What Do Your Dreams Mean? Here’s How You Can Decode Them

New sleep apps promise to decipher the hidden meanings of your nighttime experiences. But how reliable are they?

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Scientists may still debate the meaning and purpose of dreams, but we ordinary dreamers seem to have an insatiable desire to parse the who, what and why of what happens when we doze off. It’s hard not to believe that at least some of our sleep-time scenarios are imbued with some sort of significance. And there are a slew of new websites and apps that are feeding that curiosity with the tantalizing promise of helping us to decode the messages that we might otherwise miss.

Some use algorithms developed by psychologists and cognitive scientists to create feedback. Some create communities of dreamers or even dream experts who will opine about their hidden significance. The techniques and the tools they use include everything from dictionaries of so-called dream symbols,  personalized dream interpretation keys, to journals that help you track your dreams over time. Some, like Dream:On, claim to influence what you dream about with personally chosen “soundscapes” that are triggered when you enter REM sleep. Shadow, currently in development, will awaken you gradually to increase the likelihood you’ll remember your dreams and will make it easy for you to immediately record them.

Why bother? Psychotherapists have long believed that our dreams give us insights into feelings and internal struggles of which we may not always be aware. Alicia Clark, a licensed clinical psychologist in Washington DC, says that dream analysis can be a powerful tool for self-understanding. “Evaluating dreams is alive and well in psychotherapy practice and training,” she says.

That means that dreams can also offer useful clues for people who aren’t in therapy as well. “If you wake up feeling disoriented and upset,” she says, “chances are you are feeling similarly in your waking life somewhere.” Thinking about how the feelings in your dreams relate to what’s happening in your life, she suggests, can help you better recognize and address your internal struggles.

As far as how symbolic dreams can be, she says the people in your dream can be who they seem to be, or represent people who are like them. They can also stand in for different aspects of your own personality. “For example,” she says, “ your mother in your dream can represent your actual mother, someone in your life that acts like your mother, and parts of your personality that are like your mother.”

For this reason, many therapists say, dictionaries of dream symbols are of limited use because they give universal meanings to symbols, while  the symbols may actually have unique meaning for each person.

Others aren’t so quick to dismiss online dream dictionaries (such as DreamMoods, Dream Dictionary-Dream Central, Dream Meanings, Way of Dreams and Dream Key). Roger Harnish, a psychology professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, says they can help people to take a more expansive lens to their dreams than they might without the cues from the dictionaries. “Because they give so many interpretations of so many words,” he says, “people are bound to find something that fits their dream in some way. In addition, we all tend to project our feelings into these interpretations and can find personal meaning in them.”

For example, DreamProfessor, an app Harnish created, focuses on the patterns of imagery and words in the dream. “Research,” he says, “suggests that many of our dreams appear to be about our unfinished business, particularly our emotionally unfinished business. Knowing what our unfinished business is can allow us to better understand and conduct our lives.”

Because DreamProfessor, like several other apps, keeps a log of dreams over time, it’s possible for dreamers to see similarities among what appear to be completely different dreams. For example, Harnish says. “If you keep doing the same things at work that stress you, you can keep getting the same dream analysis again and again even though on the surface, the successive dreams seem to be totally different.”

While Harnish is considering doing research based on his users’ dreams, other dream sites, like DreamBoard and Dreamscloud, are currently offering researchers a treasure trove of up to 200,000 dreams. The information the scientists are provided is aggregated and anonymous, but next year, the sites’ creators are planning to add specific research questions that users will answer, and give them consent forms that allow their data to become part of research studies. DreamBoard’s data includes information from each user’s dream journal, and in return for the material, the site’s experts give users feedback on their dreams that includes who or what they dream most about, when they dream most, and the colors and emotions in their dreams. Based on an algorithm designed by cognitive science professor Bruno Bara at the University of Turin, the site hopes to give people insight into what their unconscious is telling them.

DreamsCloud provides feedback from the site’s panel of experts, which includes psychologists, social workers and life coaches.

But how reliable is that analysis? Any time you tell your dream to someone else, says Deirdre Barrett, a psychologist and dream researcher at Harvard Medical School, those doing the analysis may end up projecting their own experiences, feelings, biases and other baggage on to your dreams. So it’s worth remembering that the same dream may not get the same interpretation from different people.

And some of the apps may promise more than they can deliver. You shouldn’t expect an app to turn your tumultuous dreams into more tranquil ones, for example, since, as Patrick McNamara, a neurologist at Boston University School of Medicine says, “There is no basis for believing we can change negative dreams to positive.” Plus, not everyone may be ready to have their dreams become fodder for public comment. Sometimes dreams are better left alone — and private.