What Do Dreams Mean? Dreams Provide a Window Into Our Character


“It was gloomy and cloudy. The forest was filled with darkness. A grotesque ogre was chasing me through a primordial forest. I was running down a dirt path surrounded by gnarled trees and overhanging vines. The misshapen giant took one step to my three. Fortunately, I was faster and more cunning. It was certain if he caught me, I’d be torn apart.

“The chase went on and on and on. There were several close calls and narrow escapes. I sped up to put some distance between us and got out of sight. I spied a tree with an enormous branch overhanging the path and climbed up. I positioned myself on the branch and prepared to pounce on the ogre when he came running by. I had with me a broomstick to be used as a spear. Soon enough, he lumbered up the path after me. Holding on to the branch, I swung down, kicked him with all my might, and knocked him over. I stood over him and clasped my hands together on the broomstick. I raised it above my head and plunged it through his chest into the earth.

“At that point I awakened, my heart pounding out of my chest. I was sitting up in bed with my hands outstretched in front of me in the spearing position. The muscles of my hands and arms were taught and tense from the violence.

“I felt a surge of triumph, having killed him in hand-to-hand combat. I was so relieved to be safe from the monster. Despite the fact I sort of knew it was a dream, I was sure I had actually done it. In the next moment, I thought, Oh my God, I’ve just killed someone. What kind of person am I? What’s going to happen to me? Will I go to prison?

“In a while, the lingering reality of the dream dissipated. It became more fully clear that it was ‘just a dream.’ I noticed that the anxiety I had felt before I went to sleep had disappeared. And I felt enormous relief to just feel good again.”

Eddie, the dreamer, was a quiet, studious, even-tempered senior in college. That afternoon he had an argument with his professor. Although the professor was in error, Eddie was forced to submit to his authority. For the rest of the evening he was subject to a nameless anxiety that he felt gnawing away in his chest. He had a hard time falling asleep that night.

How is it that Eddie went to bed that night and was awakened eight hours later by killing a monster in a dream? How did this alive drama get created? Where did this cast of characters, the landscape, set design, costumes, props, relationship, and plot come from?

Dreams have fascinated people from the beginning of time. People believe dreams foretell the future; that they have psychological meanings; that we commune with spirits and the dead; that the are visitations from ancestors; that dreams make prophesies and are filled with omens and auguries. They are steeped in mystery, as if written in some kind of secret code, decipherable to a special few.

In fact, dreams are not about any of the above. Their function is a biological application to clean out the residues of yesterday’s play of consciousness in order to prepare to be at its best for the upcoming new day. Its work takes place during REM sleep. All of its operations utilize the imagination in the theater of consciousness. Consciousness is organized as a living drama in the theater of the brain. It is an entire representational world that consists of a cast of characters, who relate together by feeling, as well as scenarios, plots, set designs, and landscape. The reason why dreams have meaning to us is because they are written from our plays of consciousness. The plays define our character. And, as we shall see, there is much we can learn from them.

During sleep, all the organ systems do their metabolic night’s work—digestion, detoxification, cleansing waste products, cellular repair, cell growth, immunological activity, etc. Likewise, the sleep function in our most important organ, the brain, is also for the detoxification and restoration of our consciousness itself. In order for consciousness to be at its best and, open to take on tomorrow’s challenges, it must digest and detoxify conflicts stirred during the previous day and recent past. Dreaming operates on the level of images — This is where the work of dreaming takes place. [See – “Dreaming and Consciousness: What is the function of dreaming and how does it operate?”]

Consciousness, no longer operative in the theater of reality, now operates in a living theater of the brain, doing its sleep work. No longer tied to reality, the curtain is lifted onto this inner theater. A drama, triggered by the events of the day, is now onstage. Untethered to reality, it writes its own play, giving us a window into the unadulterated nature of consciousness itself. Inner dramas triggered by the day’s conflicts are the stuff of dreams.

