Making Sense of Dreams

Since the first recorded writings by human beings, and probably long before that, we have wondered about the meaning of dreams. In the last 150 years scientists have argued that dreams were either “just” meaningless artifacts of brain biochemistry, or were primarily important psychological mechanisms — a window to the subconscious mind. Modern thinkers in mind-body medicine have embraced the notion that dreams have important biological underpinnings, and are also important expressions of the unconscious mind. I embrace the idea of “both” rather than “either-or” and also recognize that some dreams are infused with a spiritual nature, so-called “lucid” dreams.

This is not an article that is an abbreviated “dictionary of dreams” in which you can look up a dream image, and then “know” what your dream meant. Those books are useful, but highly limited. Some dream images are archetypal symbols whose meanings remain the same worldwide. Other images are highly unique and are mainly a reflection of just that one person's psychological makeup. For one person the image of a snake can represent a real fear, and for another a sexual reference. For a third person the image of a snake might represent kundalini, “serpent power,” the raw chi, prana, or energy that lays dormant at the base of the spine, waiting for the spiritual awakening that allows kundalini energy to rise up the spine, potentially giving rise to very high spiritual states like samadhi or nirvana. I'm careful not to tell people what their dreams mean, for it is far better to help the individual find out for himself what his dream means.

Throughout history, around the world, dreams have been revered as a powerful tool for healing. In ancient Greece , people went to healing temples, worked with healers, and waited to sleep and perhaps to dream. The afflicted individual waited for both dreams and visions, and then the healer worked with those images to help restore the individual to wholeness.

In certain villages of Malaysia , every morning family members gather together to discuss their dreams. If someone harmed another person in a dream, he has to make amends in the waking, 3-dimensional world. He must approach that person, apologize, and perhaps make other amends. What a beautiful way to integrate the day and the night, the world of dreams, and the world of being “awake.”

In Eastern spiritual traditions, our “normal” consciousness is seen as a dream. When we wake up from a dream and open our eyes each morning, we know that we had been asleep. In similar fashion, when we fully wake up to spiritual truth, wake up into higher levels of consciousness, we realize that our everyday, normal consciousness had been a dream . . . as unreal to the super-conscious mind as a nighttime dream is to the ordinary mind. When one wakes up spiritually and “lives” in very high (or wide) states of consciousness, suffering, as we usually understand it, totally disappears. One may feel physical pain, but in an awakened state, we simply feel the pain, but do not suffer. We see that suffering is totally unnecessary and is generated by our everyday ego-mind state.

The Biology of Dreams

During medical school, I spent some time assisting a psychiatrist who was doing dream research. I poured over hours of sleep EEG's (electroencephalograms) as part of the research. I was gathering data to assist the research doctor. Part of what follows I learned from the medical school research.

Six Dream Elements:

1. Environment

If you are sleeping and a train goes by, or there is any kind of external sensory input, including sound, smell, temperature, and the like, those sensory experiences can make their way into your dreams. So, you may dream about trains, for example, something related to trains, or related to the sound you've just heard. You don't need to dig too deep in trying to understand these dreams. There is not much to understand.

2. Diet

What you just had for dinner can affect your dreams. There is a “gross” and a “subtle” nature to food and water. Our thoughts affect the subtle nature of food. Have you ever gone to a restaurant with a friend, gone to sleep, and then discovered that both of you had very strange dreams that just are “not like you?” The cook in the restaurant may have been in a very foul food, or may simply be someone whose overall level of consciousness is quite low. I won't quote the studies on non-local mind or the ability of the mind to affect physical objects, but that research has been done. When you wake up in the morning after having gone out to dinner the night before, and recall a dream that “just isn't me,” consider that it really has nothing to do with you. I have had this experience and I won't return to that particular restaurant. If you think this sounds crazy, ask a good friend or your partner if they've had this kind of experience.

