Everyone dreams. Whether they’re remembered or not, dreams occur when the brain enters a state of rapid eye movement (R.E.M., like the band) sleep. The occurrence is natural, subconscious, and, if you take it from the National Sleep Foundation, happens up to six times per night to fully-grown adults. And yet, despite the ubiquity of dreams, few people know what they actually mean.
Enter: dream interpretation, an ancient art and—recently, thanks to a parade of well-degreed researchers entering the field—novel science that aims to creative a collective understanding of what we’re all seeing on a nightly basis. From endless falling to alien abductions to that naked-in-a-crowd nightmare, some of the more common dreams out there mean things. And no, it’s not always crystal clear, at first, what they’re trying to say. But if you know how to analyze them, you’ll discover some fascinating insights into yourself—and the world around you. Here’s how to start.
If you’re dreaming of flying in a plane or air travel in some way, your dream is trying to tell you that you are feeling the effects of fast changes in your life. Psychologist and dream expert Michael Lennox explains in his book Dream Sight: A Dictionary and Guide for Interpreting Any Dream that, “Because of the dramatic way an airplane leaves the ground and speeds toward a destination, it is connected with any sudden transition in life.” It may not just be alerting you to the fact that you are going through serious changes, but that change “is needed or wished for. As a plane is our world’s fastest mode of public transportation, it connects symbolically to those moments in life where change is rapid and total.”
According to Lennox, seeing an alien (as in one of those big-eyed, willowy creatures from The X-Files) in a dream reflects some unknown or mysterious part of your own personality. Whether you are encountering it in an everyday situation or have been abducted in the dream, “The more fear you feel in the dream, the more frightened you may be of the changes that are occurring.”
Lennox notes that amputations or missing limbs are a typical theme that appear in one’s dreams, and indicate some sense of lacking in ability or mobility. If you’re missing feet it “relates to an inability to be grounded on your path, whereas missing an entire leg or both legs connects to being completely stopped on your path.”
A more extreme kind of missing body part that you might experience is the loss of your head. According to Lennox, that’s a sign of “an eradication of a thought process, or to your sense of identity.”
If you are being intimate with a coworker in your dream, it does not necessarily mean you have a crush on them. According to dream analyst and the host of The Dream Show podcast, Jane Teresa Anderson, it may say more about them having “positive qualities you admire” that you “welcome in your own life.” That’s right: your sex dream could be about admiration—not lust!
Psychologist Ian Wallace, who has interpreted no fewer than 150,000 dreams over his three decades of practice, has found that unused or empty rooms that you dream about might be telling you that you’ve got untapped talents. As he told The Independent, “The more time that you spend exploring your dormant talents, the more likely that you will find other doors opening for you in waking life.”
If that unused room is accompanied by feelings of discomfort or fear, it might represent something very different, according to Anderson: “If you go into the room and it’s spooky or scary, that means in the past 1-2 days you’ve realized something about yourself that’s unexpected. It can be something old that you haven’t look at before. It could be any aspect of your life—your job, a relationship—that you’ve shut the door on. It’s about trying to open that door, even if you’re scared.”
If you’ve got an out-of-control car in your dreams—maybe you’re trapped in one or have one coming at you—it may mean that “you don’t have enough control over your road to success,” according to Wallace. He suggests, “Instead of trying to over control the situation…relax your grip and allow your fundamental instincts and drives to steer the best path for you.”
But a car in one’s dreams could indicate the opposite, as well. Wallace explains that, “The car represents your ability to make consistent progress toward a specific objective.” So if a dream features a car progressing steadily and consistently, things might be moving along just as they should be in your life.
Sometimes you might dream that you are missing your car or on the search for it. The lack of a car has a symbolic resonance about one’s career or ability to get where we want to go, according to Wallace. “If we dream about searching for our car, then we have lost our drive and ambition in waking life and are looking for ways to recover it and continue on our journey.”
Animals can often appear in your dream and can vary in their significance or what they make you feel—a fierce bear is going to indicate something distinct from a high-flying hawk. But according to Lennox, any time an animal appears it may be an indication that your dream is “asking you to stop trying to think your way through a situation and turn instead toward your instinctive nature for an answer.”