It is through the enactments of the dream story that consciousness does its sleep work. Consciousness, in dreams, is not just a reductive brain rehash. Dreams are an alive, creative production of consciousness. Dream enactments take place in the living moment, as do the productions of waking consciousness. It is also essential to realize that the actual work of a dream is enacted in sleep and has no reference to wakefulness at all. A dream is not dreamed to be seen by an awake person—it is not a production to be shown in your local movie theater, on HBO, or on YouTube. It is purely intended to be shown on the brain’s projection screen in sleep. The brain routinely does its REM sleep work unremembered. We dream five times a night and only a minor fraction of them are remembered. If the purpose of dreams were for us to acquire information about our waking selves, remembering far less than 1 percent of them in some seemingly secret code would be woefully inefficient. This cannot be the purpose of dreaming. Nature does not work this way.

REM sleep is a trance state. There are five trance states in sleep each with a specific function and a specific brain wave pattern. Likewise in wakefulness, also a trance, we have a beta brain wave pattern. Our total consciousness is composed of these shifting synthetic trance states operating throughout the twenty-hour hour cycle. The only reason we remember dreams is an unintended by-product of a blur in the trance shift on awakening between the REM trance and the trance of wakefulness.

All of consciousness is a synthetic illusion which we believe to be real. The images of both wakefulness and dreaming, are created by the imagination. ‘Image-ination’ is the creation of images. Our brain creates living, feeling images of people. It utilizes its regular pathways to create these hallucinated illusions within the REM trance. These alive-seeming personas are created by webs of neuronal connections that loop all throughout the architecture of the brain—through the amygdala and the hippocampus, etc., the limbic feeling centers; the frontal lobes, the judgment center, the temporal lobes, the center of a sense of realness; the salient memory cortex; the various brain nuclei and ganglia; the body mapping centers, both cortical and subcortical, creating the presence of bodies; the auditory and thinking centers; and the vision centers to create the seen dream movie. The webs of these connected neurons create an activated brain map of neural constellations of webs of constellations that take form as images

The brain creates representational images at around age three. At this point these synthetic images are taken to be real. In waking life, we use reality as our projection screen where we believe our neurological projections to be real. We think we believe what we see. In fact, we see what we believe. Likewise, dreams are experienced as just as real as in waking life. In this case we inhabit the projection of images on the screen of the theater of consciousness itself.

The central element of the work of dreams is to digest emotional conflict that has been stirred up during the day. As such it is the major subject of our dreams. Consequently, the limbic system is central to dream formation.

Explication of the dream:

The meaning of the dream is as follows: The anxiety that generated the dream derived from the argument with the professor. The way a dream operates is that the surface conflict is like the crust of a piece of pie. The deeper meaning of the dream cuts all the way to the center of the pie, to his core. Eddie re-enacts a form of the already established internal play to digest the surface conflict. The feeling relatedness in Eddie’s dream is one of sadomasochism. The ogre, a monomaniacal bully, hates Eddie. He is stalking Eddie in order to kill him. Eddie is in the masochistic position of this relationship. He is threatened, terrified, humiliated, and impotent. By his actions later in the dream, it is clear that the masochist in this relationship is also filled with hatred and murderous rage. The limbic system clearly creates the feeling relationship between dream characters.

The inner context for the dream, then, was a story that already existed inside Eddie. This story and inner world derived from Eddie’s formative emotional experience with his mother and father. The emotional conflict with the professor resonated with this inner story. The surface of his inner story was the problematic relationship with his father, who was an arrogant, self-involved, and cruel man. Eddie spent his childhood hopelessly seeking his father’s approval but to no avail. When Eddie sought approval from his professor, sure enough, his hopes were dashed once again. He was forced to submit to unresponsive disapproval from male authority.