3. Events of the Day

Part of the function of dreams is to integrate the day's experience into your brain/mind. If you received an award during the day, you might have a dream that relates to that award.

4. Personal Emotional State

Every night we have dreams that directly relate to our current state of mind. If you are in the middle of an unresolved conflict, your dreams will show that conflict, but the dream symbols may easily throw you off track, so that you don't recognize the “players” in the conflict. If you grew up with moderate to severe abuse, neglect, and/or sexual abuse, troublesome dreams are likely to be part of your dreams throughout your life . . . until you resolve those challenging issues.

5. Spiritual Influences

Some dreams are lucid, clear, and have a spiritual feeling. These dreams feel more real than normal reality. Lucid dreams may be prophetic. You may receive direct guidance about an issue in your life. If you've had a lucid dream, you know that it is a very different experience than all of your other dreams. You may be totally aware that you are dreaming during a lucid dream. Take these dreams seriously. If there is information or inspiration that you experience, take appropriate action . . . or just bask in the glow that these dreams leave you with.

Transforming the Hard Drive

The 6th aspect of dreams is that they integrate the events of the previous day into the fabric of your life. This is more than just having a memory or two of the day pop up in your dream. It is astonishing how much of our daily events get “put into long-term storage” in our brain. To begin thinking about the process, consider that your brain has hardware and software. The part of the brain called the hippocampus is the software that decides if an event is worth keeping, and if so, the hippocampus helps move the memory into permanent, long-term storage. It is as if our brain is a gigantic hard drive that stores a lifetime of information. Every night more information is added to that hard drive.

But memory is complex. Before proposing a comprehensive theory of dreams, we need to first understand that we go through several periods of dreaming each night. Whether you remember your dreams or not, you are dreaming.

In sleep studies, one finds that there are at least 3 main bursts of REM sleep (rapid eye movement). It is during REM sleep when we are dreaming. If a person is hooked up to an EEG and woken up when the EEG indicates REM sleep, that person will be waking up from a dream. If he's not in REM sleep, he will not have been dreaming. The average adult is in REM sleep between 90 and 120 minutes per night. If you wake up from a dream shortly after you have fallen asleep, you will recall a dream that is relatively realistic and understandable. If you wake up from a dream early in the morning, you are likely to remember a dream that is highly symbolic, full of images and events that may not make the slightest sense to you. I'll explain why shortly.

To return to our computer and hard-drive metaphor. You might think at first that our mega-brain computer simply stores the data of each day's experience in a “hard-drive” with nearly infinite storage capacity.

The human computer's hard-drive, in my model, is changed . . . every night. You see, our memory storage is not a static piece of metal and silicon chips. As human beings, our minds are made up of beliefs, emotion, passions, mission and vision, thoughts, habitual ways of thinking, acting, and feeling. Each event of the day has to be integrated into the totality of who you already are. Your sleeping brain will examine each event, in terms of, not only just what happened, but also the meaning of the event. Your brain-mind has to compare today's event with the rest of your entire life, since birth, and must determine if the meaning that you attributed to any event is consistent with your overall belief system.

Each event will be put into memory by including all the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches; all your thoughts and emotions about the event; and your belief about what the event meant. That is a lot of information that you have to sort out for virtually everything that happened in just one day. It is highly likely that many things that happen never make it into long-term memory, because they just lack any importance or emotion, and your brain-mind does not want to be cluttered with unnecessary memories.

So, each night, the events of the day are being stored in your hard-drive while the hard-drive itself becomes flexible enough to make each event a consistent part of the totality of who you are. What if something happened that you assigned a certain meaning to while you were awake, but when your brain-mind was assessing that event during sleep, determined that your whole being is in disagreement with how you consciously interpreted that event. Well, something must give. Your brain-mind may choose to alter the details of the event to fit into who you are and not set you into conflict. Or your brain-mind may go through a series of complex operations in which your hard-drive makes tiny adjustments, in belief and meaning, so that the event can be remembered . . . and you can remain whole and relatively conflict-free. In other words, the hard drive itself not only stores new memories, it is changed by integrating those memories.

