Harry Potter roams my daughter’s dreams. So does Hermione Granger and, to keep things interesting, Harry’s adversary, Draco Malfoy. All this is intentional, I learned recently. Libby, who is 12 and has devoured every one of J. K. Rowling’s books, joins these characters every night after telling herself to dream about them. “I put myself in the movie,” she says. On other nights, for variety, she practices martial arts with characters from “Kung Fu Panda.”
My wife, Diana, takes wing in her dreams. Sometimes, she tells me, she simply elevates from a standing start. “I just spread my arms out and fly,” she says. It’s always a sunny day, warm, and the dream is usually set near her childhood home in a small Indiana town. Occasionally there’s drama — she’ll lose control and regain her flying ability right before she hits the ground. But most of the time she’s just soaring.
As for my own dreams, the other night I was running across a town square. A guy was shooting at me. I ducked for cover into a blue sedan only to find the shooter inside the car. My heart skipped two beats — but then the villain suddenly morphed into a harmless old man.
Other dreams I have are much more fun. There was the one a while back in which I ended up with — ahem — sexy blonde twins. More about those kinds of dreams later.
What are dreams anyway?
The ancient Greeks said they were messages from the gods. Sigmund Freud called them a “royal road” to the unconscious mind, full of threatening sexual and aggressive urges that we normally keep in check. In the 1970s scientists figured out that dreams are regulated by a chemical that comes from our primitive brainstem and kicks off the rapid-eye-movement, or REM, phase of sleep. Some scientists concluded, then, that our dreams were simply random stories concocted by the brain. Freudians were not happy with this view. Three decades later scientists are still arguing, still studying — and now beginning to bring the dreaming mind into sharper focus, showing us why we should pay attention to what goes on each night.
Here’s how the road to dreamland works: As you doze off, your brain waves slow, your muscles relax and your heart rate and blood pressure fall. About an hour and a half later your brain stem sends its chemical signal and your brain waves speed up, your heart beats faster, your temperature rises and REM sleep kicks in. The sleep cycle repeats four to five times a night, with progressively longer periods of REM sleep each time. That’s why dreams tend to pile up as morning approaches — or diminish when you’re sleep-deprived.
When you’re asleep, two key functions of the brain stay off-line. The area that controls movement is shut off, paralyzing you from the base of the brain down, which is why your legs and arms don’t pump when you’re fleeing a dream monster. (Malfunctions in this mechanism may lead to sleepwalking in the stage of sleep before REM but don’t explain why sleeping dogs’ legs sometimes move as if they’re running in their dreams.) A brain region near your forehead that usually lets you distinguish reality from, say, a movie, is also shut down, says Ross Levin, Ph.D., a sleep specialist in private practice in New York City. That’s why you don’t think it’s strange when you see elephants in your dream living room or George Clooney seems about to kiss you.
On the other hand, the limbic system, which controls your emotions, is working overtime. It pulls fragments of memories — the snooty comment yesterday from the woman in the next cubicle, your friend from eighth grade who didn’t invite you to her party — and creates a story out of them. So all this helps explain why dreams are emotionally intense and surrealistic yet feel utterly real.
In 2007 Dr. Levin and a fellow psychologist came up with a theory to explain why the brain goes to all this trouble: By mixing unrelated memories with your revved-up emotions, the brain can actually defuse your fears while you sleep. “When you put the memories in a new context, they lose their power,” Dr. Levin says. The process seems to work whether you remember your dreams or not.
But it’s worth holding on to those dream images anyway — long-dead relatives, those elephant houseguests, the smelly cafeteria from your elementary school, all mixed together — what the heck does that mean? I don’t know. Neither did Sigmund Freud, or that friend of yours who’s into astrology, or the dream dictionary on the Internet. Only the dreamer can understand the dream, says Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and editor-in-chief of the journal Dreaming. There are no simple answers or one-size-fits-all interpretations. Basically, your dreams are personal to you. A thoughtful analysis of the images in them can lead to surprising insights and sometimes even life-altering decisions, says Gayle Delaney, Ph.D., the founding president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams.
Certain types of problems are more likely to be solved in dreams, especially ones where the answers can be visualized or where a creative approach is needed. Novelists have dreamed up plots and characters, she says. Computer programmers stuck on a bit of code have envisioned watching the program run. Students have dreamed up answers to homework problems, and at least one person discovered a creative way to arrange furniture in his cramped apartment. “Dreams are not good at logic,” Dr. Barrett says. “But they are good at helping you think outside the box.”
