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Dream Analysis - Part 1: Introduction To Dream Analysis
why dream analysis is useful and how to do it
In this piece I will provide:
A quick background on dream analysis and why it’s worth learning
The five core principles of dream analysis
Five bonus tips to help you master them
In part two we will apply what we’ve learned on a dream I had recently.
I was first introduced to Dream Analysis about a decade ago through early Freedomain Radio podcasts. The podcast host, Stef, learned from his former psychoanalyst therapist who’d spent years studying the early pioneers like Freud and Jung as well as more modern interpretations like those of Faraday and Clift.
As I’m sure many of you will relate, I was highly skeptical of something as esoteric and “woo woo” as analyzing dreams. And It wasn’t until after several otherwise-inexplicable insights that I witnessed Stef extract from live callers which convinced me to try it.
Having since analyzed several dozen of my own dreams over the last decade—as well as several dozen of friends’ and clients’—I can now say with absolute conviction:
Dream analysis is one of the most powerful tools you can use to maximize your personal and professional progress. Becoming adept and fluent in it can easily save you months if not years of struggle and stagnation.
So keep an open mind and don’t knock it ‘til you try it!
Let’s dive in.
The Five Core Principles
#1: Sleep is a repair process that makes our waking bodies more effective
Before we can ask “why do we dream?” let alone “what can we learn from it?” we must first ask the more basic question: “why do we sleep?”
The reason we, or any animal, sleep is to make us able to “work harder” while awake.
To analogize: think of your body like a race car. To rebuild a car after a race takes several hours if not several days. Top fuel Dragsters only have to function for the few seconds it takes to run the quarter mile so they can do crazy things like have no transmission or have the clutch literally fuse to itself on launch. Le Mans cars on the other hand have to drive for twenty four hours straight before they can rebuild, so must sacrifice speed and power in the name of endurance.
This same trade off occurs in living things. The more time we can spend “in the shop” (sleeping) the harder we can push our body “on the track” (being awake).
And given that results are awarded nonlinearly, running at 150% capacity for 16 hours and 0% for 8 hours will generally net better results than running at only 100% capacity for 24 hours. This led to early sleepers having more selective advantage—and now, millions of years later, pretty much every animal has adopted this superior strategy.
Now we can expand this concept into: “why do we dream?”
#2: Dreams are a repair process that make our waking consciousness more effective
In the same way that sleep repairs the physical bodies of all animals by cleaning out build-up, repairing and repurposing old cells, etc. REM sleep (dream sleep) does the same thing for the minds in conscious ones.
Throughout your day you are consuming new information, having new experiences, learning new things, unlearning old ones, etc. and this alters (ie does damage to) your models of the world and which behaviors, beliefs, and feelings are most effective for your survival. Dreams categorize, organize, and integrate new experiences while also updating, archiving, and reorganizing old ones toward the goal of making your consciousness run more “efficiently” the next day.
Sleeping is a bit like disk defragmentation in computers. And this “consciousness defragmentation” is done by making really dense little movies in your mind’s eye while you sleep. a.k.a. Dreams.
#3. Dreams serve to process things you are stuck on
Due to the nature of this defragmentation process, our dreams are pretty much universally “important”. Dtrams are always going to prioritize “repairing” the most “corrupted” files—the models, beliefs, and structures of your mind that are the most conflicted or fragmented due to recent changes—and thus effectively deciphering them will help you solve your biggest problems. Further…
#4. Dreams are “trying” to be as “clear” as possible
Most who are into dream analysis think the reason dreams are so clear (if you know how to interpret them) is because they are “trying” to communicate with you. I, with some minor exception, think the reason is far more mundane.
Dreams are mostly happy to do their little background clean up process whether you care or not. What’s actually happening is just that by the nature of your conscious and unconscious both using the same database of information (ie your stored memories) what your unconscious mind finds when it runs a “search” is pretty universally the same thing your conscious mind will find when it runs the same “search”. And herein lies the first thing we can use to our advantage:
Your first recall about why a dream chose a detail is the reason it chose it.
This makes the first most critical question to ask during analysis:
When I think of this person, place, or thing, what is the first memory that comes to mind? What is my relationship to it? What emotion, belief, or experience do I most associate with it?
If in the dream you are on the Queen Mary (big famous ship) ask: what does the Queen Mary mean to me? What is the first memory that comes to mind when I think of it? What is my emotional attachment to it? What other memories or experiences are related to it?
And this level of specificity is only the tip of the iceberg, because…
#5. Every aspect of your dream was meticulously and precisely selected
Like all great movies—or any great fiction really—every last little detail of your mental movie was carefully and meticulously selected to elucidate or resolve some deeper conflict as effectively as possible. If you want to get the most out of your dreams you should assume as if Stanley Kubrick was directing them (ie they were nitpicked to perfection over a thousand takes).
Your unconscious could have chosen any person and it chose this person from your childhood. It could have chosen any place and it chose this place from your college years. It could have chosen any carpet and it chose the one you were laying on as a child when you first found out your parents were divorcing. Etc.
But it’s deeper than this even. Because in a dream there are no limits. It’s actually as if Stanley Kubrick was Neuralinking his vision for his newest movie straight into your brain with no limits to budget, actors, nor CGI (nor silly trivialities like the laws of physics).
And most importantly it was written using your memories just for you. Every synapse in your brain, with its entire capacity for stored memory and abstraction manipulation, is working to maximize this defragmentation process.
