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What Is Dream Interpretation?
Dream interpretation is the process of assigning meaning to dreams.
Ancient cultures considered dreams to be communications from the divine, messages whose meaning could only be revealed by people endowed with special spiritual powers.
Although we may not know exactly what dreams are or why we even dream in the first place, these days we do know that we all have the ability to understand what our dreams are trying to communicate to us—no special powers necessary.
What is necessary for interpreting a dream's meaning is taking the time to learn to speak the language of dreams, and the language of dreams is the language of symbols.
While even a single symbol may have numerous meanings and interpretations, all symbols still follow some basic rules. Here are some basics on the structure of symbols and how they speak in dreams:
- Symbols are often stand-ins for ideas and concepts.
- You have the most accurate information about what your dream means.
- Symbols are metaphors, not necessarily prophecies.
- Houses and cars usually represent the dreamer.
- Amplifying a symbol is a great way to determine its meaning.
- Color provides valuable clues to a dream's meaning.
- Feelings, both in the dream and upon waking, are of tantamount importance.
In addition to the above ideas, another way that dreams enjoy communicating ideas is via the use of wordplay.
Let's cover these ideas in-depth.
So, What Exactly Is a Dream Symbol?
When we are awake, our minds interpret what we see and encounter in a concrete, literal fashion. We typically do not go about our lives looking for metaphor in the traffic light we're stopped at on the way to work—we simply see the red light and we stop.
In waking life written and verbal communication are the primary forms used to exchange information, to influence the environment, to get across one's point and make one's way in the world. The waking, conscious mind typically says what it means and means what it says.
The unconscious, dreaming mind does not.
The unconscious speaks metaphorically via the use of images and symbols. It does not use words. Its manner of influence and information dissemination is by transposing a literal, waking life object into a symbolic form of itself—one with a metaphoric meaning.
Those transposed objects still mean what they did in waking life, but they now have more meaning and depth of purpose and that purpose is to make meaning. It is up to the dreamer to decipher what that meaning is.
Read More From Exemplore
For example, in a dream a traffic light is still a traffic light, but the traffic light is no longer a utilitarian instrument alerting you to stop. In a dream, a traffic light is now a symbol communicating other ideas such as feelings of paralysis, a need to stop and look around at your waking life.
A traffic light may also be calling your attention to the color symbols in the light itself or, if you are an impatient person, a traffic light might be reflecting the anger you feel when you find yourself sitting still at a red light.
The Best Dream Guide
Who do you think has the best information on your dream?
You can find amazing books, dream guides, and articles out there—Hubpages and Exemplore have more than a few—however, when it comes to finding the definitive authority on interpreting your dream, you need look no further than yourself.
Dream encyclopedias and articles on dream interpretation can help you with finding meaning in your dream by helping you understand the language of symbols.
Studying mythology is invaluable when it comes to getting a feel for a symbol and how it has been interpreted throughout diverse cultures over the centuries. But Jung had a saying about mythology and dream interpretation:
"Learn everything you can about mythology, and then forget it."
How does such a quote even start to make sense?
What Jung is saying is that mythologies, dream guides, and the like are useful only as starting points, not final destinations. Mythology provides a window into a symbol's meaning but to get to the heart of what a symbol means in your dream, you have to look through the window of your own house, not that of your next-door neighbor's!
Symbols Are Not Necessarily Prophetic
Dreams speak a language based on symbolic imagery. Symbols are that which stands in for something else.
Symbols are metaphorically the same as something else, but what that something else is is what the dreamer has to discover. For example, a snake in a dream is an image the mind uses to convey an idea or thought or feeling to the dreamer.
A prophetic dream is one in which an event, positive or negative, is forecast via a dream. A prophetic dream uses symbols to get its meaning across just as any dream does but the prophetic dream has one specific purpose: to tell the dreamer that the symbols seen in a dream will soon be experienced in waking life.
Prophetic dreams are not only rare, but because the symbolism involved is so difficult to decipher, dreamers typically only recognize a prophetic dream after the fact. That is, dreamers don't typically know they've experienced a prophetic dream until an event happens and they are able to clearly associate the event with the dream.
Why is this important to know when interpreting dreams?
Because the value in dreams lies in the ability to decipher their messages. And it is important to decipher dreams because the message they convey reveal priceless information on the state of our psyches and souls.
Dreams function as report cards on the health of our psyches. While they can, and certainly do sometimes, reveal future events, to relegate them to simple fortune-tellers belies their intrinsic value to us as tools for self-awareness.
Prophetic dreams are not only rare, but because the symbolism involved is so difficult to decipher, dreamers typically only recognize a prophetic dream after the fact.
Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)
Songs About Dreams and Sleep
Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)
Runnin' Down a Dream
Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me
Welcome to My Nightmare
Don't Dream It's Over
I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night
The Electric Prunes
What Do Houses and Cars Have in Common?
So what do houses, cars, and animals have in common?
In the parlance of dreams what they have in common is you!
In dream symbolism homes, cars, and animals often symbolize the dreamer. Let's look at how and why this is so.
Why do houses in dreams symbolize the dreamer?
Because our bodies literally house our lives, dream homes are apt metaphors for symbolically relaying messages about the dreamer. When interpreting dreams involving houses look at the house and ask yourself:
- Is the house known to you?
- What condition is the house is?
- Where is the house?
- What type of house is the dream house?
- Is the house an old or new house?
- What color is the house?
- Are there hidden or undiscovered rooms in the house?
Answering those questions will help you find out what your dream is telling you about you!
Cars, as the means by which we transport ourselves from place to place are another apt metaphor for the body through which our lives are transported. To get a sense of what a car dream is saying to you ask yourself the following:
- Who is driving the car?
