We all have them. Some of us in color, others in black and white — although that really seems to be (sorry) an Ok, Boomer phenomenon. If you’re Gen X or younger, you probably dream in color because you grew up with color TV. Only the generations that grew up with black and white media, whether TV or film, seem to have ever dreamt only in black and white.
Weird, eh? Although dreams can be weirder and very meaningful, although Freud really got it wrong because he decided that dream symbolism was universal when, in reality, it is actually very specific.
Think about it for just one second. Say that you grew up in the country and, as a child, you were traumatized by your first trip to the city. So… when you dream, it’s most likely that country dreams are pleasant and city dreams are not. Reverse this for someone who grew up in a city and loved it, but had a bad experience the first time they went to visit the grandparents on their farm.
What would Freud say? He’d pull shit out of his ass and make up some one-size-fits all statement, probably about how dreams of the country represent a desire to have sex with one’s mother, while city dreams represent a need to kill one’s father.
Dreams are very personal
I tend to dream myself into one of two general situations that have symbolic meaning to me, and not anyone else.
First, dense urban landscapes, day or night, frequently involving endless streets crowded by buildings with a lot of overhang and construction, and which often feel in my mind like a blend of New York, Chicago, Dallas, and San Francisco. These dreams frequently involve me having to take public transportation — which I actually love to do — in an effort to get home that seems increasingly futile, especially when it’s three in the morning and I realize that I’ve exited the subway at the wrong place, and that the bus doesn’t stop here, it’s a mile or two up the road.
Subset of this, when I’m not doing the transit thing, I’ll enter a building, and it turns into either a gigantic amalgamation of malls (the Beverly Center on steroids with others appended); a weird combination of mall, public space in a university, and the dorms (the student union on steroids); or an office building in which I’m working, except that the office I go to seems to go on and on forever in an endless nest of cube farms, with each new inner door leading to another, identical cube farm with different people.
Also, the latter group tends to have really odd and iffy elevators, especially if it’s a really tall building. I’ve been in a couple of 200 story office towers, and acceleration on the express elevators in either direction was not pleasant.
Meanwhile, the dorm version inevitably leads to weird bathrooms that have either far too many toilet stalls, most of them not working, a few urinals where I don’t want to use them, or a grungy shower room hidden way behind everything. There usually aren’t a lot of stalls, just a lot of toilets installed in haphazard rows butting up against each other, pun intended. Finding that one urinal that actually has partitions on either side is always a blessing. Yeah, no way I’m sitting down in any of these bathrooms. They make the one in Trainspotting look like the restroom at the… Nashville Zoo?
But the other typical dreamscape is almost always even weirder and literally darker.
Welcome to my nightmares
Second, the suburban version. It involves a lot of weirdness and anxiety, because these dreams usually revolve around me having to figure out what shit to pack and where my plane tickets are in order to make it out of here in time to get home. Or, if not that, this, and very similar. I can’t take everything or, really, anything, and my brain melts trying to figure out how to get it all out of here anyway. Quite frequently, I know that I’m on a group trip to somewhere, like my improv company has gone to another city for a competition or I’m visiting friends in another state. Unlike a lot of the urban dreams, these tend to take place only at night.
Other variations include me going back to live in my parents’ house (sometimes with them even though they’re both dead), or me sharing a house with roommates I personally know, but who are never there. And, like the urban dreams, these houses often have rooms within rooms — a door in a bedroom that seems to be a closet will lead to a hallway that leads to another room, often another bedroom but also frequently some sort of living room with an entrance/exit off of it. Sometimes this will lead out to the street. Other times, it will lead to an alley that doesn’t seem to belong to a house — a common theme I’ll get to in a moment.
The puzzle houses are also frequently the locations for parties, so each discovery of a new room and hallway will lead to a new group of people.
This doesn’t just happen with houses. I’ve had it happen with apartments or condos, and a frequent one will be a very luxurious condo with modern design, marble floors, white walls, and huge rooms that goes on and on, and then I find a hallway the leads to a door that opens directly into… a huge mall. Or, sometimes there isn’t even a door. It’s sort of a variation of the student union from the urban dreams. I think I get this symbolism: a lack of separation between public and private space; although I’m not sure whether I think that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I don’t have any strong emotions about it in the dreams.
One other minor motif that also involves greatly exaggerated landscapes involves simple travel, whether it’s down a highway in a car or hiking, frequently on a grassy trail next to a river or viaduct, passing through various sections that will come to similar link points, like ramps or interchanges for the former, or footbridges and road crossings for the latter. The highway ones also often go through varied terrain. I’ve gone from a sunny beach to a snowy mountain pass in one. Then again, that’s easy to do in Southern California.
On top of all of this, I often go full Dr. Manhattan in my dreams. That is, I’m nude, I don’t care, and no one notices. It’s only the rare occasion when I decide that I should probably put on pants, but that’s generally only when it’s a dream in which I realize I’m interacting with past or present co-workers.