Having a house in your dream usually connects back to your sense of self, with different rooms representing different aspects of yourself, so dreaming of an attic usually relates to your intellect or memories—and a “musty, dirty atmosphere means you are in realms that you haven’t visited in a while,” according to Lennox, which can indicate “unhealthy avoidance.”
Dreaming about a baby is usually a sign that you are reflecting on burgeoning potential or “some new chapter in your life that is just beginning and has yet to unfold into full manifestation,” as Lennox puts it. Of course, since a baby is also helpless and needs to be cared for, Lennox also emphasizes that an infant in a dream brings up thoughts of the “intense responsibilities associated with” a baby.
If you’re dream consists of you being literally unable to find your shoes, chances are you’re having difficulty deciding what your position is on a topic—an important decision you have to make or may be faced with, something that causes you to “consider [your] values and where [you] stand in a certain situation.”
If we’ve misplaced something of value in our dream or spend the dream trying to find something and fail to do it, it may be that we feel a sense of lower value in our life. As Wallace puts it, “If we are looking for our purse or wallet, then we are reflecting on our value to others as we may feel that we have lost some self-esteem in waking life.”
According to Wallace: “When we search for other people in our dreams, we are trying to reconnect with aspects of our own identities that we have lost touch with.”
If you have a dream about striking it rich or winning the lottery, you’re feeling pretty good about life or have gained a “sudden awareness of the richness of the self,” as Wallace puts it. “This richness can be an understanding of the wisdom the dreamer has gained, or a realization of their value to others.” In other words, not so much material as spiritual wealth.
If you dream of falling in love or a having a passionate tryst, it may be because you lack this kind of intimacy and passion in your waking life. According to Wallace, dreaming about falling in love, “can be triggered when we are about to fall in love with a potential lover in our waking life, or in an existing relationship, where inadequate love is being received and our uniqueness seems to be ignored.”
We’ve all likely felt the sensation of falling in a dream. Though this might make you think that you need to get a tighter grip and hang on, according to Wallace, the opposite is true. It’s a sign “you are hanging on too tightly to a particular situation in waking life. You need to relax and let go of it.”
While falling is an indication that something is amiss, flying in a dream is usually a sign that you’ve freed yourself from something frustrating or difficult. As Wallace puts it, the feeling of flying “suggests that you have released yourself from circumstances that have been weighing you down in waking life… Although you may regard this feeling of liberation as just luck or coincidence, it is usually because you have managed to make a weighty decision or risen above the limitations of a heavy responsibility.”
Flying might not always be a pleasant experience, however. If you’re flying in a dream but feel scared or see an object or obstacle in front of you, it may be that you feel something is holding you back or preventing you from accomplishing something you are attempting. “You feel that something is taking off but it’s not quite there yet,” says Anderson. “It could be a relationship or a job—it’s the details in the dream that really explore your feelings on a deeper level.”
If you die in a dream, or feel like you are dying, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are afraid of dying in life or have some terminal illness you didn’t realize. It may just mean that something in your life is coming to an end: “Dreaming about death often means that you feel something is coming to an end in your life,” says Anderson. “But that being said, how you react to the death in the dream can mean different things.”
If you experience death in a dream and you feel at peace with it, Anderson says that, “you have an ‘out with the old and in with the new’ attitude” and “it could be something that you’re ready to let go from.”
Alternately, if you feel a pang of anxiety or even panic at the thought of death in your dream (or, as Anderson puts it, “I need to resuscitate this thing that is falling apart”), it may be that “you’re not quite there yet” and uncomfortable with letting go.
If you miss a plane or train in your dream, arriving just as it takes off and leaving you standing on the platform or tarmac, it may be that you feel you are being weighed down by too many other commitments. As Wallace puts it, “You may be taking on too much in your waking life in order to achieve the fulfilment you desire. You can reach your goals more effectively by being more aware of your deeper priorities, and leaving unnecessary baggage behind. Listen to your own internal rhythms instead of constantly trying to beat the clock.”
