion or conflict in your waking life.

  • School: taking a test/arriving late to class

Whether it’s taking a test you forgot to study for or arriving late to class, this dream theme is centered around embarrassment and being afraid to fail.

  • Sex

This type of dream can mean many different things, depending on your current relationship status, but it ultimately points to desire. Are you dreaming about your ex? A stranger?

For example, if you dream about an ex, it could be a desire for closure (and not necessarily that you miss this person). If you dream about a stranger and you’re currently in a relationship, it could be a desire for more excitement and risk-taking in your love life.

These five dream themes speak to universal human emotions and what drives us on a deep level: losing control, happiness, emotional avoidance, fear of failure, and desire.

5 Surprising Facts About Dreams

  1. Men and women dream differently

Men’s dreams are usually more aggressive and physical, whereas women’s dreams contain more conversation than physical activity. Women also have slightly longer dreams, which include more characters and detail.

Here’s a fun fact: when it comes to the characters in dreams, men dream about other men twice as often as they do about women, but women dream about both sexes equally.

2. Not all dreams are in color

There is a small percentage of people who can only dream in black and white.

3. Anxiety is the most common emotion experienced in dreams

 In general, negative emotions are more common than positive ones.

4. You can control your dreams

Also known as lucid dreaming, this usually happens right before you wake up.

5. You can only dream about faces you’ve already seen

Whether it’s someone you saw on TV or in real life, it’s impossible to create a new face. (so even if it’s a dream about a stranger, you’ve seen that face at least once before)

Sweet dreams!

3 thoughts on “The Psychology of Dreams: Common Themes, Theories and More

  1. Interesting post and major, Kaitlin. Dreams are fascinating. I have had many sleeping dreams come true through the years. I actually wrote about one such occurrence on my blog, in July. It is a surreal experience when it happens. ✨


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