More profoundly, the inner story of Eddie and his father telescoped to the more disturbing relationship with his mother. Hers was a secret world of physical and emotional sadism and violence. In fact, his father’s humiliations were an extension of the core violations by his mother. Eddie’s experience of his father was already filtered by what had come before. The relationship between Eddie and his mother was one of unadulterated sadomasochism. Mother related to Eddie by her sadistic and violent rage. As the masochistic object of this rage, Eddie was on the receiving end of unrelenting physical and emotional abuse, cruelty, humiliation, and threat. He was helpless, impotent, and intimidated.

We can see that the Ogre figure is a combination of the professor, his father, and centrally his mother. The fight with the professor elicited this inner context, where Eddie was subject to a humiliating victimizer who had all the power. The dream story unfolded and was written through this prism. A dream is not a documentary of past experience. Eddie’s dream was not a literal replay of the trauma of Mother’s beatings and humiliation. But clearly, the drama of Eddie and Mommy Dearest was the foundation of the dream.

In scene two of the dream, Eddie surmounted the humiliation and enacted his true inner aggression toward Mother. Now, instead of being the humiliated, terrified, impotent one, Eddie rose up and turned the tables. He choose fight over flight. Through the dream plot, Eddie digested the professor’s humiliation by doing to his ogre mother what he couldn’t do in real life. He killed the relentlessly cruel monster. This reversed and dissipated his anxiety state. The argument with the professor had triggered this inner context. The drama of sadistic mother and maso-sadistic Eddie was inside all along. The dream gave form to this inner drama as the context for doing the work of detoxifying the day’s conflict. In the dream, Eddie triumphed in the fight, and the conflict was resolved. The murder reversed Eddie’s feeling of impotence that came from his failed attempts to defeat his ogre-mother. There are times when a dream may fail to undo the anxiety. In this case Eddie would have had a nightmare, an anxiety dream, which did occur frequently.

The dream creation of the broomstick as the murder weapon was drawn from two “feeling” sources: Eddie, when troubled as a child used to climb his grandmother’s apple tree where he used to knock down ripe apples that he couldn’t reach with a broomstick. The broomstick Eddie had used in the apple tree was stored as a positive memory image. It resonated with feelings of competence, courage, and triumph. (2) The murder-by-broomstick was an image of a violent penetration. In this story, the impotent humiliation was reversed, and Eddie’s anxiety abated. We can see that the image creation of the ogre came from Eddie’s limbic system where it created a scary monster. In like fashion, the apple tree had gnarled branches. The gnarled limbs “dripping with vines” was a nice touch created by Eddie’s limbic image-ination.

Eddie’s dream was remembered because of the blur between trance states. It actually did its work in the dark. It would have successfully relieved his anxiety state had it not been remembered. The dream was not just a repeated remembrance but a new and alive play in the living moment. This story used activated memory to give form to an internal drama drawn from Eddie’s formative past that utilized the inner story of Eddie and his mother. It didn’t just spring from nowhere. It was already there, organized in his brain mappings. As such it turned out to be useful in his psychotherapy, because it gave us a window into his inner drama, his internal characters and their problematic relationships. But this was not it’s purpose. (The collision between Eddie’s REM consciousness and waking consciousness might not be so confusing if humans were more like dolphins. In their sleep adaptation, only half of their brain sleeps at a time. The other half is awake. It would be interesting to know how dolphin dreams coexist with dolphin waking reality.)

This dream is a model as to how dreams operate. For the most part we have to digest emotional conflicts which happen on a daily basis. The issues that may occupy the dream stage are combats, quests, challenges, boredoms, wishes, hopes, curiosities, pain, disappointments, sexual interests and stimulations, fantasies, competitions, fears, anxieties, cruelty, sadism, humiliations, sufferings, abuse, deprivations, traumas, envies, jealousies, sadnesses, and otherwise the full panoply of life’s dramas, engagements, and relationship adventures. The conflicts to be digested aren’t always emotional ones. Sometimes when a person is cognitively trying to solve a problem, and this is the context that is on his plate when he goes to sleep, the dream may through its dream work digest the problem and come up with a solution. On awakening, if one remembers the dream, he will see the solution. If one doesn’t remember the dream he’ll come to the solution refreshed in the morning.

