Deciphering dreams: An exercise in introspection

Vivian Wan/Staff

For so long, I’ve dismissed dreams as irrelevant. A fleeting occurrence in my subconscious. An odd narrative much too random to even expend energy trying to deconstruct. Sometimes they just garner an absolute “what the actual hell” (e.g., if someone could please tell me why I dreamed that my cat followed me to school driving an ice cream truck, that would be much appreciated).

Since coming to college, I feel I’ve become more self-aware. I’m working on being more in tune with myself — my worries, values, passions, how I react to things. I journal from time to time, but it’s sometimes very difficult to attain clarity on emotions. But, in stumbling upon a New York Times article the other day, it’s now dawned on me that what I’ve deemed as nonsense could actually be a portal to self-understanding.

The study referenced in the article was conducted at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and involved 99 volunteers attempting to get through a virtual maze. Various groups were involved in the study, but only those who napped, and specifically reported dreaming about the maze, made significant progress after a break.

… it’s now dawned on me that what I’ve deemed as nonsense could actually be a portal to self-understanding.

“It’s almost as if your brain is rummaging through everything that happened today and deciding that you’re not done with it,” said Dr. Robert Stickgold, the lead author of the study and a cognitive neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School. “The things that really grip you, the ones you decide at an emotional level are really important, those are the ones you dream about.”

Captivated, I delved into more studies. The subconscious is abstract and tricky. Is it even worth trying to navigate something so seemingly impossible? Who, really, can know the inner workings of such a subjective space? But nonetheless, it seemed that with the new information I was finding, there was at least a tinge of relevance I could link to my own experiences.

Throughout my junior year of high school, I had a recurring dream in which I showed up to class and had to take an exam I didn’t know about. I think the anxiety of this dream is very telling of my emotional state at this age (I was practically a caffeinated shell of a person).

Interestingly, dreams of this theme appear to be common across different age groups, and even the globe. So while incredibly personal, dreams have universality as well — speaking to inherent associations we have as humans between emotions and life experiences (e.g., anxiety and exams).

And during my senior year of high school, I was becoming very involved in the international community through tutoring. It was here I felt I had really found my place on campus and experienced a sense of purpose I hadn’t before. At this same time, one of my friend’s older sisters had been travelling abroad very often. She would periodically show up in random dreams of mine.

This puzzled me, but then I came across some findings of Carder Stout, a Jungian psychotherapist. According to his conclusions, her sister may have represented a part of me I was beginning to grow in touch with. I respected her for how cultured and globally engaged she was. Perhaps I felt I too was expanding my horizons in this way. Is that a stretch? Regardless of whether or not this was the reason behind her appearance, it’s an interesting theory to consider.

Dreams challenge our notion of what’s considered rational. Dreams associate concepts we wouldn’t expect to be related. Dreams are so purely us, yet somehow so inaccessible.

Also notable, but of which I just really can’t quite explain, is when my friend dreamed I was in a car accident several days before I was in one. Or when my friend apparently dreamed of Niagara Falls, witnessed the water turn red and then woke up with a bloody nose.

Dream foresight actually appears to be somewhat common. My Google search, in fact, yielded many stories of “precognitive dreams.” I found a jarring story about a tragedy in South Wales and an interesting study which identified people who dreamed of Hurricane Katrina and the Japanese earthquake of 2011 before they occurred.

Dreams challenge our notion of what’s considered rational. Dreams associate concepts we wouldn’t expect to be related. Dreams are so purely us, yet somehow so inaccessible.

There’s no linear way of thinking about dreams, and that’s frustrating. They straddle a space, between the tangible (what we experience) and the abstract (what we feel), with which we are less familiar. But I’m realizing that may be exactly where their value lies. The what-ifs and unconventional thinking which emerges from dreams, I think, is of great value.

So maybe take a moment to recognize what goes down in the next dream you have. Seize the opportunity to illuminate a part of you that you may not have been able to otherwise. You may never actually make sense of it (kind of where I’m at with this whack cat dream), but in pondering, you may draw out the very thing that was bothering you. So just because dreams are unfamiliar and confusing doesn’t mean we should ignore them. Rather, we should give this space of uncertainty and unknowns a chance.

Hell, we should breathe it in.

Minds easily clutter with to-do lists, logistical issues and decisions we have to make. Life gets busy; obligations pile up. We often have little time to determine what we’re feeling, let alone why. In our conscious, fast-paced life, we’re constantly dealing with the concrete and don’t confront the intangible. But, ironically so, that just might be what’s most real.

P. S. Below I summarized more of Stout’s findings regarding what he believes to be true of some dream scenarios — should you choose to examine your own psyche a bit.

  • Your teeth are falling out: You’re enduring a transitory stage of your life which you’re anxious about.
  • Death: You have let go or are letting go of a part of yourself.
  • Recurrent nightmare: There’s a negative aspect of your life you’re internalizing.
  • Animals: The significance lies in the archetype this animal may represent (e.g., a snake corresponding to dishonesty).
  • You went on a wild adventure: You’ve been neglecting the childlike, youthful part of yourself.


Contact Kathryn Kemp at [email protected]