Consumer Psychology

What Can You Learn From Dreams?

Dreams are a central part of the human life cycle. You could spend 6 years of your life dreaming.

Dreams are a central part of the human life cycle. You could spend 6 years of your life dreaming. 

Despite their significant presence over the lifespan, most researchers cannot agree on a single theory about why we dream, and what function dreams serve. While sleep—dreaming’s nighttime partner—is better understood, dreams still straddle the line between myth and reality. 

When it comes to matters of the psychic in the night, try to keep an open mind, scientists are still working out the details.

Popular Dream Theories

When most people think of dreams, two European psychologists typically come to mind: Freud and Jung. Before taking a deep dive into the two most famous dream theories, check out these ideas about dreams. 

  • Memory Junking: According to a 1964 NYT article, a pair of British scientists (e.g., a computer scientist and psychologist) came up with a novel theory of dreaming. Newman and Evans proposed that dreams are nothing more than a process that cleans the brain of unnecessary information stored from the day. The researchers argued that, like a computer, the brain takes in a lot of information, and can end up like a cluttered desktop. Dreams serve to process this “junk” and make the more important details available for easy access; a form of spring cleaning if you will. 
  • Continuity hypothesis: In 1972, Calvin Hall proposed one of the most popular dream theories to date, one that has been repeatedly supported by empirical research. Hall argued that dreams are psychologically significant because they reflect day-to-day events, such as concerns and ideas related to social life. For Hall, this continuity meant that dreams are a looking glass into the everyday self. 
  • Reverse learning theory: Francis Crick—a pivotal figure in the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA—and colleague Mitchison proposed a neural theory of dreaming in 1983. The reverse learning theory, not entirely dissimilar from the memory junking theory, proposed that we “dream in order to forget,” as Crick said to the National Academy of The Sciences (Hilts, 1986). This reverse learning purportedly acts directly on neural networks, where processes of shut down, activation, and change can “tune the cortex” (Crick and Mitchison, 1983, p. 112). These modifications allow us to effectively “unlearn” unconscious dreams. 
  • Threat simulation theory: In the year 2000 Antti Revonsuo proposed an evolutionary theory of dreaming. Since dreams are a universal human experience, the researcher argued that we dream in order to simulate threats and “rehearsing threat-avoidance responses and behaviors” (Revonsuo, 2000, p. 882). Revonsuo cited the abundance of aggression, emotions, enemies, and misfortunes present in dreams—alongside the similarities of brain REM activation to the neural correlates of threat simulation— as evidence for threat simulation. 
  • Defensive activation theory: Neuroscientist David Eagleman proposed that dreams prevent the brain’s extreme neural plasticity from taking over regions (i.e., visual cortex) deprived of visual input during sleep (2021). Further, the theory introduced a strong relationship between measures of neural plasticity and time spent in REM sleep in over 20 primate species. 

Beyond their function, dreams are often the target of analysis. In order to get to the bottom of your dreams—systematically interpreting their deeper meanings—you’ll need a methodical approach for navigating the psyche. And it was Sigmund Freud who pioneered the method for learnedly exploring the familiar and strange depths of the dream.

Dreams Are Projections


Did You Know?

Some of the most common dreams are about falling from a height, losing teeth, flying, and embarrassment because of a lack of clothing.


Freud defined a dream as a “projection: an externalization of an internal process” (Freud, 2008). This idea of projective psychology is an essential cornerstone of Freud’s conceptualization of dreams; they reflect the inner workings of the mind. To Freud, dreams were filled with important psychological structure. More critically—when in a dreaming state—the world of the unconscious became accessible. Freud describes this as the “incredible capacity of the memory in dreams”  (Freud, 1913, p. 9). 

It is within this psychic reality—defined by the American Psychological Association (APA) as “the internal reality of fantasies, wishes, fears, dreams, memories, and anticipations, as distinguished from the external reality of actual events and experiences”—that dreams earn what Freud called their “hallucinatory character” (Freud, 1913, p. 21). The images aroused in the psyche, which originate from both internal and external stimuli, combine together to form new ones. 

However, these dream images are still subject to the laws of association. Accordingly, Freud journalistically unearthed the individual components of dreams for his particular method of analysis.

