There are many books available, more or less in dictionary format, that attempt to tell you what individual elements of dreams might mean. Massive encyclopedias can inform us, in best Freudian style, the hidden meaning behind objects and occurrences1. They're all useless waffle. The best method of dream interpretation is to work out why certain things are in your dreams and what they mean for you. The largest collection of dreams collected scientifically is by psychology professor Calvin Hall over a forty-year period. Across cultures, the common theme is that people tend to dream of things related to "personal experiences from the previous days or week"1.
The perceptions in dreams come largely from free association. Our brain thinks it is receiving inputs, hearing things, feeling things, seeing things, when in reality they're firings from stray neurones and an over-sensitive nervous system2. Our brain tries to interpret what these false stimuli mean. The interesting part comes in analysing the way in which your brain interprets the incoming data.
Often what occurs in our dreams is what is on our minds during the previous days. The more urgently something presses on our minds, the most affect it has on our dreams. But it's not always simple. Anxiety, or general emotions, will translate into things in your dreams. This is one area where dictionaries of dreams try to help. They will state that, for example, dreaming of ants is to be dreaming about productivity at work. This is simply because as most people associate ants with busy activity, if you have work-related thoughts in your head, your brain might find the association with ants. Once the concept of "ants" is invoked during a dream, some of the interpretive mechanisms in your brain will deduce that the (meaningless) input coming from your senses could be ants.
Because our brains whirl round, sending thoughts around the limbic system, once an idea is there it will stay for a while. Our brains try to make patterns; so once the random sensory input has been associated with ants (sticking to our example), then it will continue to interpret some of the input as ants. Our brain therefore inserts objects and chances into the frames of our mind, and strings them all together with a narrative. Such is the nature of our unregulated consciousness working with free associations.
So, YOU have to figure out why your brain has certain things on its mind, and what the general emotions in your dream are. No-one else knows for sure why you have the associations that you have in your dreams. This is common sense subjectivism! This common sense approach to dream interpretation is not new:
“The most comprehensive work on dreams to come to us from the ancient times are the five books of dream interpretation written by Artemidorus who lived in Italy in the second century. He held a sophisticated view of dream interpretation believing that the same dream could have a different meaning depending on the character and circumstances of the individual dreamer.”
"The Origin of Dreams" by Joseph Griffin (1997)3
Dream content relates to real-life events over the previous days plus portions of what is on your mind at the time.
“Environmental circumstances influence dream content. Dreams reported after awakenings by investigators in the home have more aggressive, friendly, sexual, or success-and-failure elements than those reported in the laboratory; but in both cases most are duller than would be supposed. Anxiety-provoking films seen prior to sleep can lead to dreams containing related themes. Events occurring around the sleeper during dreams are often incorporated, so that, for example, the words 'Robert, Robert, Robert' spoken to a sleeper led to his reporting a dream about a 'distorted rabbit'.”
"The Oxford Companion to the Mind" by Richard L. Gregory (1987)
He continues to state that "the dreams of one individual are different from those of another: dreams this reflect both day-to-day psychological variations and enduring individual traits".
Don't be tempted to make things too complex or convoluted whilst looking for meanings. Only take things one step! Only look for deeper meanings that make emotional sense to you: Your brain will not come up with stuff that is alien to you. Sometimes meanings are plainly obvious. If you dream of your partner being dishonest; don't look too far for a potential meaning! It means you're concerned about her being dishonest! It means you have dishonesty on your mind for some reason; it could be your own dishonesty or your mistrust of her. You could, if we want to add one level of complexity, say that you're consciously, or subconsciously, concerned that you don't feel you trust her enough (or vica-versa).
There are problems about the idea that some dreams predict the future. The first problem is what skeptical thinkers call selection bias, where by ignoring masses of data, you mislead yourself into accepting an erroneous theory at the expense of a more mundane explanation:
“We often hear of stories citing examples of dreams that came true. This would seem to suggest a power of the mind that goes beyond known physical capabilities. However, in this case, a strong selection process is taking place whereby all the millions of dreams that do not come true are simply ignored. Unless otherwise demonstrated, a plausible explanation that must first be ruled out is that the reported dream came true by chance selection out of many that had no such dramatic outcome.”
"God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist"
Prof. Victor J. Stenger (2007)4
Secondly, dream diaries. These are used in sleep studies to record all dreams. When sleep diaries are used, none of the dreams that are written down turn out to predict the future. This means that there is something retrospective about the way we interpret dreams. In other words, when something happens during our day, we subconsciously re-interpret a previous dream in a way that makes it seem like it predicted what just happened. This active memory manipulation is simply part of the normal way the human brain works as it engages in pattern-recognition instincts, however, when applied to dreams our inbuilt cognitive methodology leads us to falsely interpret events, leading us to fantastic conclusions. When dreams are tested, by writing all of them down every morning, we soon find that our ability to re-interpret them to fit later events disappears.