Be an interpreter
In her dream work with clients, Dr. Delaney uses a dream interview technique to help them discover the meaning in their dreams. One client was an attorney in her early 30s, divorced, who had dreamed about a black cat that would sit on her windowsill, hop into the room, raise a ruckus, then leave her in tears. Dr. Delaney asked the woman to describe the cat as if to a visitor from another planet. Cats are distant, aloof, agile, love you when they want and take off when they want, the woman said.
“Is there anyone in your life that is like a black cat and leaves you in tears?” Dr. Delaney asked. The description fit the attorney’s new boyfriend. She recognized that she picked catlike men when what she really needed was to choose someone loyal, affectionate and loving, somebody more like a dog. This realization helped her change her criteria for choosing men to date.
Patti Allen, then 27 and living in Lakewood, Calif., was married, pregnant with her third child and seriously considering getting her tubes tied after giving birth. She dreamed she was in the Hollywood Bowl on a beautiful evening and a concert was about to begin. In the seats far above the stage, Allen made her way down a seemingly endless aisle, squeezing past one person after another to reach her seat. She passed by a family friend she was fond of, not stopping to talk.
Finally she came upon another acquaintance named Judy, who was sitting with her brand-new husband.
Judy’s real-life first husband had died in a car crash, leaving her with two kids, and she had recently remarried and had two more. “The dream absolutely changed my thinking,” recalled Allen, now a 56-year-old psychotherapist in Toronto. “It was telling me, don’t do anything permanent because you don’t know what’s around the corner in life.” Because of that, she chose to forgo the tubal ligation and seven years later she gave birth to her fourth child, a daughter.
The wilder side
Some of the most memorable (and fun) dreams are the ones not filled with symbols and metaphors, but with more straightforward, basic urges. Until recently psychologists had done very little research on people’s erotic dreams. That’s why Jennie Parker, Ph.D., a senior psychology lecturer at the University of the West of England, asked 93 men and 100 women, all college-aged, to record a dream, including sexual ones. Almost half the men and a third of the women reported sexy dreams. Of those, Dr. Parker says more than half of the men said their dream focused on the act of intercourse, while the women’s tended to focus more on kissing and foreplay. Many women also reported that their partner was unfaithful to them in their dreams. They were likely to dream about people they knew, usually their partner or their partner’s friends, although the occasional celebrity showed up as well.
The men were a bit more adventurous. “They were reporting sex with women they didn’t know, and quite often with more than one,” Dr. Parker says. Men’s sexual dreams are also more self-centered, according to a 2007 study by Antonio Zadra, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at the University of Montreal. For the people in Dr. Zadra’s studies, who averaged around 30 years old, orgasms were more common in women’s dreams, and it was often their partner who had one. But in men’s dreams, the pleasure was all theirs. “Even in dreams, it seems, men only think about themselves,” Dr. Zadra jokes.
Of course, sexy dream scenarios, like all dream images, are not meant to be taken literally. If you dream of getting frisky with your favorite movie star, it usually doesn’t mean that you’re wanting or planning to cheat on your husband. But you should take a look at the impulses that caused your mind to cook up this dream. Talking about sexual dreams (edited a little, if necessary) can be useful as well. “It helps us get over inhibitions about our sexuality,” Dr. Delaney says.
That’s why it’s worth learning what your dreams have to tell you. When you see that dream images are a part of your methods of expression, it opens up a whole new world.
Make the most of your dreams
You can unlock the clues to your own dreams by following these steps:
- Remember it. Dream images live only in short-term memory and are easily lost, Dr. Barrett says. As soon as you realize you’re waking up, close your eyes and mentally review the plot and images of your dream before you think about anything else.
- Write it down. Keep a small notebook and pen on the nightstand and jot down the most vivid images. Describe that black cat, the scary man chasing you, the endless hall of mirrors, even a bright red sports car, using descriptive words and all your senses to capture the scene. Include how it made you feel.
- Let it simmer. Reread your description. Let it stay with you. Is there anyone or anything in your life with the characteristics you just described? It might be a person you know, or it might be a part of yourself. Surprising insights may hit when you least expect them. Don’t look for that to happen every time, though. Some dreams, like some waking thoughts, are just mundane and trivial. Focus on the dreams that really strike you.
- Follow your heart. Your dreams can help you resolve issues and solve problems. If a dream points you toward a major decision, ask a friend or family member to help you think it through, but don’t be swayed by her interpretation. Your own insight is the only one that really matters.