Unpacking dreams one symbol at a time

Dreams exist in an enigmatic realm that is neither here nor there, where the part of the self that exists outside of the physical, three-dimensional body is free to roam or devoid of control.  

In dreams, the mind explores a domain of uncanny sights, sounds, and experiences, as if guided by an unseen source.

Ideas, feelings, and behaviours all originate in the brain, where a complex network of cells takes information from the internal and external environment and transforms it into our perceptions of ourselves, the world around us, and our interactions with it.

Consider your brain as a content developer, assembling snippets of memories from our daily lives. The brain compresses information from our waking lives, such as our thoughts, feelings, actions or happenings as a result of our activities, and even fantasies, into dreams.  People, places, and objects associated with these events may also appear in dreams. According to scientists, the hippocampus, which is located in the inner section of the temporal lobe and is involved with learning and memory, is also responsible for producing dreams.

Although dreams are not a precise replay of our memories, it is thought that one potential function of dreaming could be to assist with the offline processing of our past experiences. – Dreaming and the Hippocampus

 It’s also possible that certain waking-life events or symbols manifest in our dreams through symbols. Why we dream in “symbols” remains as perplexing as why we dream at all, or how the brain actually weaves dreams. According to Holly Slonaker, author of the piece, Symbolism in Dreams, “Symbols in dreams usually serve the purpose of telling the dreamer what he or she needs to achieve or needs to get over in order for his or her life to improve”1, Slonaker said.   

Known for his political and psychosocial commentary,  German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm’s The Nature of Dreams (published in Scientific American in May 1949 and reproduced verbatim for digitalisation by Timo Kinnunen) mentioned that dreams use a global language, the symbolic language, which may be understood or at the very least grasped by way of interpretation.

When we dream we speak a language which is also employed in some of the most significant documents of culture: in myths, in fairy tales and art, recently in novels like Franz Kafka’s. This language is the only universal language common to all races and all times. It is the same language in the oldest myths as in the dreams every one of us has today. Moreover, it is a language which often expresses inner experiences, wishes, fears, judgments and insights which much greater precision and fullness than our ordinary language is capable of. Yet symbolic language is a forgotten language, considered by most as nonsensical or unimportant. This ignorance not only prevents us from understanding the wisdom expressed in myths but also from being in touch with a significant part of ourselves. – Fromm, The Nature of Dreams

I am not a fan of Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud’s  theory2 that dreams are the manifestation of what is repressed throughout waking life. Nonetheless, I agree that dreams may be used to uncover the dreamer’s motivations and desires, just as they can be used to aid the dreamer find a solution or answers to their waking life issues.

While sleeping, the “solutions” are conjured up using symbols in a suprarealist manner, free of cultural biases or preconceptions.

According to Fromm, understanding dreams requires knowing the dreamer’s personality, activities, relationship with the dream elements, and concerns before they sleep. As a result, the dreamer is the best translator of their own dream because only they know what is going on in their lives, their thoughts and reactions to certain events in their waking life.

“The dream is a knowledge of something of which I alone know,” wrote the 19th century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in his commentary, “Heraclitus, Lectures on the History of Philosophy”. 3 Regardless of whether I’m putting it out of context, it reinforces my point that the dreamer – you – is the best translator of your own dream.

Healing through dreams

Book of Dreams-British Museum

Ancient civilisations highly regard the prophetic power of dreams. Dreams and their interpretations were recorded, such as the Egyptians’ hieretic papyrus dream book that was presumably created in 1220 BC or in the 19th Dynasty of Egypt (also known as the Ramessid Dynasty).  The book contained hieratic signs with corresponding description that starts with “If a man sees himself in a dream”  and good or bad diagnosis.4

Dreams have been recognized as an effective technique for providing desired outcomes to dreamers throughout history. Methods to induce dreaming were used in ancient times for this purpose. For example, dream incubation was used to generate dreams for the sake of healing and prophecy.

Asclepius-Brave cookie

Dreams that commence healing, for example, were associated with divination procedures and rituals that were thought to impact the dream’s result. Individuals seeking a dream visit from Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, slept in the abaton, a holy enclosure in sleep temples, in ancient Greece (temple of Asclepius).

Egyptians and Babylonians practiced similar dream-incubation rituals. To decipher the significance of dreams including symbols and metaphors, a “professional” dream interpreter, usually a priest, an elder, or a medicine man, was necessary. Interpretations differ, and many of them were responsible for major events in ancient history, ranging from wars to the rise of civilisations.


Today, dream incubation is reimagined with a contemporary twist.  I came across information online regarding the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Targeted Dream Incubation (TDI) study.5

As they call it, “dream engineering,” and from what I understand, is for therapeutic purposes. My main issue with this is that it involves an external manipulation by someone other than the dreamer in order to get a desired result. Unlike in ancient or indigenous rituals, the dreamer (or supplicant) initiates and controls the process – with or without an oracle – to begin the dream activity. Until it was shared with an interpreter, the “ritual” remained personal, intimate, and private.

Techniques/technologies were used to “affect dreams” in TDI. Clinical devices manipulate the once personal dream world, which was inferred to be “both porous and available to outside influence”6 to create a specific result, ranging from behavioural interventions, sleep therapy, and learning enhancement. Meanwhile, the study also considered if the discovery of manipulating dream states may be exploited for “commercial” purposes.

While the researchers stress about having/following dream engineering ethics and protocols,7 I cannot help but imagine how this so-called scientific breakthrough has also opened the gates of deindividuation and alienation from the ”spiritual” self.. The latter is predicated on my personal view that dreams are a way for us to communicate with our higher selves ( for some, like the Shamans, with the spirit guides).

