How Dreams Work

By: Lee Ann Obringer & Yves Jeffcoat  | 

What Do Our Dreams Mean?

dream of falling from the sky
"What does my dream mean?" is one of the questions we still can't quite answer. That's because a dream about falling from the sky could mean one thing to you and something entirely different to someone else. Matthias Clamer/Getty Images

Those on the physiology side of the "why we dream" argument see dreams as nonsense that the brain creates from fragments of images and memory. For them, dreaming may serve a purpose, but the content of dreams is not inherently meaningful.

For centuries, however, people have looked at their dreams as both omens and insights into their own psyches. Many think dreams are full of symbolic messages that may not be clear to us on the surface, but can be interpreted if we dig deeper. Mainstream science does not support one-size-fits-all dream interpretations. But that does not mean that dreams are meaningless.


The art of interpreting dreams goes back thousands of years. People have long turned to guides that equate certain dream symbols with fixed meanings. While these fixed interpretations may not be accurate for everyone, a person's dreams may still have personal significance.

In the book "The Oracle of Night: The History and Science of Dreams," Ribeiro points to the existence of recurring dreams as evidence that dreams have meaning. "It would be impossible for dreams to repeat if their genesis were entirely accidental," he says in the book.

For many years, people have been working with their dreams in psychotherapy. Freud's "The Interpretation of Dreams" jumpstarted the popularity of dream interpretation in psychoanalysis. Freud considered dream interpretation to be a road into "knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind."

Dream work is also used in other therapeutic schools, like family therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy. Some therapists encourage their clients to explore and analyze their dreams. Focusing on dreams during therapy sessions can allow clients to share emotions, memories and behaviors with a therapist that they might not otherwise divulge. Dreams can provide clinically useful information and highlight emotional concerns.

Relying on dream interpretation guides to elucidate dreams about cheating partners, bears or falling off of cliffs is likely a futile effort. But discussing our dreams and understanding what they mean to us individually can be beneficial.