Your subconscious might be feeling frustrated that you can’t connect with someone in your life the way you used to—and this may manifest itself in a dream in which you are dialing a wrong number. “This suggests that a logical way of communicating with someone, or a specific personal behavior used when being with a particular person, is not really working any more,” says Wallace. “It is also experienced in dreams about computers or calculators where the dreamer keeps pressing the wrong buttons. This reflects that what they are doing in waking life just doesn’t really add up.”
You’re standing in the middle of a crowd, at work, or in some other public place—completely naked. Though you’re relieved when you realize it was all a dream, you might want to think about your feelings of vulnerability. According to Wallace, “Being naked in public suggests that there is a situation in waking life that is making you feel vulnerable and exposed.” It might be time for you to take an improv class or seek another way to get comfortable opening up to others.
Just as being naked indicates vulnerability, having bare feet gets to a similar sense in your subconscious—but with a more direct connection to the steps you are taking in life (literally). It can “indicate issues around how you are maneuvering through your current life choices,” according to Lennox. “If you are exposed to the elements, it leaves them vulnerable to injury. This can have a great impact on your journey and how you get to where you intend to go.”
Birds have been symbolic messengers of information going back centuries and their appearance in your dreams can still be an indication that you are expecting to hear from someone or receive a message. Lennox points to beliefs going back to Nordic mythology, where Odin, the head of the pantheon, was accompanied by a pair of all-seeing ravens that “would travel through the world of men and bring back important information.”
Suffering blindness in a dream usually indicates that we sense we are overlooking something in our life or worry we aren’t able to see something. As Lennox puts it, “By dreaming of the inability to see, you may be expressing areas in your life that you may be blind to…You may be dreaming of a situation in your life, or your personality, where you have a blind spot. You may have to go beyond what the eyes can see in a situation to determine how to respond authentically.”
While some might dream of fights or athletic competitions, if you are someone who has board games appear in your dreams, you are more likely someone who prefers “a civilized approach to expressing competitive impulses and conflict-solving skills,” according to Lennox. If you’re playing Monopoly or Scrabble in your mind, it may be a sign that you prefer some emotional distance to actual confrontation, and the more structured, rules-based logic to conflict that board games bring.
While we might usually think of bombs as a destructive force, often when explosions happen in your dreams, it shows that you are experiencing or ready for major change. Lennox advises looking at the specific context in which a bomb detonates, and how effectively it destroys its target.
“Whatever or whomever was hunted or destroyed will supply you with the meaning you should assign the symbol,” he says. “The area of life that is suggested by the target is the area of your life that needs a drastic change.”
Another classic dream scenario is the feeling of showing up for an exam and realizing you are totally unprepared for it. Maybe you feel like you studied for the wrong subject or you can’t even understand the words in front of you, but the likely source of the feeling is that “you are critically examining your own performance in waking life,” according to Wallace.
Having the unprepared-for-an-exam dream is also the sign of something positive: you are a high performer who is used to working hard and doing things right. That’s the conclusion of Anderson, who says that those who have the dream are usually the people who perform well and that, “It’s your fear of being unprepared that actually drives you to being totally ready to perform.”
Maybe you care too much about others or are ignoring your own desires or needs, but if you have a sense that you are not addressing your own needs, a typical dream you’re likely to have is one in which you’re trying—and failing—to find a toilet. “Toilets are what we use to cleanly respond to some of our most fundamental needs, so there is an issue in waking life where you are finding it a challenge to clearly express your own needs,” according to Wallace.
Dreams of needing to use the bathroom likewise can mean that “you literally want to let the crap out of your life. It’s about decluttering and letting go—you want to release something or someone,” according to Anderson.
Of course, it may be that you actually do need a toilet, and your dreams will alert you to this fact with dreams of water or in which you are seeking out a bathroom in vain. So it may just be that you need to wake up and hit the head before you wet the bed.
Dreams can sometimes torment you with images of you accused of a crime or having committed murder or a less serious breach of the law. These kind of situations usually arise from a sense that you are hiding something yourself in your waking life—and it isn’t always something negative. “The crime we have committed usually represents a conscious choice that we have made in waking life to ignore some of our individual needs and talents in order to gain social acceptance,” according to Wallace.
