Since prehistory, human beings have sought ways to interpret dreams. Primitive societies believed dreams were communications from gods or spirits and could predict the future, a belief that persists in some circles today. In the 20th century, pioneers of psychology such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung sought meaning within the dreamer’s own life and unconscious desires. Later generations of researchers added their own psychological theories. Study of these theories can offer the average person many tips to interpret dreams.
Ancient peoples attached high significance to the bewildering imagery of dreams and revered those who could interpret them. According to the Bible and the Torah, the Hebrew prophet Joseph predicted a famine with his ability to interpret dreams. Similar stories appear in the mythology of ancient Babylon, Egypt, and Greece. Over the centuries, this belief in the psychic origin of dreams developed in contrast to later psychological studies. These two methods to interpret dreams, the psychic and the psychological, remain distinct to this day.
In the early 20th century, Sigmund Freud proposed a new way to interpret dreams, as expressions of fears or desires that could not be expressed in waking life. Freud’s rival Jung went further, suggesting that each person in a dream represents an aspect of the dreamer’s personality. Gestalt psychologists, working in the mid-20th century, believed this extended even to inanimate objects seen in dreams. A tip from this school of psychology is to enter a relaxed state, free of distractions, and focus on the memory of the object or person from the dream. The dreamer’s feelings about this person or object can often reveal its meaning.
Freud and other psychologists insisted that the dream should not be interpreted literally, as it is not a story but a collection of images. That is, to interpret dreams, focus on the individual elements, not the dream as a whole. Despite their differences, most psychologists agree that the elements in a dream represent concerns of the waking mind. In some cases, dreams may be the mind’s way of working through problems that frustrate normal modes of thinking. Indeed, some psychologists have suggested that threats and conflicts in dreams and nightmares are the mind’s way of practicing for real-life confrontations.
Artists are often fascinated by dream imagery and incorporate it into their art, either as a way to interpret dreams or simply to harness their strange and fascinating power. Early surrealists such as Salvador Dali and filmmaker Luis Bunuel used dreamlike images in works such as Un Chien Andalou and The Persistence of Memory. Director David Lynch continues the tradition with films that mix bizarre, dreamlike imagery with straightforward storytelling. Dreams have been portrayed in paintings, performances, and even comic books. Richard Linklater’s 2001 animated film Waking Life offers an extended dreamlike sequence of events, leaving the interpretation to the viewer, much as real dreams do.