Dream Work 

Freud’s map of these psychic instances began with the core idea that dreams should not be interpreted literally as a whole. Instead, what is consciously experienced during a dream is but a censored, if not distorted, version of the raw psychic  reality. That means there are different content layers to dreams, and a strange psychological process where one layer of content goes through forms of transformation and distortion as it travels from the unconscious to the conscious mind.

The reason for this oddity is that Freud hypothesized dreams served to protect sleep; the repressed wishes of the unconscious are too powerful for the conscious mind, therefore the true content of dreams (i.e., thoughts experienced as mental impressions) are altered. Perhaps the fear of discovery could disturb a good night’s rest. Freud’s theory of dreams featured two forms of content and a psychological function. 

  • Latent content — is the source of the dream’s actual meaning. The dream thoughts represent repressed wishes;  a classic Freudian take on dreaming. These repressed wishes are expressed in the conscious mind through the process of association, as a literal train of thought. 
  • Manifest content — is the content experienced consciously during the dream. It is actually a disguised form of the latent content. 
  • Dream work— is the process of distortion that occurs when the latent dream thoughts  are translated into the eventual manifest content. 

For example, Freud recalls a dream titled Irma’s Injection; a dream about a patient who was unwilling to go along with Freud’s proposed plan of psychotherapeutic treatment. When Freud learned that Irma’s condition improved (but not entirely) he had a strange dream about Irma. This update on Irma’s condition was the provocateur of Freud’s psychic in the night. 

*Editor’s note: This is a very brief summary of Freud’s dream, which actually features more characters and other elements of Freud’s dream theory. 

Dream: In the dream, Irma visits Freud during a party. She is visibly unwell and in need of treatment. Freud insists that her continued illness is due to her obstinance with regards to his progressive treatment. Upon an empathetic further inspection of Irma, Freud discovers a sore in her mouth. He calls for a second opinion, and eventually Freud’s friend Otto administers an injection to Irma with an unclean needle. 

Analysis: Freud’s interpretation of this dream boils down to a repressed wish: that he could absolve his part of the blame in Irma’s condition. The dream-work displaced Freud’s repressed wishes of acquittal by shifting the blame to Irma and Otto.  

Freud’s ideas and methods about dream analysis were revolutionary. But not everyone shared the same views. In fact—as is so common in the history of projective psychology—a difference of opinions would lead to rifts in professional and personal relationships.

Jungian Dreams

Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung was an admirer, colleague, and friend of Sigmund Freud. That is until Freud and Jung reached a professional impasse that eventually leaked into their friendship.

To Jung, “Freud’s view that dreams have an essentially wish-fulfilling and sleep-preserving function is too narrow” (Jung 2010, p. 42, 487). Jung and Freud’s different views on dreams were part of a larger difference of opinions that led Freud to write a personal letter to Jung announcing the end of their “personal relations” (Freud, 1913). 

Recall Freud stated that the purpose of dreams was to keep you asleep; protecting you from the raw and unacceptable realities of the unconscious. Jung maintained that dreams are not exclusively distorted, but are also symbolic of the individual’s current unconscious situation. 

Jung proposed two functions for dreams: to compensate for imbalances and to provide glimpses of possible future outcomes—aligning with his more aspirational and self-realized approach to psychology. Compensation meant “balancing and comparing different data or points of view to produce an adjustment” (Jung 2010, p. 60, 545). Jung believed that compensation was a part of personality development; each adjustment formed a larger constellation of what Jung called “individuation” (Jung 2010, p. 60, 550) which means that a person realized their full potential through an integration of the ego-conscious personality and a wider unconscious personality. 

Jung held that dreams were more like parables in that they do not distort and hide things, but teach. Where Freud saw repressed wishes, Jung saw symbolic motifs of the collective unconscious. 

Underneath the personal conscious lie ancestral, universal symbols and images. Jung said that these archetypal symbols were important not because of their subjective meaning to the dreamer, but because their form appeared in the dream. To Jung, the archetypes hold intrinsic meaning that communicate eternal human struggles. These are all “stations along the road of the individuation process” (Jung 2010, p. 61, 557). 

These symbols could portray the external world—daily occurrences, people, events—the objective. They could also represent the inner world of the psyche; thoughts and feelings.

The Story Arc of Dreams

Additionally, Jung noted the forms of dreams through a sort of story arc. 

  • Exposition — a statement of place. 

In the exposition of a dream, the scene is set. For example, I can recall a dream from a few nights ago where I was driving in a truck up the coast of the 101—specifically on San Francisco’s Great Highway next to Ocean Beach. 

