Whether or not we can recall them, we all have dreams when we sleep. Sometimes they fade away instantly when we wake up; other times they stick with us long after they’ve occurred. Either way, these subconsciously generated scenes have been a subject of human fascination for thousands of years. Humans have been asking “what does it mean when you dream about someone?” for as long as we’ve been having dreams.
Ancient civilizations, including the Babylonians, Egyptians and Greeks, all put stock in dream analysis, believing they were prophetic or reflective of a person’s inner soul. In 1900, psychologist Sigmund Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams, legitimizing the study of dreams as part of human psychology.
Since then, countless other psychologists, spiritualists and mental health professionals have used dream interpretation and analysis to help clients unlock their unconscious thoughts and potentially work through issues that impact their conscious minds.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about dreams is that they lie at the intersection of reality and fiction. Rubin Naiman, PhD, a psychologist and the sleep and dream specialist at the University of Arizona Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine, noted that, no matter what one believes about dreams or their meaning, they always impact us.
“From a simple physiological standpoint, when we dream, the brain is responding to these images as if they were real,” Naiman said. “The body, brain, heart rate, neurology, etc., responds to a dream the same way you’d respond in waking life. We all have this ‘other life’ [in the dream world] that impacts us psychologically and physiologically, whether we remember it or not.”
What are dreams, anyway?
Scientifically, dreams are images, sounds and sensations that occur within the mind during the rapid eye movement (REM) phase of sleep—the deepest sleep stage (about 20 to 25% of our total sleep time) in which we experience rapid, shallow breathing, erratic eye movements and temporary paralysis of the limb muscles. Neuroscientific studies have suggested that the physiological aspects of REM sleep could explain the psychological phenomenon of dreams.
Scientists have long attempted to figure out what dreams are and why we have them. While there’s no universally accepted explanation for the purpose of dreams, there are quite a few theories that have emerged since the early days of dream analysis:
- A reflection of unconscious desires.
- Interpreting random signals received from the brain and body during sleep.
- Processing memories and experiences that we have consciously experienced.
- Preparing us for potential future threats.
- Cognitive simulation of real-life experiences.
- Developing cognitive capabilities.
- Exploring thoughts that would be too difficult or disturbing for our conscious minds to process.
“Most of the emotions people report [in their dreams] are negative, filled with fear, anxiety, sadness, grief, anger—and there’s a good reason for that,” said Naiman. “Dreaming is actually a psychological digestive process…[for] experiences from waking life.”
While neuroscientists frequently focus on why and how dreams are formed, other professions, not necessarily scientific but invested in dream interpretation nonetheless, tend to explore a dream’s content to interpret it and link it to a subject’s waking life.
“Dream interpretation has always been a source of interest to people,” explained Linda Lauren, a self-described fourth-generation psychic medium who assists clients with dream interpretation. “There is a strong desire to understand what a dream meant and what it might want to reveal to us. Symbols, signs and guideposts hold the key to becoming aware of what a dream might mean.”
Dream analysis is not as popular as it was in the days of Freud and Carl Jung, but the interpretation and exploration of dreams is used in many modern forms of therapy, including person-centered therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and Gestalt therapy. For instance, mental health professionals may use techniques like image rehearsal therapy (IRT) to help patients “rewrite” the storylines of recurring dreams linked to post-traumatic stress.
So what’s the deal with dreaming about someone?
Very often, the people who appear in our dreams are ones we know from life. In fact, a Harvard Medical School study found that nearly half of the “characters” that appear in dreams are named individuals known to the dreamer. Naturally, when you dream about someone you care about—especially if the dream was strange or disturbing—you might want to learn if it means something in the waking world.
While some groups believe dreams are purely biological and hold no symbolic or credible meaning, there are some fairly logical explanations for why we might dream about specific people.
“There are two reasons why you would dream of a specific person,” Lauren said. “One is the obvious: That person was on your mind because of something you recently saw, heard or experienced. If it is someone you know, then chances are good that you have something on your mind regarding that person, or you recently came in contact with them.”
Lauren noted that the second reason for dreaming about someone is that there may be something you are having difficulty facing when it comes to that specific person. Both reasons are rooted in the idea that dreams help us process real-life information and experiences, and unconscious thoughts and desires.
So what does it mean when you keep dreaming about someone, particularly in specific unusual circumstances (for instance, when you dream about someone dying)? Research shows that dreams are strongly tied to emotions, so it’s likely that we’re feeling a certain way—consciously or subconsciously—about the person we dream of.