Each morning you wake up a slightly changed person for, during REM sleep, your dreams have integrated each event with everything that ever happened in your life, seamlessly integrating the inside world and the outside world.

During the first phase of REM sleep, your dreams are pretty realistic and may reflect the events of the day in a fairly accurate way. There are several phases of dreaming. The last phase of dreaming is strange, symbolic, and often nearly impossible to understand. Now, think of the process of your brain-mind hard-drive integrating one entire day into one entire life. At first the events begin to get absorbed in a factual way during the first set of dreams. By the end of the night your brain-mind has examined all the issues of belief and meaning of the day's events, and through symbols, you can integrate one day's events into the rest of your life.

The reason symbols do what they do is because a symbol can represent hundreds of things at once. During these highly symbolic dreams, the hard-drive is opening up to invite in the new events, and it has to change in some minor ways. Symbols are very powerful and they allow the complex integration of “Old Self” with “New Events.” During the final phases of REM sleep, your brain-mind may choose to forget certain aspects of an event . . . or your brain-mind may “absorb and digest” the event. In order to accommodate reality, the events of the day as well as your hard-drive may both be slightly altered.

If during the dream process, major discrepancies are observed between what actually happened and your lifelong belief system, you will be in conflict. You may have nightmares, for the brain-mind may be being asked to make a change that is extremely difficult. The bottom line is that you wake up each morning as whole as ever, but, at the same time, your brain-mind has slightly changed itself in order to remain whole. That's a lot of work, and this theory helps explain why dreaming is so important. The reason that “you” still remain essentially the same “you” each morning, even though your hard-drive has changed, is that the “true you” is the spirit or soul. The spirit is eternal, unchanging, and is not part of the mind's memory processing.

Dream Analysis

Dream analysis is so complex, it is an entire field. Here are some things you can do without going into counseling:

1. You can purchase dream dictionaries, and I suggest you buy more than one. Look up the various dream images and see if the dictionary interpretations make sense to you.

2. Write down all the people, objects, and symbols in a dream. Close your eyes and begin to interact with each person or symbol, one at a time. Imagine that you give each symbol a voice, so that you can begin a dialogue. Ask each symbol what it wants, what it needs, and what it has to teach you.

3. Switch places with the symbol and “become” the symbol. Notice what your thoughts, emotions and beliefs are when you become the symbol.

4. Switch back to “being yourself.” Continue the dialogue with the symbol and see if there is more to be learned.

5. Allow various symbols to dialogue with each other.

6. Imagine the basic setting in which the dream took place. If you can't recall a setting, make one up, and then place all the people and symbols into that setting. But now, you are “running the dream.” Place the symbols in the setting in a way that you sense will bring more information, and will bring resolution and healing to the whole scene.

7. Creative Re-Dreaming- You may or may not need someone to guide you through the process of creative re-dreaming in which you close your eyes and reenter the dream. Experience yourself in the dream, and see events playing out just as they did in the dream. If you sense yourself fighting something, struggling to get away from something or someone, you have several choices. You can ask yourself why you are engaged in the struggle and what you are afraid of. You may choose to give yourself wings to fly away or legs that can help you run like a cheetah.

Here is a brief summary of a session with a woman, Sylvia, I worked with in which I invited her to step back into her dream. The essence of the dream was a fire around which some strange beings were running in a circle. She too was running in that circle, afraid she would fall into the fire. Over the course of 15 to 20 minutes, she grew more and more tired running around the fire, fearing she would fall in. Sylvia began to experience a desire to fall into the fire, and eventually she gave in to that desire.

