The Tactful Dream Interpreter

“Once a Caliph saw his teeth falling out in a dream. He called a dream interpreter and asked him about the meaning of his dream. The interpreter replied: ‘The entire family of my master will perish.’ The Caliph became upset, and called for another interpreter and told him the dream. The second dream interpreter replied: ‘The dream of my master, the prince of believers, is true, for he shall live the longest amongst his relatives.’ Immediately the Caliph embraced the man and rewarded him for his skill and tactfulness.” (quoted in Amira Mittermaier, “Dreams That Matter: Egyptian Landscapes of the Imagination,” p. 63)

The Art and Science of Dreaming

Why do we have dreams?  Where do they come from?  What, if anything, do they mean?  These mysterious questions have puzzled humankind since the earliest days of history.  The best answers, I suggest, come from integrating the insights of art and science.  Dreaming is rooted in the physical workings of our brains, and it expresses our highest spiritual yearnings and deepest psychological concerns.  In dreams the mind, body, and soul come together in a creative ferment, giving us new perspectives on the emotional realities of our lives.

Looking first at art, people throughout the ages have regarded dreams as a source of creative inspiration.  A number of famous works of Western art and literature were directly influenced by their creator’s dreams. 

Among writers, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley dreamed up several key scenes in her novel Frankenstein, and Robert Louis Stevenson had a dream about a divided soul at war with itself that gave him the core plot idea for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Surrealist painters like Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte drew upon their dreams for bizarre, symbol-laden images of melting clocks and floating bowler hats. In more recent years, a number of prominent movie directors have experienced dreams that influenced their films, including David Lynch in Blue Velvet, Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now, and Akira Kurusawa in Dreams.  Contemporary musicians have also described their dreams as creative inspirations.  Paul McCartney had a dream that gave him the tune for “Yesterday,” and Sting’s song “The Lazarus Heart” came from a personal nightmare.

If we consider religion as another realm where humans express their deepest creativity, then we can see even more evidence of the inspiring power of dreaming.  In the Hebrew Bible, visionary dreams come to Abraham and Jacob, while Joseph saved his people by his ability to interpret dreams.  In the New Testament, prophetic dreams of guidance help Jesus’ parents before their child’s birth and Paul during his missionary travels.  The Muslim Prophet Muhammad told of his dreams in the Qur’an, and each morning he asked his followers what they had dreamed, so they could better discern God’s will.  Hindu and Buddhist mystics consider all of life to be a dream, a great illusion shaped by our desires.  Many indigenous cultures around the world have myths (e.g., the Australian Aborigine’s “Dreamtime”) and rituals (e.g., the Native American vision quest) to help their members learn more about the creative potentials of their own dreaming.

Do the insights of artists and mystics stand up to the findings of modern science?  Surprisingly, the answer is yes.  Based on the latest evidence from research in cognitive psychology, it appears that dreaming is a natural and normal aspect of healthy brain/mind functioning.  Not all dreams are heaven-sent revelations or artistic breakthroughs, but in general dreaming is an accurate and meaningful expression of our fears, concerns, conflicts, and desires in waking life. 

Since the 1950’s scientists have known about the different stages of sleep, and it appears that dreams occur most often during the stage of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.  During REM sleep our brains are very active, but in a different configuration than in waking.  In REM the brain centers for instinctual emotions and visual imagination are highly activated, while the parts of the brain responsible for focused rational attention are less active.  This evidence fits the general qualities of many dreams—less rational, more emotional and visual—and it supports the idea that our capacity for dreaming is hard-wired into the human brain.

However, it is important to recognize that dreams occur in stages of sleep other than REM.  REM sleep may be the most common trigger for dreaming, but research has shown that dreams can occur throughout the sleep cycle.  This means that we still do not have a complete picture of the dreaming brain.  We cannot “reduce” dreams to REM sleep.

Most people remember one or two dreams a week, but that can vary depending on many factors.  Some people remember at least one dream almost every night, while others say they have never recalled a dream in their whole life.  Researchers have found that small efforts to pay more attention to dreams can lead to big increases in dream recall.  It’s like the movie “Field of Dreams”: If you build it, they will come—if you open your waking mind to the possibility that your dreams have something meaningful to say, you’re likely to start remembering more dreams.

