Do dreams mean anything?

They reflect our innermost fears and desires but I am wary of interpretations of them

When I was a boy, my mother had a dream dictionary, a lavishly illustrated hardback, which claimed to reveal the hidden meanings of hundreds of dream symbols.

And she believed that, by remembering her dreams and consulting her book, she could gain valuable insights into herself, her circumstances and even her future.

"Last night, I dreamt I was climbing a staircase," she would say, flicking eagerly through the pages of her dictionary.

"Oh, that means a new opportunity is going to present itself."

I had little faith in her dream-book back then and evenless now.

Nonetheless, like most people, I feel that dreams sometimes have meaning.



At the beginning of the 20th century, the Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud said that dreams provide us with a safe environment in which to face our unconscious fears or act out our secret desires.

According to him, dreams are replete with sexual symbolism. For example, a dream about a train entering a tunnel indicates a supressed longing for sexual intercourse.

He wrote: "The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind."

This theory was enormously influential for a time. But, during the 1950s, it became less popular as researchers noted that many dreams deal with the mundane activities and everyday stresses of life.

Psychologists were then inclined towards the theory that dreams are a psychological coping mechanism, a means by which the mind works through some of the knottier problems and challenges of our lives.

In the 1970s, two Harvard psychiatrists formulated a new theory of dreams which was physiological, rather than psychological.

They put forward the idea that neural activity during sleep results in images being thrown up in the mind, more or less at random.

The story-like quality of our dreams, they hypothesised, is not a feature of the dreams but something that our waking minds concoct afterwards to try to make sense of those images.

More recent research, however, has shown that the parts of the brain that control the emotions and long-term memory are active during dreaming.

This suggests that dreams are not random but are linked to - and, therefore, are expressive of - our emotional states.


Personally, I am most fascinated by my recurring dreams, those that return to me month after month, and year after year.

In one of these, I am 21 again and frantically trying to cram for my university finals. I have left my revision far too late and cannot find my notes. Then I remember I also have a lengthy assignment to complete.

In another recurring dream, I enjoy a developing friendship with ex-Beatle Paul McCartney. (Though in the most recent instalment, I let him down badly in a matter relating to the MTV Awards.)

These dreams feel - indeed, are - deeply personal. But the motifs are very common.

Many people dream about stressful examinations and celebrity friendships.

Other common motifs in recurring dreams include:

  • Being pursued by someone or something
  • Having your teeth fall out
  • Being naked in public
  • Being able to fly
  • Falling from a height
  • Losing control of a vehicle
  • Being late for an appointment

Do these dreams mean anything? Do they have anything to teach us?

Some experts say, yes.

For example, dream psychologist Ian Wallace, author of The Top 100 Dreams: The Dreams That We All Have And What They Mean, said that if you dream about missing an appointment, it means you are worried that time is running out for you to carry out an important plan. It is time for you to take decisive action.

I am convinced that recurring dreams reflect our innermost feelings, fears and desires. This makes them fascinating. But I am wary about accepting anyone's interpretation of them.

That seems, to me, to be a very tricky business.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 28, 2017, with the headline 'Do dreams mean anything?'. Print Edition | Subscribe