Naiman emphasized that dream “dictionaries” reduce the content of our dreams into neat interpretations through the lens of the waking world, so it’s impossible to say that dreaming about a specific situation definitively means the same thing for each individual person. However, there are a few potential interpretations that could apply to your dreams about a person, based on popular dream analysis theories:
- Dreaming about someone’s death does not mean that person will die in the immediate future, but may instead represent the “symbolic end” of something in your life, like a job or a relationship.
- Dreaming about a co-worker or a situation at work, especially one in which you’re unprepared, late, stuck, etc., is often interpreted to indicate anxiety or fear about your career path.
- Dreaming about a family member or loved one can hold many different meanings depending on the context and emotion of the dream, but typically reflects how we’re feeling about that person. For example, it may be that you have unresolved issues with a particular family member or that you want to reconnect with someone you fell out of touch with.
- Dreaming about someone romantically, such as a crush or your current partner, seems pretty logical. However, having a romantic dream about someone inappropriate or whom you don’t feel an attraction toward may not necessarily indicate that you like them—it may simply be a symbolic representation of a different emotion you feel toward that person. For example, a romantic dream about your boss might mean you crave their power or authority.
- Dreaming about an ex can also mean a lot of different things depending on the context. Most experts agree that “ex” dreams are our way of working through problems we faced during the relationship, processing the breakup or even dealing with feelings of rejection or anger in your present life that have nothing to do with that ex.
While these interpretations can be a good starting point, the best way to interpret the meaning of your dreams is to simply listen to it, said Naiman.
“Don’t come at it with a predetermined sense of what it ‘probably’ means,” he said. “When we bring a willingness to listen to the dream, hear it…without reducing it to waking life parameters, the dream speaks to us [and] interesting patterns emerge.”
Can I control my dreams?
Some individuals claim to be able to control scenarios and outcomes in their dream using lucid dreaming techniques.
“A lucid dream is one in which the dreamer wakes within the dream and is aware that they are dreaming,” said Lauren. “From there, they make an attempt to direct the action of the dream as they would in their waking world.”
Lauren notes that senses are often heightened in a lucid dream: “You can hear and feel the wind, clearly see the colors of the sky [and] experience the taste, touch and smell of whatever is in your dream,” she said.
Roughly 55% of people say they have experienced at least one lucid dream in their lifetime. According to Healthline, these dreams often happen spontaneously, but certain methods are said to encourage lucid dreaming. These include:
- Reality checks throughout the day that involve asking yourself if you’re dreaming and checking your environment for signs of dreaming, such as strange reflections or being able to push your hands through solid objects.
- Waking yourself up in the middle of the night, staying awake for 30 minutes, then falling back asleep.
- Concentrating on a recent dream you had and recognizing “dreamsigns” that only occur when you dream.
- Laying down and relaxing until you experience a hypnagogic hallucination (one that occurs when you’re just about to fall asleep).
The ability to control your dreams can be beneficial if you suffer from chronic nightmares associated with conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, insomnia, reactions to medication and more. Naiman noted that dreams can help people re-contextualize these experiences.
However, be warned that frequent sleep interruptions, such as those used to induce a lucid dream, may lead to mental and physical health issues that stem from poor sleep.
“There’s evidence [of] a correlation between mood disorders, anxiety and depression, and disrupted REM sleep,” Naiman said.
We may never fully agree on the science or meaning behind dreams, but paying attention to our dreams can help us acknowledge things that are troubling us in real life. Dreaming about specific people you know likely indicates that you’ve been thinking about that person or an emotional situation connected to them. For instance, if you subconsciously have some unresolved issues with a person you’ve lost touch with, then dream about them seemingly out of nowhere, you might be compelled upon waking to try to look them up and get back in touch to find some closure.
Both Naiman and Lauren recommended keeping a dream journal if we want to better understand the things our dreams might be trying to tell us.
“Write down your impressions the minute you wake up from the dream,” Lauren said. “Use your five senses as the gauge and jot down the people, places, colors, scents, words, sounds, tastes and feelings that the dream presented to you.”
Lauren advised being as detailed as possible and then writing the date and time of your dream. After a month or so, look back at the journal—you may find that a message reveals itself.
“Dreams can inform us and guide us through life,” Naiman said. “Begin with the possibility that [your] unconscious is not only friendly, but it’s intelligent and trying to speak to [you].”