Throughout recorded history and likely before that, people have found deep meaning in dreams. In ancient Egypt, dreams were a way for deities to communicate with the dreamer. Native American cultures viewed the dream space as a sacred one, where a person could step outside the bonds of mundane existence and connect with a more universal consciousness.
And in Australian Aboriginal mythology, the ancestral spirits dreamed the world, including their own forms, into existence. The Aboriginal name for this period of creation – common across many dialects and languages – loosely translates as Dreamtime, or The Dreaming.
Our modern understand of dreams – and the belief that our unconscious wandering is linked to our waking state and who we are as people – really began in the mid-20th century. Influential psychologist Carl Jung said dreaming held the keys to unlocking our true happiness and sense of purpose.
Then there’s Sigmund Freud, whose dream theory is rooted in the idea that we all need a way to express or vicariously fulfil our wishes and desires. Which is probably why I recently awoke with dread from a vivid dream where I was once married to my ex, feeling out-of-sorts and slightly guilty.
Peering over at my husband, I wondered why he’d popped into my dreams. What did it mean?
Freud’s work may have been widely dismissed, mainly because most of his clinical analysis was based on people with serious psychological issues, but his thoughts on dreams still have influence. Many of us still wonder if what we dream is what we truly desire.
Of course, the truth is that the purpose of dreaming is still a mystery in many ways. And decoding them is huge for the scientific community studying sleep. There are massive conferences, sleep institutes, scientific journals and hundreds of millions spent every year as researchers continue to dig into our dreams. Here’s what we know.