The 12 universal dreams

Sunday, December 07, 2003

By Virginia Linn, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


Anthropologists, psychologists and dream workers have found similar themes in dreams. These so-called universal dreams transcend all generations and cultures. While not all experts agree on the same list and frequency, here's a compilation from the book, "The Universal Dream Key: The 12 most common dream themes around the world" (HarperCollins, 2001), by Patricia Garfield, based on her international survey, worldwide travel and research.

While people have many more negative dreams than positive ones, each theme has negative and positive sides.

1) Being chased or attacked

More than 80 percent of people dream they're being pursued or attacked, although who or what is attacking or doing the pursing varies from place to place. These dreams are a natural response to life stress, Garfield says.

The origin of this dream dates back to an era when humans fought off beasts or other tribal members to survive. The "monsters" of today more often are emotional beasts, she says -- fear, anxiety, anger, hatred and envy.

Flip side: Being embraced or loved.

These dreams also have early biological roots. They're driven by our genes to mate and produce children and include the sex dreams. Both men and women, it's been documented in research, experience sexual arousal during REM sleep. These dreams can supply the desired missing elements in an unsatisfying marriage, or heighten during an intense love affair.

2) Being injured, ill or dying

One myth about dreaming is that if you die in your dream, you die in life.

That's not true, of course, but dream deaths do occur. They involve deaths of famous people, your parents or children, a lover and even yourself. Garfield believes that when you dream about an accidental death of any person, that person's death symbolizes something in you that is no longer functioning.

One of the more common scenarios under this theme is of teeth falling out or crumbling.

This might have a physical origin in people gritting or grinding teeth during sleep. Freud suggested that dreams of teeth falling out are related to fears of castration, but women have this dream as often as men, Garfield says. She believes the tooth troubles in dreams are related to anger, with a dreamer acting out the clenching of his teeth. Other psychologists believe the dream reflects anxiety about appearance and how others perceive you.

Flip side: Being healed, born or reborn

Rare, but good, this dream often accompanies a new start, a new job or first day of school. Sometimes dreaming of rebirth represents your hopes for a loved one who has died.

3) Car or other vehicle trouble

Fairly common nightmare among all people and ages, whether or not the dreamers actually drive. Sometimes they have problems with an aircraft they're flying. May occur when the dreamer feels events in waking life are out of control.

Flip side: Vehicular pleasure

When your time in a car or another vehicle is delightful. This can represent freedom, or moving in the direction of your choices

4) House or property loss or damage

In these dreams, your house is damaged or destroyed by fire, water or other causes. These dreams may surface because you feel that some valuable aspect of waking life is at risk, she says.

Dreams about losing a wallet, watch or cherished piece of jewelry, such as a wedding ring, also fall into this category. Meanings vary depending on what is lost or damaged. Biologically, they may reflect a basic need to defend your territory.

Flip side: House or property improvement

You may discover new rooms in your home or dream about repairs or improvements. These dreams may occur when you feel that some valuable aspect of waking life is improving.

5) Poor test or other poor performance

You've probably dreamed of arriving for a test and found the exam has already started. Or you search fruitlessly for the room. This is a common nightmare and can occur years after you've faced the SAT. Garfield says it usually occurs when you feel you are somehow being "tested" in waking life. People continually face situations that challenge their capacity to perform well. This stems from the innate feeling that we need to achieve or compete. Some psychologists think the dreams can denote anxiety about sexual performance.

Flip side: Great test or other fine performance

This may occur when the dreamer feels that she is doing well in waking life. Not limited to exams, the dreamer may envision doing precise spins on the ice or catching a touchdown pass. Sometimes people master certain activities after they've successfully performed them in their dream.

6) Falling or drowning

Falling is one of the most common nightmares among people of all ages, and may be a reflection of feeling insecure, helpless or of having no support or solid grounding. Some people may actually fall from their beds during this dream.

Dreaming about drowning is less frequent, and often occurs when a person feels overwhelmed.

Both scenarios involve life-or-death situations and can be traced to prehistoric origins. Garfield says that dreams of falling reflect a time when our ancestors took risks when climbing trees. Falling dreams of modern day often take place from high buildings, elevators and rooftops.

