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What Your Dreams Mean

Every dream is a dense weave of images, emotions, and characters spun from the dreamer's experience, says Kelly Bulkeley, PhD, a visiting scholar at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. Still, he's continually moved by our cross-cultural tendencies to dream along the same central plotlines, particularly during times of stress and major life change. "Dreams are a powerful means of understanding human experience," he says.

Here are some common archetypal dream themes, according to Patricia Garfield, PhD, author of "Universal Dream Key: The 12 Most Common Dream Themes Around the World."

Being Chased
Typically occurs when the dreamer is coping with a life-threatening situation, such as illness or natural disaster, or smaller problems, such as strife with a family member.

Flying
The symbolic opposite of dreams about falling (helplessness) or standing on the edge of a cliff (endangerment), a flying dream is about moving closer to a waking goal and often, Garfield says, "reaching for spirituality."

Water
When we dream of sinking, we may feel we're losing our grip on goals or support systems, or "going under." When we're swimming placidly, we're feeling buoyantly supported in waking life.

Public Nudity
Suggests insecurity, especially about a particular body part that's revealed; inappropriate clothes point to feelings of conflict about one's role or status in a particular situation.

Teeth, Beaks, and Claws
Typically signal some kind of anger (the dreamer's own or that of another person).

Discovering New Spaces, at Home or Somewhere Else Familiar to You
The ur-1970s feminist dream (still common among women and men), this often means the dreamer's waking life is expanding, broadening into new possibilities.

Problem Solving: Directing Our Dreams
We may be able to solve our waking dilemmas by instructing ourselves to dream about them, says psychologist Deirdre Barrett. Through the process of "dream incubation," we control the content or our dreams by preprogramming them. 

Simply take a few minutes before bedtime, she says, to think about a specific subject you're mulling -- a work project, an interpersonal problem, even what color to paint the living room. "I tell people to look over the problem -- write it down, read it through -- and think about it last thing before turning off the light, explicitly telling yourself you want to dream about it," Barrett says. 

You can also put visual cues on your nightstand, she adds -- for instance, a picture of whatever you'd like to dream about. 

Have a pad and pen nearby so you can record the dream as soon as you wake. Since dreams are stored only in short-term memory and easily shattered by noises (such as an alarm clock) or movement, lie still for a few moments upon waking, and reflect. 

According to Barrett, some studies have shown that if a person does anything else before writing down a dream, some or all of it is lost forever. Subjects who were instructed to dial a phone number before they wrote down their dreams remembered only a third as much as when they recorded them immediately. 

If you don't remember anything as soon as you wake, "just take a moment to see if there's one image or feeling you recall," Barrett says. "Sometimes if you focus, a whole dream will come flooding back."

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