If you have a large house in your dreams or spend your dreams going through doors and discovering new spaces, it “indicates that exploring the initial possibility will lead onto a number of other exciting opportunities and give you the chance to expand well beyond where you are just now,” according to Wallace. It’s telling you that, “You need to be open to opportunity and not close the door on any chances that you create. As you begin to explore one talent, you often start to become aware of other possibilities for using your unique abilities.”
It may be that events in your life are swirling around you in a way that you feel you have no control, or that you’ve lost a job and with it, your feeling that you were guiding the direction of events has dissipated. The result might be that you dream of losing your teeth. As Wallace tells The Independent, “Your teeth symbolize how confident and powerful you feel, so some situation is causing your confidence to crumble in waking life.”
If you’re running away from something in your dream, “There is an issue in your waking life that you want to confront, but you don’t know how to,” according to Wallace. If you’re having a dream of this kind, your dreams may be trying to tell you that it’s time to face your fears and pursue something that you have been putting aside.
If you’re ready to move into a new chapter in your life or to make a change—but without losing touch with your past—the image of a bridge is likely to appear in your dreams. According to Lennox, the primary meaning of bridges in dreams “relates to the connections we make in life, hence the warning in the phrase don’t burn your bridges.” If the water below is especially rough, it might mean you’re uncomfortable with the change.
If you’re feeling a creative spark or an innovative idea just struck you, then the image of a candle might appear in your dreams. “When we light a candle, we are committing an act of creation,” says Lennox. He says that a candle can indicate the beginning of some important event or relationship in our life or a sense of creative richness. Of course, if the candle is blown out, it can mean the end of something.
If you’re climbing in your dream, straining as you make it up the side of a mountain inch by inch, it may be a signal that you are someone who likes a challenge and the opportunity to take a journey that, while difficult, promises a reward at the end.
Back to the dream house: If you are exploring a closet or looking at what’s inside an enclosed cabinet, it could indicate that you are hiding something or ashamed of it. “What you discover in a closet should be viewed through the focus of something you are hiding from or not wanting to face,” says Lennox. “A full or overstuffed closet may point to avoidance issues that need attention.”
Images of a farm or cowboys can indicate that you have a self-reliant nature. As Lennox explains, “Working on a farm points to a call to action to dig deeper and take responsibility for getting your needs met. Owning a farm connects to how responsible you are to your self-nurturing and perhaps the dependence of others upon you for such needs.”
If you’ve filled your schedule with too many things and have a sense of overwhelm about it all, you may find yourself dreaming of divorce. Don’t despair that a divorce dream points to a loveless marriage or irreconcilable differences. According to Wallace, it may simply be giving you the message that “you are trying to balance your commitments and honor the promises you have made to other people. It can be difficult to service all these obligations and it can become very easy for you to start to feel out of balance.”
Whether you’ve taken a new job or agreed to attend an event where you are not totally sure what will be expected of you, a sense that you are committing to something which you are unsure about may be indicated in a dream with a feeling of being married to an unknown person. “Not knowing the identity of the bride or groom suggests you are unsure what you are really committing yourself to, and that you doubt that you will have much time for yourself if you take on these commitments,” says Wallace.
If you’re someone who responds to being part of a team or being part of something larger than yourself, you might have dreams where you’re a professional athlete, according to Wallace. A dream where you’re competing in the big leagues, “reflects their acceptance into a wider society where in order to have their skills and talents recognized, they will have to work as part of a team, and this will help them to ultimately achieve their goals.”
If you find yourself tongue-tied in your dream, unable to speak or as if there is a gag in our mouth (or maybe a bunch of chewing gum), Wallace suggests that it’s related to “an unresolved tension in our waking lives where we really want to say what’s on our mind and to speak and be heard.” He suggests considering the situations in waking life where we feel “ignored or have no way to make our opinions heard” and see if there is a better way to communicate or a way to do so that would help us feel “heard.”