Oddly, dreams teach us more readily about the plays of consciousness than we can see in our waking trance. Our consciousness is neurological illusion. It’s always important to keep in mind that dreams, and our lives, are a human story. Our psychiatric treatments must always appreciate our stories. Our plays of consciousness define our reality which, once formed, plays itself out over and over again. We do not suffer from brain diseases. We can see the source of Eddie’s anxiety, and how this anxiety could get triggered. These are the issues that have to be mourned so that they no longer rule us. We do not need destructive pharmaceuticals. We need to appreciate the full scope of the human story.


Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


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  1. Interesting blog, Dr. Berezin, although I think you’re take on dreams may be a bit too reductionist. Or can you tell me what actual proof you have that dreams can never be prophetic?

    I had a grandmother who awoke from a dream as her brother was driving her from Chicago to northern WI. My grandmother had not been told why her brother wanted her to go up north. When she awoke, she told her brother that he was taking her up north because their parents and sister’s baby had been hit by a train, and killed. He was shocked, because this was the truth. That’s just family folklore, but supposedly my grandmother had lots of prophetic dreams.

    And I had one at least once. I awoke with a vivid image of a specific cemetery I’d never personally ever seen. I went to church later that morning, and the exact image of the cemetery from my dream was the cover of the church bulletin that Sunday. How do you personally know with 100% certainty that dreams can never be prophetic? My dreams function as inspiration for my art, and inspiration is good, so seemingly getting inspiration from my dreams is actually helpful to me.

    And what proof do you have that there is not a collective unconscious within our dreams? I had awakenings to my dreams in 2006 and 2009, and the story of my dreams is quite amazing, especially since I can tell it largely in the lyrics of thousands of songs. I agree, it’s primarily stories of working out real life conflicts with other people throughout my life.

    But my dreams were supposedly also set up like the Internet when I was a small child, with lots of websites. The theory was I did this because my family had moved from Chicago to NY and I wanted to continue to maintain contact with my Chicago friends in my dreams, despite moving away. So all my friends had a website within my dreams. And, as time went on I supposedly added many nicknames for myself within my dreams. Nicknames such as Someone Else, Anybody Else, Anything Else, Nobody Else, and Everyone Else asks for Something Else at one point or another in their life – you get the idea.

    And according to my 2009 awakening to the story of my dreams, the decent Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc. within my dreams informed me that I’d connected all the souls on the planet and I was supposed to hand them all off to God for judgement. The tale goes on, and on, and on (I now have a lucid dreaming problem some mornings, although do not want to know all going on in my dreams, I already know too much about the evil on this planet – but, as one song states, “I want to hide the truth, I want to shelter you, but with the beast inside there’s no where we can hide.” Basically, I have a love story, supposedly between God and I, going on within my dreams, and God is in the process of an orderly judgement day, where each soul is judged alone.)

    But I’m not certain what to make of the story of my dreams. However, what actual proof do you have that there is no collective unconscious within our dreams, as the tale of my dreams suggests?

    I agree, dreams are a wonderful gift in that they allow us think through our concerns, and come up with solutions. When I was working as a kitchen bath designer, I’d go to bed not inspired with proposals for new clients. I’d dream about these all night, and by the next day I was filled with inspiration. And I rarely lost a client, and almost every client I had loved what we’d seemingly dreamt up in our beautiful dreams.

    Can you prove there is no collective unconscious? And what would be your interpretation of my odd dreams? As to my historic ‘reality,’ I’d led a “semi-charmed life” through my early thirties, then was gas lighted by doctors wanting to cover up a “bad fix” on a broken bone and ELCA Lutherans wanting to cover up the abuse of my small child (Google book ‘Jesus and the Culture Wars’ for evidence this is an ELCA problem). By the way, according to 40 hours of unbiased psychological career testing, I’m supposed to be a judge or an architect. Any take on the odd story from my dreams, Dr. Berezin?

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