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Long Time No See: Why We Dream of People from Our Past

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Have you ever wondered why people we haven’t thought about in years end up in our dreams? Why do we dream about an old boyfriend we haven’t seen in ages or a teacher from high school? 


Dreams are curious, nebulous phenomena and humans have been trying to make sense of them since we first became aware of ourselves. Great minds from the Hebrew Joseph to Carl Jung have tried to crack the dream code, yet most of us still wake up thinking, “What did that all mean?” 


Dream interpretation can offer some clues as to why certain elements and people find their ways into our dreams, but to really crack the code takes some work and thought. 


The Unconscious Mind Never Sleeps
Sigmund Freud’s pioneering theory of the dream mechanism is still the best one out there. Not only did Freud argue that sane people’s dreams are as significant as those of people with mental illnesses, but he posited the theory that dreams are actually what keep us sane. 


In order to sleep restfully, according to Freud, our conscious minds need to disconnect from all stimuli, but we also need to maintain some level of awareness so that we can wake up again. To make sure that happens, while we sleep, our minds channel thoughts and needs into the unconscious brain in the form of dreams. 


For example, have you ever dreamt about needing to use the bathroom or eating a great big slice of pie? This probably means that your body is experiencing these physical needs, but your brain is preventing your conscious mind from receiving those signals and waking you up by rerouting them into the unconscious part of your brain, which controls dream content. That way, your minor need for a midnight snack or potty run is balanced by your greater need to get a full night’s sleep. 


Most dream content isn’t so straightforward, though. Freud’s theory was that the unconscious part of the brain is the most primitive and preceded the development of speech. The language of the unconscious is symbolic rather than literal and therefore, so is the content of the dreams it produces. Freud referred to the images and elements that appear in dreams as “manifest content” that represents and alludes to a deeper personal meaning, or “latent content,” to the dreamer. In other words, every part of a dream refers to some other thought or situation, but this connection can only be understood by the dreamer. 


There Are No Random Dreams
According to Freud, then, there is no such thing as a random element in a dream, only elements whose relevance we don’t quite understand. 


In fact, most of what we see and experience in our dreams is obscure to our waking minds. We won’t have seen or thought about someone in ages, and then suddenly he’ll appear as a central figure in a dream, or someone in our peripheral awareness will come to the fore at a seemingly arbitrary time. There are certainly some universal symbols that appear to carry through many of our dreams, but most are more personal and therefore harder to decode. 


Making Sense of It All
Freud used the technique of free association to get to the root of his patients’ latent dream content. In free association, the patient allows any and all things related to the dream to come to mind without censoring. It helps to trace one’s thoughts back from a symbol to what that symbol represents, and can quickly unfold a dream’s meaning when done correctly. 


Free association works best with a licensed psychotherapist, but you can also try it on your own. Think of the elements you’re trying to understand better, and allow all associations with that content to come to mind without filtering it. That last part is tricky, since there is usually a reason our mind wants to cloak the original meaning in symbolic language. We dream about peripheral elements in our lives as a way for our unconscious minds to explore those paths safely, and thinking through them for real might be a little too raw. If you can’t get to the bottom of a dream element on your own, and not knowing what it means really bothers you, seeing a therapist who specializes in dream interpretation may be the way to go. 


Journaling can also help aid dream interpretation, as part of a technique called lucid dreaming. People use lucid dreaming to recall their dreams more vividly, and those that really hone the skill are eventually able to actually control their dream content. To become a more lucid dreamer, keep a dream journal by your bedside and write down everything you remember about your dreams the minute you wake up. This is when the dreams are fresh in your mind; it’s important to take advantage of this time because it’s very easy to lose track of the many elements of a dream. Later in the day, you can use these recorded recollections to free associate and try to figure out what these apparently random elements mean to you. You just might find that old friend is there for a reason, maybe as a manifestation of anxieties related to the time in your life when you knew her. 


What We Know
Dreams operate similarly to literature, art, and music in the way they engage our minds and feelings. Both dreams and art allow us to safely explore experiences by approaching them through symbols. They use what we do know to help us understand what we don’t. Art uses images, literature uses similes and metaphors, and dreams use elements from our everyday lives to guide our minds through difficult and emotional concepts. It’s okay to allow dreams to do this work on their own; they handle this stuff so that we can just sleep, after all. But we can also add much to our waking lives by engaging with these apparently peripheral elements of our dreams and trying to understand our true associations with them. Though dreaming of people we haven’t thought of in years may seem like just a fluke of the brain at the time, such random elements are really superficial manifestations of more deep-seeded issues.


Updated March 3, 2010

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