Regardless, while the study has the best of intentions, it suggests the possibility of mind-control through dreams, stating that “there are fine lines between using dream incubation for creative purposes, and using it for manipulation,” referring to some brands that have begun to explore the potential of exploiting dreams for advertising through visual or audio stimuli or similar techniques.

Dreams and culture

By I Travel Philippines - [1], CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75012770

Apart from healing and prophesies, many civilisations around the world see dreams as doorways for spirit communion and veneration.

In the Philippines, for example, the weavers of T’nalak, a traditional hand-woven cloth indigenous to the T’boli people of Mindanao’s Cotabato region, are also known as Dream Weavers because the T’nalak’s designs and patterns are said to have originated from Fu Dalu, the Goddess of Abaca Hemp.8

To please Fu Dalu, the weavers conduct the weaving process as a sacred ritual, keeping to particular beliefs and rules to the letter, such as not allowing the fibers to touch the ground or non-weavers to touch the fibers while on the loom.

Understanding common symbols in dreams

The risk of having someone else interpret your dreams for you, especially if they aren’t trained in dream interpretation or the right recognition of symbolic archetypes, is that they will foretell doom and gloom.

Dreams involving tooth loss, for example, or dreams of a bridal gown, are frequently interpreted as death or tragedy. n such cases, I believe the “interpreter” based their “analysis” on personal experience, equating a specific dreamed symbol with a traumatic occurrence in their waking life.

The first thing the dreamer should figure out, or at least remember, is how the dream makes them feel when they wake up. In the dream, what was their “emotional state”? This is significant since they provide an initial hint to what the dream story may signify.

The aspects in the dream might be interpreted in a variety of ways, either literally or metaphorically. However, it is primarily figurative. There is a mine of resources online covering dream symbol meanings, but I recommend the following: Dream Moods, Auntyflo, and Psychologist World

Symbols and iconographies, as well as their meanings, are mentioned in a number of spiritual and religious writings, including the Christian Bible. Numbers, objects, and events, for example, have deeper meanings and should not be regarded literally. The “666” — the mark of the beast – is commonly associated with the devil. According to Bible Symbols, however, it meant “man-god” or “Man” (or probably a non-believer).  The name “Balak,” which, by the way, could have been the inspiration for the Valak in the 2018  film, The Nun, signified “Strives against God”; and  the term “coals of fire” refers to “cleansing.”

The use of numbers in the Bible has associated connotations. Meanwhile, numbers can also be seen as angelic communications.  I recommend this website ,  About Spiritual for a summary of angel number meanings.

As an interpreter of your own dream, you can dissect the elements in your dream and consider how each of these aspects (or their combinations) relates to you. Do these elements have any purpose? Say you’re wearing walking shoes…this could indicate you’re on a journey or it could indicate a course of action you should take.

Dreaming of relieving oneself in an open comfort room could indicate that you require privacy. I also interpret aspects that correspond to a specific idiomatic term. For example, “laundry” can be euphemism for “airing one’s dirty laundry in public,” therefore a dream about laundry (whether clean/washed or dirty) may indicate that you should not reveal a secret in public or share your personal woes on social media.

Some common dreams (and possible meaning)  include :

  • Losing teeth (concern with self-image or  pertain to life change)
  •  Falling (taking it easy or time to relax)
  • Riding the elevator  (desire  for growth or promotion)
  •  Climbing/descending the stairs (concern for status, desire for clarity or even spiritual growth)
  • Seeing a UFO/Airplane (may stem from stress or anxiety or wanting to find one’s spiritual purpose)
  • Clouds  ( judgement or lack of clarity)
  • Death (of someone) or Funeral (new beginnings, life change)
  • Birth or pregnancy (new beginnings or creativity)
  • Babysitting or seeing a baby (may pertain to your inner child or hints to self-care)
  • Departed loved ones (comfort, assurance from significant life issues),
  • An old person (old beliefs, traditions, conventions)
  • Flood (life issues, being overwhelmed, challenge)
  • Being lost/Not finding your way (concern about direction of current venture), Chased by a stranger (seeking for an answer, could also pertain to guilt)
  •  Dog (loyalty, sometimes depression), Snake (transformation, luck or betrayal)
  • Praying (seeking for spiritual guidance)
  • Coin (opportunities, needing to make decision, could mean a “yes”)
  • Your Ex (feeling of unfinished business or needing closure,  acceptance of the past not necessarily related to the ex),
  • Shoes/Footwear (self-identity or your own journey)
  • Bathroom/Comfort room (needing comfort,  cleansing)
  • Laundry (pertains to self-image or identity, public opinion that may affect reputation)
  • Door (opportunities, knowledge, change)

Though this list (and the meanings stated) are not exhaustive, I would like to emphasise one key pointer when interpreting dreams: do not assume the worst or equate your dream narratives with disaster or doom. To begin with, it will not benefit you and will only add to your anxiety. Second, dreams are meant to deliver useful insights and consolation in a variety of situations.

The domain of dreams is mysterious, yet it is also a place where clarity is conceived and eternal hope springs.



  1. http://www.people.vcu.edu/~djbromle/art-symbolism/student-projects-2001/Symbolism-in-Dreams.htm
  2. https://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Freud/Dreams/dreams.pdf
  3. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/hp/hpheraclitus.htm
  4. The Dream Book — Google Arts & Culture – https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/the-dream-book/MwFiHsBS2T_Qug?hl=en
  5. https://www.media.mit.edu/projects/targeted-dream-incubation/overview/
  6. https://news.mit.edu/2020/targeted-dream-incubation-dormio-mit-media-lab-0721
  7. https://00.pubpub.org/pub/83843x5m/release/1
  8. Sacred Texts and Symbols: An Indigenous Filipino Perspective on Reading – https://jps.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/ijidi/article/view/32593

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