Meaning that it made this person from your childhood have a different face or body than they actually have for a specific reason. Or it made this person who you “know” is Alan, but after waking up realize looked exactly like Steve—or some nondescript face—for a specific reason. Or your college apartment looking like looney toons or your childhood home being full of trash or the sky being purple instead of green or orange or any other non-standard color or whatever else the case may be—it is all precisely selected to maximally improve your unconscious mind’s ability to navigate the world.
It is even relevant to this process how your inner monologue acknowledges these things. Noticing within the dream that you know this is Alan but it looks exactly like Steve is different than not noticing it looks like Steve until you woke up and reflected on it.
If you take anything away from this piece, this one is the most important:
The dream could have picked any person, place, or thing and it could have represented it in any possible way but it chose to do it in this way, with this flow, and these alterations for a specific and calculated reason.1
Five Bonus Principles
Those five are really the “main” things. But here are five more that are derived from these or related that can help you make the most out of analysis.
#6. Your subconscious never forgets
If the memory still exists then your dream can use it. Because it has full access to your mental archives, it will often have you digging around into people, places, or experiences you have not thought about in years or even decades.
For example, my dream in part two is pulling from things as far back as elementary school. I had to think pretty hard to de-archive and unpack what those meant while examining it, but in retrospect it is very clear why they were chosen.
#7. Your dreams are always several months or more ahead of your conscious mind
Because your unconscious has so much more information, and doesn’t have to “filter” in the way your conscious mind does, it is generally working on things that you won’t be aware of for months or sometimes years.
Think of it like how the owners of a company will always be months ahead of employees, brainstorming and trying to figure out the next steps to some larger problem, and it never actually gets to a low level employee until the action items have been fully nailed down.
I can recall many times in my early dream journal attempts where I only wrote down a really powerful dream but couldn’t quite make sense of it and eventually gave up. Then a year later I read it back and saw the things that took me months to solve had the solution right there in the dream! If only I had been better at dream analysis I’d have seen what it was trying to say, and saved myself months of struggling.
Become novice at dream journalling and analysis and you will experience the same thing. Become adept and you will not just go “wow there it is” in hindsight but actually see it in foresight and be able to leverage it when it matters most.
#8. Dreams are often related to what you were thinking about before falling asleep
Again, given that dreams, like any good search engine, optimize for the most available information: your dreams will often utilize strands of things you were thinking about before you fell asleep. Recalling your thoughts from the previous evening is sometimes necessary for making sense of a dream.
#9. Reoccurring dreams or themes reoccur because a problem is unresolved
Coming back to our disk defragmentation analogy: if the process keeps going over the same sector every time you defrag, it’s obviously because that conflict is unresolved. The more times a dream reoccurs, the more important it is and the more likely it is that you are avoiding something important in your life.
For some people this can look like having the same exact dream over and over. But for most it is just a repeating story or theme. Either way, anything that reoccurs is uniquely important and should be prioritized for review.
#10. Prioritize really powerful dreams
In principle four where I mentioned “with minor exception”, i was referring to really powerful dreams.
It could be that all our dreams are as insightful as our really powerful ones, and the ones we recall intensely after waking up is just a coincidence in having the dream right before out alarm goes off. But it could also be that there are times where your unconscious is going “hey, you’re blowing it on this and it’s really important so I need you to actually notice what I am doing and take action!”. Either way, your extremely vivid dreams where you recall lots of detail are the most ripe for analysis.
I suspect you’ll remain a bit skeptical of this process and won’t jump to start it tomorrow, so just remember this:
Next time you wake up feeling crazy from an intense dream its because it’s trying to solve the biggest problem in your life. Even if you don’t analyze it right then, at least write it down or audio record it. When reading it back and analyzing weeks or months, you will see how your unconscious had already solved this thing you now just consciously realized, and could have saved you significant struggle. Seeing this will make you realize that sitting down to spend an hour analyzing a powerful dream can save dozens if not hundreds hours fumbling around trying to figure things out yourself.
Dreaming is a repair process that helps us integrate, organize, and update our consciousness so we can operate more effectively in the world.
Our dreams are weeks, months, or sometimes even years ahead of our conscious mind, and thus learning to decipher them can massively improve the speed at which we progress in life.
Our dreams could contain anything and do anything, but they chose this specific thing, and that is on purpose and aimed at solving our biggest problems.
The reason it chose X thing instead of Y thing is the same reason we would have chosen it. Meaning that during analysis we should trust our first recall for what X is related to or trying to say, even if it doesn’t quite make sense at first.
Sometimes our dreams dig up memories or situations we have not recalled for years or even decades. Other times it is using something we were thinking about before falling asleep. Check both of these when doing analysis.
Reoccurring dreams and themes, or really powerful and vivid dreams, signal the biggest problems and should be prioritized for analysis. Even if you can’t analyze them as soon as you wake up, at least write them down or record voice memos so you don’t forget the details.
Do note also that I personally never made much of a conscious effort to dream journal consistently, only analyzing the dreams that were extremely vivid and “hit me hard” when I woke up. If you want to really dive in and make this a habit then feel free, but in my opinion just focusing on the powerful ones that come at times of great change or distress in your life will get you 80% of the results with 20% of the work.
If you’re still feeling unclear or skeptical of dream analysis, that’s no problem—Part two will help!
Principles four and five in particular don’t just apply to dreams. For creative (high openness high neuroticism) people the gap between the dream world and the waking world are not as separate as they are for most. If a memory or song for example keeps looping in your head, it can be analyzed using these same techniques.