- Where you are in the car?
- How do you feel about who is in control of the car?
- What condition is the car in?
- Are you behind the wheel, but asleep?
- Is the car out of control?
Whereas dream houses typically symbolize the state or condition of our lives or bodies, cars often symbolize the control, or lack thereof, we feel we have over those lives.
Amplifying a Dream Symbol
One of the most useful tools in dream interpretation is amplification.
Amplifying a dream means taking it apart, piece by piece, symbol by symbol, and asking as many questions as you can about each item in the dream. One very helpful technique is to try to imagine you have never encountered the symbol and describe it to yourself.
A dream is also amplified by asking questions such as:
- What is the primary symbol in the dream?
- What other symbols are showing up with the primary symbol?
- What colors stand out in the dream?
- Where is the dream happening? Is it in a place known to the dreamer in waking life or is it a solely dream locale?
- If the dream symbol is in a waking life locale, what associations do you have with it?
- What action is the symbol engaged in? Is it hiding, running, holding a parade, talking, eating, painting, flying, etc? Are its actions congruent with its waking like abilities?
- How does the dreamer feel about the symbol? Does it evoke feelings of peace, happiness, joy, or revulsion and fear?
These are just a few questions to think about when interpreting one's dream.
Always start with questions to which the answers seem obvious because the obvious is the most often overlooked.
Learn everything you can about mythology and then forget it.
— C.G. Jung
Carl Jung's Rules on Dream Interpretation
The Importance of Color
Some people dream say they dream in black and white, but usually that's not the case. What is described as black and white is actually more of a "colorlessness." The colorless mode of dreaming is often unnoticed until a splash of color enters a dream.
Whether you dream in color of view images in dreams from a colorless perspective, paying attention to the colors that come to you in dreams can yield impressive results in getting to the bottom of the meaning of your dream.
Whenever someone asks me to help with interpreting a dream, my first response is to ask this question:
How did the dream make you feel?
Feelings are one of the best ways to get at the heart of a dream's meaning. Not just the feeling, but analyzing what prompted the feeling elicited.
For example, if I dream of a spider with a bird caught in its web and this frightens me, I would analyze the fear to find its source. I would ask questions such as:
- Was I fearful because I have a spider phobia?
- Was I afraid the bird was in pain?
- Was the helplessness of the bird the source of my fear?
Try to gauge the feeling you felt in the dream and consider how the dream left you feeling after waking. Did the feeling dissipate shortly after waking or did it linger with you all day long?
Feelings help get to the heart of the symbol because they bypass the logical mind and go straight to the heart, which is the goal of dreams—to get information from the unconscious into conscious aware by bypassing the logical mind.
The Importance of Wordplay in Dreams
Dreams often make use of wordplay and puns to get across their meaning.
For example, one might have a strange dream as I did once, wherein Eliza Doolittle is a featured character. The dream was alerting me to the fact that I was in a slump in my waking life "doing little" with my talents and resources.
If you dream of names, streets, see signs, or graffiti painted on walls in dreams pay attention not only to your associations with the images, but also look to see if there is a metaphoric message behind the words.
Dreams exist more so for the profit of self-realization and individuation than they do as nocturnal prophecies. But to accurately interpret a dream, we have to look at the symbols involved with brutal, unflinching, courageous honesty. Information that comes to us in dreams comes from the unconscious—a perennial favorite hiding place of all we don't want to see about ourselves.
But we can't fix what we can't see. Remembering that the information revealed to us in dreams is information about that over which we have agency helps us to find what's broken and invite that which can repair it into our lives.
- 1,001 Nights of Dream Recall | Psychology Today
A long series of dreams can offer insights into many aspects of waking life, including personal relationships, spiritual beliefs, and dynamic elements of the external environment.
- A Jungian Perspective on Nightmares and Bad Dreams
Dreams do not hide your true and deepest feelings from your conscious mind; rather, they are a gateway to them. This article explores how nightmares can be invaluable to personal transformation.
- What Processes in the Brain Allow You to Remember Dreams?
Short Q & A article on the science behind dream recall.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2019 Róisín Aisling Ireland
Róisín Aisling Ireland (author) from Seattle, WA on January 18, 2019:
Thanks, Marc. I agree. Sometimes when people ask me what a dream means and I start talking about symbolism, I see a bit of disappointment because many times people want their dreams to be prophecies. Other times, people are happy because they DON'T want them to be prophecies! I've learned so much about myself from my dreams--they often articulate things to me that I had absolutely no clue were going on within myself that I have completely missed.
Marc Hubs from United Kingdom on January 18, 2019:
Great article and information. This is really up my street as i am fascinated with and have studied the human mind all my life. Dreams are metaphorical and are a way for the subconscious to sort information. Also interesting that you mentioned symbolism - the three most effective ways of influencing the human mind are language, metaphor and symbolism and are extremely powerful when combined.
Róisín Aisling Ireland (author) from Seattle, WA on January 10, 2019:
Thank you so much, Shauna! I've been fascinated with dreams since I had a hilarious dream about a giant, talking boll weevil! We'd just learned about Eli Whitney and the cotton gin in school and apparently that was my mind's response. I woke, laughing so hard I could barely breathe and after that I guess I started really paying attention while I slept! Jungian psychology was what I really found fascinating, though and I, like you, try to interpret the messages my dreams send me. Sometimes I still get nothing but gibberish, but sometimes I've received valuable information that revealed things my rational mind was completely overlooking. Thanks again for your kind comments!
Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on January 10, 2019:
Excellent article, Aisling! Dreams have always fascinated me and I do try to interpret the message(s) behind them. You've provided great insight here that I will certainly put to use.