When Sylvia “fell into the fire,” she immediately began to rise out of the fire like a phoenix. She saw herself flying over countrysides, over mountains, until she landed on the highest mountain top. When she landed and rested, she soon discovered that Jesus was sitting next to her, at which point she burst into tears, overcome with peace and love. At that point, I simply encouraged her to remain in that state for as long as she chose. Needless to say, she was able to transform a nightmare into a profoundly positive, spiritual experience. This should give you an idea for how you too can reenter a dream . . . and re-dream it.

As with most things in life, you run into trouble when you try to make something only one thing and not another. Those who argue that dreams are entirely a biological process, or entirely a psychological process, are simply not seeing the whole picture. Dreams are both physical and psychological . . . and they are more. They can be the mental state in which spiritual experiences can sneak up on you, giving you a gift that is often quite difficult to experience during normal awareness.

David Gersten, M.D. practices Transpersonal Psychiatry, Nutritional Medicine, and Interactive Guided Imagery out of his Encinitas office and can be reached at 760-633-3063. Please feel free to access 1,000 on-line pages about holistic health, amino acids, and nutritional therapy at


Dear Louise

Dear Louise,

I moved to my home six months ago, and there is a serious problem with spiders. Can you please tell me what belief created this situation and how I can clear it?

U.R.., Houston, Texas

Dear U.R.,

Well, spiders have been around a lot longer than people, so I wonder how they felt about your becoming a serious problem in their home. You've probably inherited someone else's spider problem. It may have little to do with you. These critters aren't the enemy; they're just trying to co-exist. Spiders are actually very beneficial since they keep away many other insects. However, we do all want to live in harmony.

I would suggest that you talk to them. Tell them how much you appreciate them and how well they took care of the home before you came. Now it's time for them all to move on and find a new place to live. Give them two weeks to move or you'll have to take other action. I'm sure most of them will be gone by then. Once the home is clear, affirm: I always live in harmony with all of life.


Dear Louise,

I have a friend who's been diabetic for the last ten years. She eats well and takes care of herself, but lately (the last six months), she's had extreme sugar highs and lows that neither she nor her doctors can explain. I'm very concerned for her. She isn't into the metaphysical, but I wanted to introduce the idea of a daily affirmation to her and see if she likes it. I was wondering if you had any suggestions.

P.A., Toronto Canada

Dear P.A.,

There are several patterns relating to diabetes that shows up in people: a feeling that they don't deserve to have their needs met and that they have no sweetness or joy in their lives; feeling like martyrs due to childhood neglect; and worry, anxiety, and/or fears about survival. Any one of these could be surfacing now to cause the setback. In addition to eating well, she needs to forgive the past and all those who she feels may have hurt her.

Forgiveness opens the door to the heart, and your friend needs to have the love flowing from her own heart, enveloping her being. The love and acceptance she's seeking reside within her. Going to the mirror a few times a day saying “I love you, I really, really love you!” would bring sweetness and joy into her life, and her body would balance out.


Dear Louise,

My mom just found out that she has ovarian cancer. How can I help her . . . how can she feel better?

H.B., Brazil

Dear H.B.,

The ovaries represent the creative flow in a woman. Many women are completely fulfilled in this need to create by having children. Others need to express this desire even more by having additional creative outlets. What has your mother always wanted to do but felt she couldn't because . . . [fill in the blank]? It would be wonderful if you could get her to take up a hobby. It would shift the negative energy within her. Although she may be filled with fear at this time, this mind-set can be changed. Also, I've suggested this affirmation to thousands of people, and it's made a big difference in their lives: Every hand that touches my body is a healing hand. All is well. Everything is working out for my highest good. Out of this situation only good will come. I am safe.

Louise L. Hay is a metaphysical teacher and the bestselling author of numerous books, including You Can Heal Your Life , Empowering Women, and I Can Do It! . Subscribe to the Louise Hay Newsletter! Call for a Free Issue: (800) 654-5126. Questions for Louise? Write to: Dear Louise Column, c/o Hay House, Inc., P.O. Box 5100, Carlsbad, CA 92018-5100 (letters may be edited for length and clarity). Visit Louise and Hay House at: or