The subject of dreams often crops up in counselling. It’s not hard to see why – after all, counselling inevitably involves looking beneath the surface of someone’s thinking and feeling, and dreams can sometimes be a way of accessing this.

As you might imagine, with something as subjective and unique as the dream experience there are a number of theories on what it’s all about. The best-known exponent of the meaning of dreams was Sigmund Freud, whose principal theory was that dreams represent our instinctive drives and that these spring mainly from our unconscious minds. So, if we have grown up in an environment where any of these instincts have been repressed, our dreams will express these drives one way or another, perhaps in a form that is difficult to recognise.

Carl Jung, who was twenty years younger than Freud and was an earlier follower and friend of his, developed and modified this theory (later a cause of great friction between the two).

Much more has of course been written on the subject of dreams since Freud and Jung, and given the proliferation of theories it is useful to gather together the key elements. A book that goes a long way towards this, drawing notably on the work of Ann Faraday, is Counselling with Dreams and Nightmares by Delia Cushway and Robyn Sewell, first published in 1992. This introduces us to the framework of five stages of dreaming, each relating to a deeper level of sleep (stages one to four) with the fifth stage representing the transition from a deeper level back to a lighter level. This stage five is characterised by rapid eye movements (REM sleep) when the eyes move together and jerkily under closed eyelids. It is mostly during this stage of sleep that we dream.

Of course with advances in neuroscience over the last twenty-five years or so much more has been uncovered about the physical process of dreaming. But it is still widely seen as an organisational/integration process, where one part of the brain tries to make sense of random signals spontaneously generated by another part. Sometimes the dreamer may actually be aware that they are dreaming at the time (so called ‘lucid dreaming’), and this can offer the dreamer some control over the dream’s content.

But how can we work out what, if anything, our dreams mean? And is this even desirable or helpful? This depends on how troubled or curious we are about the experience. Cushway and Sewell refer to Faraday’s model of interpretation, which suggests a number of ways that the meaning of our dreams can be analysed:

One can look firstly at the dream content objectively and try to make sense of it in the context of the dreamer’s current waking preoccupations. Or one can just take it at face value and look at the literal meaning of the dream. Or, where the content is mysterious or ‘just plain weird’, a more intuitive approach might be more helpful.

Ultimately we are trying to interpret messages from material that does not easily lend itself to human understanding, because dreams arise from unconscious or semi-conscious material that is not directly or immediately accessible to us.

But if we can explore our dreams from a position of curiosity, rather than fear, we may in time develop a deeper understanding of, and sympathy for, what our unconscious mind is telling us.