What your dreams really mean
Whether you’re flying, your teeth are falling out or you’re trying (but failing) to run away from a predator, most of us have dedicated plenty of time to trying to make sense of our dreams.
Is our subconscious trying to tell us something? Is it our brains filing information away? Or is it a metaphor for something big happening in our lives?
Ian Wallace, a globally prominent psychologist, told Coach dreams are actually a combination of all three – and it’s certainly not about mysticism or being psychic.
“A dream is how you imagine yourself,” he explains.
“It’s how you imagine the person you have been and how you imagine the person you would like to become.”
Wallace cites research that shows at least 98 percent of what we experience each day happens unconsciously – it’s our brains absorbing the blue train seat and the lady scratching her face and the sound of the beeping door, without our conscious brain paying it any heed.
“On average, a human being consciously processes about 40 thoughts per minute — but unconsciously we are processing between 10 and 11 million pieces of information per minute,” he explains.
“Some of it is inconsequential, like the room temperature or hearing traffic outside, but a lot of it is around emotional tension when you are trying to fulfil a need or ambition and you encounter a boundary.”
Our unconscious hangs onto this information throughout the day. Then, when you fall asleep, the dream phase of sleep tries to make sense of it.
“The usual conception of dreaming is that dreams happen to you, but the reality is, you happen to the dream,” Wallace says.
In fact, Wallace describes dreaming as the “ultimate selfie”.
“It’s very self-focused and you’re trying to understand yourself,” he says.
Dreaming inside the brain
Wallace’s perspective on dreams stems from research done by psychoanalyst and neuropsychologist Mark Solms, who Wallace says used an fMRI scanner in the 1990s to look at people’s brain activity while they were dreaming.
“The three main parts that are active when you are dreaming are the limbic system, which is how you process emotion; the prefrontal cortex, which is about imagination and how you create stories; and the medial forebrain, which is about how you fulfil need,” Wallace explains.
“Physiologically, the three parts of your brain that are active when you are dreaming are to do with creating stories about how you can fulfil need by resolving emotional tension and developing your emotional intelligence or capability.”
There is debate within psychological circles about the nature of dreaming, with researchers like Harvard psychiatrist Dr Allan Hobson arguing that dreaming is actually like a computer function that helps the brain “warm its circuits” in anticipation of the sights, sounds and emotions we experience when we wake.
“It helps explain a lot of things, like why people forget so many dreams,” Dr. Hobson told The New York Times.
“It’s like jogging; the body doesn’t remember every step, but it knows it has exercised. It has been tuned up. It’s the same idea here: dreams are tuning the mind for conscious awareness.”
But Wallace disagrees, arguing that our brains are much more complex than any machine and that dreams hold the key to understanding our true nature, if we can learn to translate the often abstract imagery.Understanding dream metaphors
We might assume that metaphors are clever literary tools used to liven up a good book, but Wallace says they are actually one of the key principles for how our brains work.
Wallace has analysed more than 300,000 dreams and wrote the book The Top 100 Dreams, and says that there are universal metaphors people automatically use all over the world.
It’s the way we associate warmth with comfort and cold with loneliness (which Wallace says stems from feeling warm and comfortable when our parents held us as children) and the way we liken being in the driver’s seat of a car symbolically with being in control.
“The second most common dream is teeth falling out, but it’s nothing to do with dentists,” Wallace explains.
“It’s about power and confidence because you tend to show your teeth in waking life on two main occasions – either when you are happy and smiling or angry and snarling a bit.”
In fact, Wallace says that the French describe very ambitious people as having big teeth.
Wallace says our brains use our bodies and the surrounding landscape to make powerful symbols in our dreams.
“It might seem like a bizarre story you are creating but if you work through the imagery, you will usually find a powerful message for yourself,” Wallace says.
Storage for the future
Dreams don’t just offer insights into our emotional state – they also serve to embed memories for potential future use.
“The rapid eye movement phase is a time when we are working out where to file memories and getting rid of memories we no longer need. The rational part of the brain is deactivated so we have our most creative thoughts,” sleep scientist Dr Carmel Harrington told Coach.
“Research also indicates that rapid eye movement sleep is important for getting rid of memory too. You have loads and loads of things that you encounter every day that go into your brain and your brain has to make decisions about what neural connections to keep and which ones to drop away.”
Making the most of your dreams
Wallace says one of the most powerful gifts we can give ourselves is learning to remember our dreams, then analyse them for insights into ourselves.
He suggests using a technique called Will, Still, Fill.
“Tonight when you go to bed and lay your head on your pillow, tell yourself, ‘Tonight I WILL remember a dream or part of a dream’,” he says.
“When you wake up, lie completely STILL – don’t chat to your partner, look at the clock or even wiggle your toes because as soon as you move, the dream imagery will start to fade. The dream imagery might just be in static images but as it comes back you FILL in the gaps between images.”
Once you have a clear insight of what happened during the night, you can start to make sense of why you created those images.
“You create everything you experience in the dream and you do that as a way of understanding who you actually are, what you really need and what you truly believe,” Wallace says.
“You are continuously using your dreams to build up life experience and understand your expectations – you’re doing a very powerful neurological thing.”