The meaning of dreams
In case you’re wondering, yes, I know full well what a lot of the elements of these dreams mean and symbolize to me. Why shouldn’t I? My subconscious speaks the language of my fears, hopes, and desires better than I do. It also knows how to put it into the metaphors that I cling to, and to cast it with people from my past and present (and maybe future?) who will shorthand the real message.
But… this also shows why Freud (and anyone else) who claims to interpret dreams with universal symbols is so wrong. If I dream about eating ice cream while walking with my mother, that will have an entirely different set of connotations than you having the same dream. Like I mentioned before with the city/country thing, maybe one of us has a very pleasant childhood memory of our mom telling us the family was going to Disneyland while we were walking and eating ice cream. Maybe one of us saw our mother hit and killed by a car on that walk.
They say that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure, and the same is true of dreams. If somebody who is gay or bisexual has erotic dreams about someone of the same sex, then those are good dreams. If a person who is heterosexual does, then those are moments when they wake up thinking, “WTF?” And especially if that dream was about someone they know IRL. (To be fair, though, the same applies to gay people having the same kind of dreams about the opposite sex and, yes, it happens. It’s happened to me more than once.)
But, again, another clear example of why Freud was so wrong. A dream about a sexy woman or man means very different things depending upon who’s dreaming it. Then again, Freud only wondered about what we dream. He never asked the important question.
Why do we dream?
This one still hasn’t been answered, though researchers have tried. There are many theories but no answers, and that’s only coming from the science side. If you want to go all mystic about it (please don’t) then dreams could also be messages from dead ancestors, the spirit realm, and any kind of woo you want to throw onto it. (Note: Wow. It wasn’t that long ago that woo was woo-woo. Talk about fast evolution of language. Whoot!) But short of the why, I think that this is the best what. Dreams are the emails your subconscious sends to you after hours to help you improve your next day.
Best part? They know the exact emojis you will relate to, and they hook them together in the right order. And it doesn’t matter whether you dream in full color or black and white, or whether you dream visually at all because, surprise, blind people dream as well and, depending upon when they went blind, they either dream through their other senses — touch, taste, and smell — or, if they became blind after about 5 or 6 years old, they also see in their dreams.
And think about it for a moment. Other than vision, and maybe sound, what other senses do you experience in your dreams? The only consistent one I can think of is kinesthetic. That is, full body motion, like the sense of falling or moving. Touch, taste, or smell, not so much.
Do electric sheep dream of androids?
Another great question is this. Do animals dream? And the answer is that, at least for mammals like us, of course. And what do they dream about? That’s a little harder to determine because, obviously, you can’t wake up your cat and dog and ask them. But researchers at MIT did use some science, and they determined that rats tended to dream about the task they had learned that day, and so seemed to use dreams as a sort of passive learning reinforcement.
And, of course, in less ethical times when experimenters had no problems physically altering the brains of animals in order to inhibit the protective feature of sleep paralysis, they used a very crude method to see that cats and dogs dreaming in REM sleep acted out exactly the hunting and play behaviors they would in real life.
Some humans naturally suffer the condition that scientists induced, and it’s called REM Sleep Behavior Disorder. This is actually a thing, and was used as a successful defense in a murder trial in Britain, although the legal classification of pavor nocturnus is rather different than the medical definition noted above.
Still, there’s an interesting note. Cats, dogs, and humans all have rather aggressive dreams. Except when we don’t, and none of mine are. Fearful and anxious, maybe. Aggressive? Nah. And I’m not likely to murder anyone in their sleep, although there was this one time I sleepwalked into a rather awkward place only to wake up, realize it, and go back to bed.
And I’ve never had a dog that didn’t start to do that “paddle paw and squeak” thing while asleep, and I’ve never found it anything less than totally endearing.
Except for that part where Freud would say that dog is dreaming about killing his father and… Oh, shut up. The meanings of dreams are as unique as the dreamers, and if you want to be successful as a dream interpreter, here’s the clue to success: Learn how to get the dreamer to admit to you what each element means, then string it back to them in a narrative that’s really just good advice.
“Oh, so you dreamt about missing your train to work. Wow. What if that happened in real life?” (Listen to answer.) “Okay, so when you got there late, your boss threw something at you. How do you feel about your boss, and this job?” (Listen to answer.)
Lather, rinse, repeat, until they’ve told you exactly what their dream means, then repeat it all back in a nice narrative form. Accept payment and referrals, profit.
This is actually exactly how a “good” Tarot card reader works by the way. I’ve seen it in action from the outside, and it’s amazing. All they do is say what each card symbolizes in the space that it’s in, but then get the person they’re reading for to fill in the blanks. “This card means unbalance and it’s in the spot indicating your present. Is anything in your life feeling out of balance?” Etc.
It’s also exactly what Freud did, except in the less customized version — “Buy my book and know what your dreams mean!” Except, no. You won’t. But you will if you use the version I mentioned three paragraphs above. Talk to yourself. Think about each element of your dream, and ask yourself what it means to you. It can help to write your dream down, and then make footnotes on each bit of it. What each location and person and feeling means to you now because of what it meant then. After all of that, figure out how all of these bits and pieces relate to what you’re living now and, voilà… dream interpreted. Like I’ve said elsewhere… it ain’t rocket science.