The idea that dreams can be a window to prophecy is one that has enjoyed various degrees of popularity at various times in history. It is of course simply another version of the idea that dreams can tell the future, only, it is phrased in more spiritual and religious terms. In classical Greece there were temples dedicated to the art of having a good night of dreaming. The anticipation and expectation of prophecy meant that almost anything in a dream could be given great meaning.
“Sleeping-chambers were added to many temples, and here, after pious ceremonies and fervent prayers, men laid themselves down in full expectation of revelation during their sleep: and no matter how absurd, how incoherent the dream proved to be, the dreamer seemed always able to reconcile it to circumstances... [...] We must not forget that these species of oracles were held in the highest estimation during the most enlightened period of Greece; and of all her nations, none believed in them more devoutly than Sparta.”
Nonsense regarding oracles and dream prophecies was also recorded, and promoted, by the Christian Bible and Jewish Scriptures, especially in the Book of Daniel. From Daniel 2:1-5 we see King Nebuchadnezzar seek interpretations of his dreams. He goes through untold numbers of diviners and magicians, all of whom fail to give satisfactory interpretations. The holy man Daniel had "understanding in all visions and dreams" (Daniel 1:17, 20, 2:18-19) and he eventually provided an acceptable commentary on the dream (Daniel 1:17, 20).
About the Book of Daniel:
“The Book of Daniel claims to be written by Daniel himself (i.e. see Daniel 9:2 in the 6th century BCE but scholars for over a hundred years "shown clear and compelling reasons for thinking that it was written four hundred years later, in the second century BCE, by someone falsely claiming to be Daniel"6. Daniel's Chaldean name was Bethshazzai. The first six chapters are about Daniel but historians consider it to be a work of fiction. It is apparent that there are two (quite different) accounts of Daniel placed side by side, and the same stories are often told twice; this was either poor editing, or, the compiler simply didn't know which details were correct so included both. The editor and the text assert that Daniel and his friends stayed true to Jewish culture and religion whilst in Babylon, even though the majority of Jews combined Jewish and Mesopotamian culture when writing the rest of the books of the Bible that were authored in or after Babylonian exposure.
Daniel is described as spending time interpreting dreams, but there are serious problems with the likelihood that the stories are true. In the most famous incident, a phantom hand materializes and writes a message on a wall, during a grand feast to a thousand of his lords and the King then brought in astrologers, Chaldeans, soothsayers and all his wise men (Daniel 5:1-8). But isn't it strange that of all those powerful and influential people none of them had the event written down by their scribes. Somehow, only the author of Daniel knows what happened.
The second half of the Book of Daniel are an imaginative series of prophecies about the Antichrist and the arrival of a saviour; many of these have been problematic for Christians as many of the prophecies about Jesus did not come true; hence, Christians now say the leftover prophecies will be fulfilled during a second coming of the saviour.”
Despite all that, Deuteronomy 13:1-5 contradicts the whole idea by making it so dangerous it is not worth it, as, learning the wrong things from dreams will get you chastised by God itself! Such things are tests from god to see if people will stray, you see. The wise men who in the Book of Daniel failed to give good prophecies from the king's dreams were all slain (Daniel 2:12-14). The psychological select bias we mentioned previously in this text is surely playing a part here: The king merely stopped looking for answers to his dream when he found the answer he wanted and that seemed to make sense. We all do the same to our own dreams, producing many interpretations until we find one that we think fits. It is possible to do this with any dream, especially retrospectively. Once again, we know from dream diaries that predictions made in advance, about unguessable topics, are always incorrect.
Eckankar is a religion constructed purely out of positive, white-light, happy-sounding words but with very little sense. It derived largely from a Westernisation of the Punjabi Sant Mat tradition. It is a religion that tries its utmost best not to upset anyone at all. You don't even have to leave your current religion, they say, it'll help you understand it better! It was founded in the height of the hippy New Age and it accepts pretty much every New Age idea going. One estimate is that in the later 1990s there were 367 ECK centres worldwide. 164 of them in the USA and "estimates placed total membership at 50,000"8.
“The ultimate purpose of dreams is to bring the individual closer to the Light and Sound of God.”
"Eckankar: Ancient Wisdom for Today" (1995)9
Eckankar has a few sensible stances on dreams. On p30-31 of Eckankar: Ancient Wisdom for Today they warn that the images and symbols from our dreams are not universal for everyone - "You can find books in your local library telling you that water means this or that horses mean that. The dream teachings of Eckankar do not follow such a simplistic model". Although p1 says (quite correctly) that Eckankar's teachings are simple, their ideas on the subjectivity of dream symbolism is no doubt correct, and in this one area the teachings display an amount of critical thinking. They continue: "In ECK, each person is a unique individual. Therefore, the dream symbols used by each person are also unique. Swimming in a river may well have a different meaning for one person than it would for another. The key for the dreamer, then, is to go within and determine what each of these symbols mean."
