You wake up flustered. You've had another recurring dream about your ex-boyfriend ... or your mother-in-law, or your boss or that co-worker you have a crush on. Were you feeling lonely last night before bed? How do you feel now? Uncomfortable? Frustrated? Spicy? All you really want to know is what this dream means, if anything.
Our dreams, for the most part, do have meaning. So what does it mean when you dream about someone specific? We asked sleep experts and dream analysts the hidden meanings behind these dreams in real life.
"People usually experience a lot of REM sleep during the second half of the night, and this state is normally accompanied by intense dreaming, except in rare neurological patients with quite specific brain lesions."
These dreams provide a visual bridge from your unconscious and your conscious mind. You're probably having more than one dream, too. Ribeiro's research found that you can have as many as five different dreams within a single sleep cycle of about 90 minutes.
"Since dreams emerge from the unconscious and subconscious depths of our minds under the drive of our desires and fears, [the hidden meaning can be derived from] a combination of [elements]," Ribeiro says. "The fabric of dreams is the electrical activation of memory chains that get to be assembled, shuffled and recombined during REM sleep, when large portions of the prefrontal cortex are inhibited — therefore there is little to no conscious censorship of the dream contents."
Dreams Do (Usually) Have Meaning
So are these dreams just random? Probably not.
"Because there is so much emotional and psychological processing during sleep, it would be foolhardy to overlook the content of our dreams or label it as purely random," says board-certified sleep physician and psychiatrist Alex Dimitriu, M.D. "Like the famous ink-blot tests, the interpretation of the dream is very specific to the dreamer, and it's definitely a signal worth thinking about as we seek to better understand ourselves."
Psychotherapist Rachel Wright, LMFT, says dream interpretation isn't always easy, though. "Dreams are elusive. What do you want it to mean? Think about how you feel [about the dream] and why you feel the way you do when you wake up — that's where the juicy stuff is," she says. "But your brain is most likely processing the things you've experienced during the day."
Why We Dream About Someone Specific
So, what does it mean when you dream about someone in particular? Maybe you're having a recurring dream about someone's death, or maybe you're dreaming about your best friend. Why do they keep showing up in your subconscious mind?
"It's hard to determine why a particular person appears in a particular dream," says dream researcher Richard Schweickert, professor emeritus at Purdue University's department of psychological sciences. But often it's because you were with that person recently.
"We dream mostly about significant people we currently interact with, although we also dream about people from the past and unknown characters," he says.
Ribeiro, however, says the reason we dream about someone specific might be a bit more abstract.
Dreaming about the same person, in his opinion, could mean that person — or something associated with that person — plays an important role in your daily life. For instance, dreaming about your current partner could indicate you're having strong feelings around love, emotions or just something the person represents.
"Dreaming about someone can be specific to that person, or a metaphor for someone else," Dimitriu adds. What determines the difference? "The ultimate answer will lie in the dreamer, and it helps to approach the question with curiosity and openness to all possibilities."
Dreaming of Your Ex?
Maybe you're not dreaming about your current relationship and instead are having bad dreams about an ex. What are these telling you on a subconscious level?
Do you have any unfinished business or maybe some wounds to heal?
"Because past relationships are often full of emotion, it is not surprising that dreaming about prior relationships may well be recurrent content in our dream life," Dimitriu says. "Most dreams are related to either activities, issues, or unresolved problems in our waking life."
But again, he says, most dreams reflect what's in the subconscious mind of the dreamer. However, some recurring dreams about an ex-spouse might suggest lingering feelings that are still begging for further understanding or emotional reconciliation.
Don't worry, though. Schweickert says it's normal to dream about someone you have had a relationship with, especially if you spent a lot of time with them or have emotionally charged thoughts about them.
"Sleep has roles in maintaining memory and regulating emotion," he explains. "If the breakup was in the past, the dream may be integrating memories of your ex with memories of current things. Such integration may damp down emotional intensity."
What If You Dream About a Family Member?
