Dreams and Dreaming: Fantasy Time

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Dreams and Dreaming: Fantasy Time

A dream which is not interpreted is like a letter which is not read. (The Talmud)

Dreams are meaningful only in the context of a dreamer’s life. (D. Broadribb, The Dreamer’s Story, 1987)

The dream is the reflection of the waves of the unconscious life in the floor of the imagination. (H. Amiel, journal, 1869)

Why do we enter a fantasy world several times a night when we sleep? Why do we perceive imaginary events and perform imaginary behaviours and what do they mean? Why do some people claim they never dream or cannot remember their dreams? Why do we have recurrent dreams? What do dreams mean: being able to fly, losing all your teeth?


Acknowledging the existence of, and trying to interpret the meaning of, dreams goes back to ancient times. The word is derived from the words ’joy’ and ’music’.

There are many different kinds of dreams that people can have: highly lucid but also vague dreams; of nightmares and of lovely dreams. Children from three to eight years old often report having nightmares but they seem not to appear in their own dreams much before the ages of three or four years old. Many report recurrent dreams sometimes which they fear, others which they long for. Nearly two-thirds of people claim that they have had déjà vu dreams.

Dreams are common to all people at all times. Themes include being trapped or being followed; hiding from someone and being in prison. Long dead people appear in dreams. People often report a dream about being paralysed and unable to escape; or indeed the opposite, being able to fly. Water appears a lot: drowning, surfing or being chased by sharks. Animals and cars appear a lot in dreams. Special clothes as well as being naked is frequently reported. Many people also confess very erotic dreams.


There are various proposed interpretations of these dreams. Consider the teeth falling out dream: does this signal that we are very concerned with our physical attractiveness? Or perhaps it represents a loss of power and aging or the concern that you are never heard or being overlooked. Perhaps your teeth represent oral weapons and they are falling out because you have been saying untruths about others. The ancient Chinese did believe it occurred because you were worried about telling lies, while the Greeks thought it symbolized worry about death. It has even been proposed that it is about money: hoping a magical tooth fairy will appear and give you lots of money. There are multiple and unproven interpretations of the same event which makes this whole area both fascinating and frustrating.

Freudian Ideas

Freud, who wrote a book on the topic, proposed that dreams arise out of our inner conflicts between unconscious desires and prohibitions against acting out these desires, which we learn from society. Thus all dreams represent unfulfilled wishes, the content of which are symbolically disguised. The latent content (hidden) of the dream is transformed into the manifest content (plot) which needs to be explained to supposedly unveil the person’s unconscious desires. They are a ’royal road’ to the unconscious.

Dream interpretation was a favourite way of Freud to get to understand this conflict and so he would encourage people to talk without restraint about their dreams. The manifest content seen by the dreamer masks the hidden meaning or significance behind the latent content which is what can cause anxiety and psychological discomfort. The dreams themselves aren’t direct representations of our unconscious but need to be analysed as they are symbolic or metaphors for our true underlying feelings. Some symbols are widely shared because of physical or functional similarities for example, but there is no simple cipher that can be generally applied.

First, critics point out that if dreams are merely wish fulfilment why are so many negative. Next, Freud based his theory on those few (less than 10 per cent) of dreams that are remembered and articulated by patients. Third, there is a serious problem of reliability in the interpretation of dreams as different therapists offer very different interpretations. Fourth, as Jung pointed out, dreams seem to have similar content across time and culture whether they are deeply repressive or surprisingly liberal. It is clear that Freud would argue strongly that dreams provide an insight into our unconscious, however his work was done over one hundred years ago and many present-day psychologists have a lot more to add to the topic.


In the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) phase of sleep a circuit of acetylcholine-secreting neurons in the pons become active, stimulating rapid eye movements, activation of the cerebral cortex and muscular paralysis. All of which causes us to see images. Moreover, multiple experiments have found that the eye movements a person makes during a dream corresponds reasonably well with the content of the dream; the eye movements are what one would expect if the events in the dream were really occurring. The images evoked often incorporate memories of episodes that have recently occurred or what the person has been thinking about lately.

Such findings do not dispute Freud’s belief that dreams involve complex cognitive processes, many of which are hidden from view. But they argue against the central tenet of his theory: that they are disguised representations of forbidden urges that are held deep in the unconscious.

We do not know whether the particular topics we dream about are related to the functions that dreams serve or if the purpose of REM sleep is fulfilled by the physiological changes in the brain, regardless of the plot. Given that we still do not know why we dream, this uncertainty is not surprising. But the rapid progress we are making in most areas of brain research give us hope that we will have some answers in the not-too-distant future.


Domhoff, W. (2002). The scientific study of dreams. New York: APA Press.

Freud, S. (1900). The Interpretation of Dreams. London: Hogarth Press.