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Remembering and Understanding your Dreams

by Cynthia Wilson on April 3, 2012

So you’ve just woken up out of an interesting or hilarious dream – the dream, somehow, is right on the tip of your brain, you’ve almost got it, can maybe remember a detail or two, but you can’t quite recall exactly what it was. It’s something like the feeling of trying to remember a song – you somehow have an impression or some kind of sense of what it is, but still you can’t really imagine any part of it very clearly.

Or, you are fortunate enough that you do remember your dreams, and have no trouble recalling those interesting or hilarious details to share with a friend – but still, you have absolutely no idea what your dream means. Many people talk about dreams signifying something meaningful; your subconscious is sending you some sort of secret message, some dreamy horoscope or fortune cookie from another world – but is this necessarily always the case? Can dreams also be random or meaningless?

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Even when we are able to remember our dreams very clearly, I don’t think many of us take them very seriously: they are good for a laugh now and then, or for the sake of filling in an empty space of a conversation, but once related in this or that way, we eventually forget our dreams, discarding them for new dreamy entertainments or cryptic whisperings. Or, for the odd time that a dream does stick with us; does it really make sense to put so much stock in a dream?

If dreams can tell us something, if they can give us some sort of prediction or advice about our lives, then those of us who have trouble remembering our dreams are going to want to get in on this action. Is there a way we can tap into our dreams? Or does this question even make sense; if we do not remember our dreams, then what’s to say we are even having them in the first place?

The general consensus on this issue seems to be that everybody does dream, only not everybody remembers them. While there is no way to really demonstrate this without pouring over a mountain of, likely tedious, scientific information, let’s just take it for granted that everyone dreams, so that we can talk about how we can best try to remember them.

Remembering Your Dreams

We sleep in stages of REM sleep and NREM (or, non-REM) sleep which last about 90 minutes each. The REM sleep, which is the kind where dreams take place, comes at the end of the 90 minute cycle. So, if you set an alarm to wake up near the very end of a 90 minute interval, you will be much more likely to wake up in the middle of a dream, and therefore much more likely to remember it, this neat tool will help you with this http://sleepyti.me/

On top of that, the REM stages of our sleep cycles get longer and longer as the night goes on: because of this, your very last 90 minute period of sleep of the night is going to be the one with the longest, and therefore the most memorable dream. There are a few other factors which contribute to the extra memorableness of the final REM dream stage as well: in addition to getting progressively longer along with each REM period, our dreams tend to get more vivid and intense; also, our last REM dream period tends to be the most surreal, and bizarre, making it even more memorable.

Taking all this into account, your best bet is to set an alarm to wake up near the end of your very last 90 minute sleep cycle of the night, so you can catch yourself in the middle of your longest, most vivid, most bizarre, and most memorable dream of the night. 7.5 hours, or 5 90 minutes periods, is probably your best bet to get a good night’s sleep (and don’t forget, it may take a little trial and error to figure out how much time passes between when you set your alarm and when you fall asleep).

But most important of all – leave a pen and paper next to the bed! That way you can copy down your dream right away, before there’s any time for you to forget or change it. For some reason, dreams have the tendency to wipe themselves away – they just don’t stick in the memory long – and when they do, we tend to change them, confusing them with other memories or adding things to make them make more sense. So if you do manage to wake up during your dream, copy it down right away, and save the interpretation for later!

Understanding Your Dreams

The interpretation of dreams doesn’t begin with Sigmund Freud; it goes all the way back to the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest known piece of literature in history. In Tablet I, Gilgamesh tells his mother about his dream: a meteorite fell from the sky, which he was unable to budge an inch we he tried, and which he eventually embraced like a wife. His mother interpreted the dream, saying that a man would soon come, a man as strong and unmovable as a meteorite, and that Gilgamesh would eventually embrace him as a wife, or as the very closest of friends.

While the Ancient view of understanding your dreams tends toward taking them as something meaningful, some sort of enigmatic prediction or message from the gods, some of the modern versions of dream interpretation are less optimistic. For Freud, our dreams are largely about wish fulfillment; the idea being that, your repressed wishes which do not show themselves during the day, are able to make their appearance during sleep, when your guard is down. This makes your dream an expression of a kind of unknown, or unconscious wish. In other words, not a message from the gods, but from your own subconscious.

Still, even though we are not able to totally repress these wishes during dreams as we do while awake, we do still manage to cover the wishes over, or hide them in under a layer of seeming meaninglessness. In other words, although our dreams express these subconscious wishes, they are difficult to interpret because, even in sleep, we cover them over with a veil of “manifest content” or of superficial meaning.

According to Freud himself in the third lecture of Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis: “You entirely disregard the apparent connections between the elements in the manifest dream and collect the ideas that occur to you in connection with each separate element of the dream by free association according to the psychoanalytic rule of procedure. From this material you arrive at the latent dream-thoughts, just as you arrived at the patient’s hidden complexes from his associations to his symptoms and memories… The true meaning of the dream, which has now replaced the manifest content, is always clearly intelligible.”

If this is true, than interpreting your dreams is no easy matter – it would seem you need to become a psychoanalyst in order to weed the meaning out of all the dream spam. However, Freud does not represent the final word on either dreams or psychoanalysis; Carl Jung, for example, rejected Freud’s position that dreams only express what is already found within the individual dreamer, suggesting they can also reflect what is found in a collective, as opposed to individual, unconscious.

There is a wealth of material out there about the interpretation of dreams, and probably none of it has a definitive answer on how you can understand them. Still, this doesn’t stop you from trying to interpret your own dreams – even if you don’t have the time or inclination to become a psychoanalyst; but that doesn’t mean that you can’t read up on the interpretation of dreams, either ancient or modern, to help give you some ideas for making sense of your own.


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