  • Development — an establishment of the plot in all of its complexities and tensions. 

In my dream I face West while on the right side of the road. In California, that’s an ocean view. Out in the water I see a surfer through the gray fog. He appears to be stuck in place, surfing an eternal wave. Then, all of the sudden, my perspective shifts and my Dream Ego now occupies the surfer. I am riding towards the shore, yet I am  actually getting closer to it, in contrast with the views held while in the car.  But no matter what, every time I get close to the end of the ride my Dream Ego perspective shifts back into the driver on the road. This for-loop of surfing and driving continues ad nauseum. 

  • Culmination — a decisive moment of change. 

Stuck in this dreamy rocking and rolling between land and sea, I finally decide to make a choice. I jump off the wave, and the pattern is no more. I am free to travel outside the loop for the moment. 

  • Solution — not an essential part of the story as it can be missing or cause further issues. 

Once I swim to shore, I stumble upon the van—empty, with the keys in the ignition—and start driving. Only, to my dismay, getting back into the car triggers the loop. Fortunately, I was spared by the good grace of the alarm, and left that reality behind. 

Constructing this story was not as simple as recalling the dream. Instead, I followed a list of questions to help denote and organize the details.

Common Dream Interpretation Questions

When interpreting a dream, you will need more than a map of the mind. You’ll need to know what questions to ask, so that you can re-create the storyboard of the dream, and begin to connect the occurrences, people, and themes that appear. Dream researcher W.D. Foulkes provided the following standardized dream interpretation questions used in psychological research:

  • What was the setting of the dream?
  • Was the setting familiar at all?
  • What other people were present in this dream? Were any of them familiar?
  • Were you yourself present in this dream?
  • Did you have any feelings or emotions in this dream ?
  • Were others experiencing feelings or emotions?
  • Was this dream at all visual? (If yes) What scenes do you recall?
  • Was there any conversation in this dream? (If yes) Were you yourself talking?
  • Did the scene shift at all in this dream?
  • Were you aware that you were dreaming?
  • Was the imagery clear in this dream?
  • Did the content of the dream seem coherent to you at the time of its occurrence?
  • Was the dream in color? (If yes) Is there anything in particular that you recall as having been in color?

Getting to know the meaning behind your dreams is worth the while, but dream journals can be tedious to upkeep, and even more time consuming to interpret if you are not the dedicated type.

Introducing Dream Blots

Inkblot’s dream interpretation psych tech, Dream Blots, is not your average dream journal. It uses an Inkblot test that allows you to write about your dreams based on what you see. Then the AI-powered platform scores and organizes your dreams quickly, drawing associations between your dream content and other aspects of your psychology, like your personality. 

With Dream Blots you can learn more about your dreams: their types, the content, and even what they mean without the hassles of detailed journals and long-hand interpretations. Want to give it a try?


Crick F. Mitchison G. (1983). The function of dream sleep. Nature. 304. pp. 112. 

Eagleman, D. M., & Vaughn, D. A. (2021). The Defensive Activation Theory: REM Sleep as a Mechanism to Prevent Takeover of the Visual Cortex. Frontiers in neuroscience. 

Foulkes, W. D. (1962). Dream reports from different stages of sleep. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 65(1). pp. 14–25.

Freud, S. (1913). The Interpretation of Dreams Third Edition. Trans. by A. A. Brill. New York: The Macmillan Company.

Freud, S. (2008). General Psychological Theory: Papers on Metapsychology. The Collected Papers of Sigmund Freud. Simon and Schuster. pp. 149. 

Jung, C.G. (2010). Dreams: From volumes 4, 8, 12, and 16 of the collected works of C.G. Jung. Princeton University Press. 

Hall, C. S., & Nordby, V. J. (1972). The individual and his dreams. New York, NY: New American Library. 

Hilsts, J. (1968).  ‘We Dream to Forget,’ Nobel Winner Suggests. Washington Post. 

N.a. (1964). DREAM IS TERMED ‘MEMORY JUNKING’; Brain Gets Rid of Unwanted Data During Sleep, Two British Scientists Say. New York Times. 

Revonsuo A. (2000). The reinterpretation of dreams: an evolutionary hypothesis of the function of dreaming. The Behavioral and brain sciences, 23(6). pp. 877–1121.

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