Likewise, dreams of drowning go to our inborn need to breathe for survival.

People often awake to "escape'' the danger in the dreams.

A person's age and medical circumstances can influence these dreams. Toddlers and young children, as well as older people, are prone to more falls in waking life. People with heart conditions that cause fluid buildup in the lungs or those with severe colds may dream of drowning.

Flip side: Flying, swimming or dancing joyfully

Have you had that feeling of zooming through the air, feeling free, unhindered?

Flying often becomes a person's favorite dream. These can inspire the dreamer, lifting him to spiritual heights or filling him with creative notions. Pleasurable swimming may mean freely exploring your depths; dreams of dance may be a metaphor for moving freely through your life.

7) Being naked in public or inappropriately dressed

This is a common scenario that occurs at all ages, including with children. The dreams involve feelings of exposure and vulnerability, and often include an element of embarrassment or shame.

Appearing partially nude is more common than being totally naked, Garfield says. Meanings vary depending on whether this occurs at school, at work, or on an open street, and depending on what part of the body is exposed.

Wearing the wrong clothing also has various meanings. A bride being inappropriately dressed for her upcoming wedding, for example, could suggest second thoughts she has about the union.

Flip side: Being well dressed

Dreaming of being dapper or wearing a special outfit may suggest you feel good about your body or attractive, or feel good about your life

8) Missing the boat or other transport

You rush to catch a departing bus, train, airplane or ship, only to have it leave without you. These leave you engulfed in an overwhelming feeling of frustration rather than fear. Garfield suggests that these dreams reflect feelings that you are missing out on something in waking life.

Flip side: Pleasant travel

Very infrequent dreams, but may arise when you feel content about how your life is going.

9) Machine or telephone malfunction

Moderately common, and more frequent in women. These occur when you feel anxious about making an emotional connection or when you feel you're losing touch with someone. They can relate to mechanical difficulties with your body.

Flip side: Smooth operation

These usually occur when you feel there is an improvement in emotional connection. Garfield says many of the dreamers who participated in her study during bereavement reported dreams of clear connections with their deceased loved ones. Messages they received during the dreams helped them cope with their losses.

10) Natural or man-made disasters

You're confronted with overwhelming floods, tidal waves earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tornadoes, hurricanes, bombings or chemical warfare. These dreams may depict personal problems raging out of control.

They can be among the most frightening dreams. People through the ages have sought to harness nature, which can help them survive but also destroy them.

Flip side: Natural beauty, miracles or rituals

Dreams of vibrant flowers, verdant hillsides or uplifting music can leave the dreamer rejuvenated. Color is intensified, with bright yellow-green most often mentioned by dreamers. This may illustrate new growth.

Dreams of natural beauty can inspire and invigorate.

11) Being lost or trapped

In these highly common dreams, you're lost and feeling desperate. You may be buried alive or locked in a cage. Or you dream of not being able to move; you're powerless to scream or breathe.

These dreams may occur when you feel confusion or conflict about how to act in waking life.

The images are influenced by biological roots and experience. Feeling trapped or paralyzed also mirrors what occurs to the large muscles of the body during normal REM sleep, when they're paralyzed to prevent the body from acting out the dreams.

Such dreams could reflect frustrations in waking life, such as feeling trapped in a relationship or a dead-end job.

Flip side: Discovering new spaces

You may open a door in your home to find a new room or find something new in the neighborhood. These dreams occur usually when you feel an aspect of your life if opening up.

12) Being menaced by the dead or a spirit

You feel you are being haunted or berated by someone who has died. There may be feelings of terror, guilt, resentment or abandonment. They may occur when you feel guilty or responsible for a death, or anxious about the situation. Although they are quite rare, Garfield says these can be among the most uncomfortable dreams we have.

Flip side: Being guided by the dead or a spirit

These usually occur during active grief, which can last years. Visits from a deceased loved one may give you the feeling that he or she is OK, or inspire you to change your life. There's a feeling of hopefulness and comfort.