When people ask me how to interpret their dreams, I start by emphasizing that only the dreamer can know for sure what his or her dreams really mean.  “Experts” like me can offer ideas and possibilities based on our research, but ultimately you are the final authority on your own dreams.

Sometimes dreams speak in direct and literal terms.  For example, you may be scared of flying, and thus you might have a nightmare of crashing in an airplane.  But sometimes dreams speak indirectly, in a language of metaphor and symbol.  Your nightmare of a crashing airplane may symbolically reflect your waking anxieties about your finances, your health, or a personal relationship.  To understand your dreams you need a flexible mind that can perceive these kinds of metaphorical connections between dream imagery and your emotional concerns in waking life.

One of the most important functions of dreaming is to look ahead, to anticipate what might happen in the future and prepare us for possible dangers and threats.  This isn’t a simple matter of “prophecy,” although that’s what ancient people called the same basic process.  Scientists today have found that many of our most memorable dreams revolve around visions of worst-case scenarios, and it seems that these kinds of dreams are like fire drills, getting us ready in case those dangers actually occur in the waking world.  Even though many of our dreams are negative and disturbing in this way, they are still promoting our physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.


This article appears on pp. 22-23 in the August 2011 special issue on Sleep and Dreams in Vintage Newsmagazine, a publication in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Thanks to editor Betsy Troyer for inviting me to contribute.

The Interpretation of Snake Dreams: A Short Film

By far the most frequent question that leads people to this website is, how do I interpret my weird dream about a snake?  I’ve written some general answers to that question, and when possible I’ve offered people specific responses to their dreams.  Now, thanks to the video creativity of Ed Kelley, I have a new resource for people who are interested in snake dreams.  Ed directed, filmed, and edited a short film titled “The Interpretation of Snake Dreams” in which I discuss the multiple meanings of snake dreams through history and in different religious traditions.  I hope this work will give people new ways to understand and explore the presence of numinous serpents in dreams.   Do not expect a simple instructional video.  If you have had a powerful dream of a snake and found your way to this site, I trust you will recognize something of your experience in this film.

How to Interpret Snake Dreams

I’m amazed at how many people have powerful dreams about snakes.  Serpents are truly the most memorable creatures of the dream world.  Their presence in a dream is almost always vivid, mysterious, and attention-grabbing.   

 When asked how to interpret people’s snake dreams, I struggle to say something that’s helpful without imposing my outsider’s view on the dreamer.  I can make general statements about traditional symbolism, but that always runs the risk of leading the dreamer away from the specific details of his or her experience, where the deepest personal meanings may often be found.

 As an alternative way of answering people’s questions about snake dreams, here is a dream I had a few weeks ago, on the night of February 25, plus the journal entry I wrote following the dream.  As you can see, I don’t come to a final conclusion about the dream’s message.  Instead I free associate about the personal web of memories and feelings that seem related to it, letting the power of the dream serpent guide my reflections.

 Title: The Big Green Snake Could Actually Eat Me

 I’m out on a green grass field….In the bushes nearby I see a snake….it has a big green head, in the green foliage of the bushes….I’m scared and start to run, but the snake quickly comes after me….It wraps itself so its head is looking at me around my left shoulder….I realize it’s big enough to eat me, actually….I try to figure out what to do, how to keep it from squeezing and eating me….It hasn’t made a move to try doing that, but I’m scared it might….

 Journal: This dream came the first night back from week-long family vacation, after a long drive and getting back into household duties.  During the day I enjoyed some fun creative work, but also some stress about tasks to do this coming week.  The snake is very big, and in my mind while dreaming I’m thinking out the physical details of how it would successfully consume me.  At the same time, I’m aware the snake has not yet harmed me.  I sense it may simply want to get close to me and check me out.  I can’t outrun it, I can’t fight it—I’m in its power.  Yesterday I read the first chapter of Harry Potter 7, in which Voldemort’s snake Nagini is invited to eat a person V has just murdered.  Nagini is portrayed as being about the same size as the snake in my dream.  So I’m like V, with the snake my close companion?  Or am I about to be a victim of V and what he represents?  All the green: it’s late winter/early spring around here, so lots of green foliage in our garden at home, and at the beach house while we were on vacation  —  Feb. 25 is the birthday of an old girlfriend, I just realized that  —  first love  —  an anniversary dream?  —  an early emergence of serpent power in my life?  Yesterday was like other days at the end of a vacation, feeling like a pivot time; I’m anxiously getting ready to spring back into action  —  and I have a lot of action awaiting me  —  a time of massive transition  —  creative potential  —  will the snake eat me, or won’t it?  Does it matter?  I’m wrapped up in its power, now and perhaps forever.  I don’t have a sense of the snake actually touching me; it’s coiled around me, but not binding me, just close enough so it’s head can get close to mine.  Its eyes can look into mine. I definitely feel it’s trying to connect with me, size me up.