Eckankar promotes the over-reading of otherwise insignificant events in dreams and in life, and their take on dream interpretation goes down the same road as Freudian analysis: piling abstract interpretations upon details of the dream in order to make it have important value. Moving into Soul Travel and Astral Plane type territory, it continues:
“There are many levels of dreaming. If the dreamer becomes aware he is in a dream, he may be able to take control of the experience. The dreamer may call upon the Mahanta and request spiritual instruction. Or the dreamer may choose to visit a Temple of Golden Wisdom on one of the other planes. In these cases, the experience can become more Soul Travel than dreaming.”
"Eckankar: Ancient Wisdom for Today" (1995)10
It started off with a little truth. With practice, and by doing things like keeping a dream journal, people can learn to lucid dream whereby they have more conscious control over the contents of a dream. This is the "realisation that you're dreaming" part. Eckankar no doubt encourages this, and, does indeed encourage people to keep a dream diary9. A person's dreams will often feature objects of their interest. If your favourite literature is full of descriptions of experiences with blue lights and mystical goings-on, and you train your recruits to engage in lucid dreaming, the sure result is that you will sometimes lucid-dream along the lines of what you've been reading. However, as Eckankar lore emphasizes over-analysing dreams, this subjective truth will probably be generally ignored.
Although dreams are rather thoroughly understood by neurologists and cognitive psychologists, Eckankar feels dreams ought to be a little zanier:
"While the body sleeps, the consciousness of Soul is awake. The memory of this experience is often called a dream. Dreams are as real and valid as the waking state. They simply occur on a different plane of existence. The reason so many of our dreams are confusing is that our memory becomes distorted. Upon waking, the dream experience is run through the dream censor, a function of our own mind."
"Eckankar: Ancient Wisdom for Today" (1995)11
The teachers of Eck have clearly been skipping biological psychology classes: experiments on the physical body have immediate effects on the contents of our dreams, and, biological chemistry is directly tied up with the intensity and mood of dreams. It simply can't be true that our dream-memories are formed when dreams are ran through a strange "dream censor". They also mention that the Mahanta, the inner form of the Living ECK Master, is the Dream Master12.
Dreams of Prophecy are revealed13 to be those that mystically and correctly predict the future. It gives a two-page example involving a horse losing a tooth. Psychologists who study dreams all have a similar complaint: as events occur, it is very easy to retrospectively concoct a prophecy because dreams are highly malleable in terms of meaning. As a result, declaring predictions based on dreams before the events occur is highly rare - psychologists report that statistically dreams are no more correct than chance guesses. Thankfully, the wise teachers of Eckankar offer a warning on p33: "It is best, however, to restrict your use of prophecy to your own personal life. The opportunity for misunderstanding symbols is great [and] it would probably be embarrassing" when you make wrong predictions concerning other people. The reason is that, of course, the scope for retrospective attribution of prophecy to dreams is great when it concerns personal events because you know so much about yourself that the chances of finding something that fits is very high. But try to make predictions for other people, and the magic suddenly disappears. It is these effects of subjective psychology and pareidolia which cause the failed warnings, not the "misunderstanding" of symbols".
It might mean that there is no free will, and that once a dream has occurred, all free will creases to exist - otherwise, how could anything in the present predict personal future? Or, somehow, information from the future has (for some reason) travelled back in time. Not only that, but the information has travelled back in time in a way that means a human brain can understand it. Why would information about the future do this? And why would it manifest in dreams? Information has no willpower of its own, no matter how important the vision. There are so many ramifications if dreams predicted the future, that more mundane explanations are much more likely. But these complicated implications are simply not on the mind of those who are persuaded that dreams can predict the future, because, they are convinced by simple ideas not by complicated realist ones.
The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. Book Review.
(1996) Shamanism. Paperback book. Published by Element Books.
(1995) Eckankar: Ancient Wisdom for Today. Paperback book. Subtitled: "How past lives, dreams, and Soul Travel help you find God". Originally published 1993 (I think). Current version published by ECKANKAR, Minneapolis, USA.
(1997) The Origin of Dreams. Hardback book.
Kaku, Michio. Professor of theoretical physics.
(2014) The Future of the Mind. E-book. Subtitled: "The Scientific Quest To Understand, Enhance and Empower the Mind". Amazon Kindle digital edition. Published by Penguin Books Ltd, London, UK.
Stenger, Prof. Victor J.
(2007) God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. Published by Prometheus Books, NY, USA. Stenger is a Nobel-prize winning physicist, and a skeptical philosopher whose research is strictly rational and evidence-based.