The answer to this is pretty easy: It comes down to the amount of time you spend with people during your waking hours (and the positive and negative emotions tied to them). And we spend much of our life with family.
"Total time spent with family members tends to be longer than time spent with others, so typically the people someone dreams about the most are family, such as a spouse, partner, parents, children or siblings," Schweickert says.
Unfortunately, if you've had a difficult relationship with one or more family members, the dreams may be more frequent, he says. If that person is someone you recently lost, or caused you negative emotions while part of your life, that could cause you to have recurring dreams about them, too.
Ribeiro says these familial dreams also could have cultural significance. "On occasion, however, people may experience 'big dreams' involving the deeply meaningful appearance of parents and other close relatives, even deceased ones," he says. "Such archetypal dreams are often related to major transitions in life and are greatly valued across several Indigenous, aboriginal, and traditional cultures."
You might not always dream of your family, though, despite it being one of the most common dreams. "In contemporary urban societies, dreaming of family members is rather common during childhood and adolescence, but tends to become less so as one grows into adulthood," Ribeiro says.
Can You Prevent a Bad Dream?
When we say prevent a bad dream, we mean can you stop intentional dreaming about a certain person, like that ex. Short answer, probably not. Sorry! But it actually might not be such a bad thing. Hear us out.
"There is little one can do to stop dreaming about someone," Schweickert says. "Although dreams of your ex may be troubling, [these dreams] may gradually help emotional equilibrium. [Neuroscientist] Rosalind Cartwright found that women going through divorce who dreamed about their exes were better adjusted a year later than those who did not have such dreams."
Good news, right? The more dreams, literally the more healing. So don't try to interrupt the process, so long as it's not too frightening or disturbing.
"Ironically, trying to stop thinking about your ex during the day may lead to more dreaming about them at night ... a dream rebound effect," explains Schweickert. "If dreams about your ex are nightmares, it may help when awake to imagine and rehearse a more pleasant ending."
If you're dreaming about that ex (or anybody for that matter) all the time, it's still probably nothing crazy. Schweickert says during our waking life, we interact with about 150 people at least once a year, so that's about the number of people we dream about in a year, too. In other words, you interact with a lot of people, so you dream about a lot of people, too. But as for the regularity when it comes to one person in particular? It's just based on a random frequency.
"People occur in dreams with systematic frequencies," Schweickert explains. "Curiously, the probability distribution is the same as that of word frequencies. Words occur in English with various frequencies. For example, 'the' is more frequent than 'cup.' Frequencies with which people occur in dreams follow the same distribution."
As he puts it, if you spend time with someone, you're going to dream about them. "But the emotions of a difficult relationship with someone may lead to frequent dreams about them," he adds.
Should You Share Your Dream?
Schweickert says it could be a good idea, but proceed with caution.
"Telling a dream to someone can increase closeness," he says, "but, as with revealing anything about yourself, it's good to estimate whether it's appropriate and if the other person would be interested."
Dimitriu agrees. "Dreams are very personal and private, and at the same time can be quite nonspecific and even confusing at times," he says. "Because they are so personal, it is essential to try to understand them yourself first — before being biased, [before seeking] the opinions of others."
On the positive side, telling a dream can be a way to bring up a deep issue," says Schweickert. "It can be safe, because it's an imaginary situation, not something that actually happened. But a listener may believe the dream reveals what the teller really thinks, despite assurances to the contrary."
If it's not the right time to open up — particularly with the subject of your latest dream — try this instead. "I suggest keeping a dream journal and taking some time to reflect on the dream content and possible meanings," Dimitriu says, "perhaps over more than just one session, before involving others and understanding your dreams. Spend time with your dreams and try to understand the content yourself first before involving others."
Now That's Interesting
Dimitriu says we process our daytime experiences after we drift off. The brain processes a lot of physical, emotional and psychological events while we sleep, he says. "Some have even referred to sleep as the brain's form of self-therapy, and there have been many documented cases of people going to sleep with a particular problem or issue, and waking up to find the answer."
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