If you’re interested in learning more about snake dreams in history and psychological theories about them, scroll down the list to see this post.  (titled “What Do Dreams of Snakes Mean?”)  Also take a look at the comments, which include dozens of snake dreams people have shared that I’ve commented on.

If you’d like to know what Carl Jung said in The Red Book about the symbolism of snakes, see this post.

If you’d like more information about actual snakes, check out the website of the East Bay Vivarium.

REMcloud: Adventures in Social Dream Networking

I’ve just joined REMcloud, a new social networking site devoted to dreaming.  It’s an idea whose time has come.  As a technophobic introvert it pains me to say this, but sharing dreams in a Facebook-like setting has a lot of appeal.  It allows you to connect your personal dreams with dreams of countless other people all over the world.  It’s quick, easy to use, and free, and it provides tools to explore recurrent themes in your dreams and the dreams of others.

The space for writing a dream is limited to 400 characters (about 70 words), which is enough for many dreams but inadequate for the ones that are really detailed and elaborate.  Some of the dreams reported by other people are written in text-messaging style, making it hard to understand what the heck they’re talking about.

There’s an option to get interpretations for particular words based on typical dream dictionary meanings (e.g. a cellar means a subconscious place where problems are hidden).   This kind of interpretation can be helpful if taken as one possibility among others rather than as definitive fact, a point that could be made more clearly somewhere on the site.

The most intriguing possibility opened up by REMcloud is the ability to observe in real time the macro-trends of collective human dreaming.  The “Dream Mosaics” on the site bring together people’s dreams of celebrities, sports, news events, and potentially other subjects of broad social interest.  Of course there’s no guarantee that people aren’t just making shit up when they type in a supposed “dream,” so this wouldn’t be good data for a scientific study.  But as an entertaining mirror of the kaleidoscopic world of human dreaming, REMcloud is worth checking out.

Dreaming in Christianity and Islam

Bulkeley_LAt a time when Christianity and Islam appear to be mortal enemies locked in an increasingly bloody “clash of civilizations,” new insights are needed to promote better mutual understanding of the two traditions’ shared values.  Dreaming in Christianity and Islam: Culture, Conflict, and Creativity (edited by Kelly Bulkeley, Kate Adams, and Patricia M. Davis (Rutgers University Press, 2009) provides exactly that.  This new book is a collection of articles by international scholars who illuminate the influential role of dreaming in both Christianity and Islam, from the very origins of those traditions up to the present-day practices of contemporary believers.

Dreams have been a powerful source of revelation, guidance, and healing for generations of Christians and Muslims.  Dreams have also been an accurate gauge of the most challenging conflicts facing each tradition.  Dreaming in Christianity and Islam is the first book to tell the story of dreaming in these two major world religions, documenting the wide-ranging impact of dreams on their sacred texts, mystical experiences, therapeutic practices, and doctrinal controversies.

The book presents a wealth of evidence to advance a simple but, in the contemporary historical moment, radical argument:  Christians and Muslims share a common psychospiritual grounding in the dreaming imagination.  While careful, sustained attention will be given to the significant differences between the two traditions, the overall emphasis of the book is on the shared religious, psychological, and social qualities of their dream experiences.

Throughout their respective histories Christians and Muslims have turned to dreams for creative responses to their most urgent crises and concerns.  In this book the contributors apply that same imaginative resource to the current conflict between the two traditions, seeking in the depths of dreaming new creative responses to the global crisis of religious misunderstanding and fearful hostility.  Included in the book are chapters on dreams in the Bible and Qur’an; on the early history of Christian and Muslim beliefs about dreaming; on religious practices of dream interpretation; on the dreams of children, women, college students, and prison inmates; and on the use of dreams in healing, caregiving, and creative adaptation to waking problems.