Freaky Dreams: What Do They Mean?

Whether it’s falling off a cliff or public nudity, find out what may be causing those vivid, crazy dreams.

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on July 22, 2010
9 min read

Consider this freaky dream. You're at a black-tie gala in a fancy hotel banquet room with lots of other people. You're all having a good time eating dinner, dancing, and talking. When it's time to go, you look for your purse, but it's gone. As you anxiously search for it, a fast-moving river appears out of nowhere, bisecting the room. Your purse is floating on the river, but you can't reach it. It is moving too swiftly. When you awaken, you're filled with a sense of panic.

Now if you plugged the dream into an online dream analyzer, such as you might find at, you'd learn that a purse is a symbol for wealth and resources, a hotel represents transition, and a river connotes emotion. Since you have been living through a kitchen remodeling -- with its attendant financial stresses and upheavals -- this dream echoes and amplifies what's going on in your waking life.

Human beings dream, and so do, scientists believe, most mammals and some birds. On the most basic level, a dream is the experience you have of envisioned images, sounds, or other sensations while you sleep. They are an internal mental process. But dreams are actually much more than that.

Sigmund Freud's theory was that your dreams are an expression of what you're repressing during the time you are awake. And Carl Jung believed that dreams provide messages about "lost" or "neglected" parts of our selves that need to be reintegrated. Many dreams simply come from a preoccupation with the day's activities. But some offer rich, symbolic expressions -- an interface between the conscious and the unconscious that can fill in the gaps of our self-knowledge and provide information and insight.

In his book The Three "Only" Things: Tapping the Power of Dreams, Coincidence, and Imagination, Robert Moss writes, "Dreams are open vistas of possibility that take us beyond our everyday self-limiting beliefs and behaviors. Before we dismiss our dream lover, our dream home or our dream job as unattainable -- 'only a dream' -- we want to examine carefully whether there are clues in the dream that could help us to manifest that juicy vision."

Everyone dreams every night -- even if we don't remember our dreams.

Tom Scammell, MD, associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, says no one knows why we dream. "There is a strong movement in the research community to research how sleep improves memory and learning," Scammell says. "One speculative possibility is that dreaming allows you the opportunity to practice things you may or may not ever have to do, like running away or fighting off a predator."

Three or four times a night, you have a period of sleep that lasts approximately 90 minutes called REM -- rapid eye movement -- sleep. It is during REM sleep that your brain is more active. And according to Scammell, it's then that conditions are right for "story-like" dreams that are rich in action, complexity, and emotion.

"You are most likely to recall dreams if you wake at the end of a REM episode," says Scammell. "Americans, who are chronically sleep-deprived, probably miss out on some REM sleep. This builds up pressure for REM sleep. So when you're catching up on your sleep, you may have more REM sleep with more intense dreams."

Scientists have long debated whether dreams have meaning. But those who work with their dreams, either independently or with the aid of dream interpreters, believe that understanding dreams can provide meaningful clues to feelings, thoughts, behaviors, motives, and values.

Artists, entrepreneurs, inventors, and scientists often get creative ideas from dreams. Jeff Taylor dreamed up Jack Nicklaus had a dream of a new golf grip. And Nobel laureate and scientist Wolfgang Pauli called dreams his "secret laboratory."

Kelly Sullivan Walden is a certified clinical hypnotherapist and dream coach. In her book I Had the Strangest Dream...: The Dreamer's Dictionary for the 21st Century, she divides dreams into eight categories:

  • Processing
  • Venting (nightmares)
  • Integration
  • Breakdown/breakthrough
  • Recurring
  • Precognitive
  • Prophetic
  • Wish fulfillment

The most common, she says, are recurring and venting dreams.

Moss gives an example of a predictive dream: "One of the biggest oil discoveries in history ... resulted from a dream of a retired British colonial official living in Kuwait in 1937. Colonel Dickson's dream revealed a specific location near an unusual sidr tree in the Burqan hills. The Kuwait Oil Company, which had been drilling dry holes far away, was persuaded to move a rig to the location identified from the dream and hit a gusher."

Processing dreams can be used to diagnose and solve physical and emotional problems.

"Some of our dreamscapes are living dioramas of what is going on inside our bodies," explains Moss. "The ancient Greek physician Galen used dreams to diagnose patients' complaints. A friend of mine was alerted to a problem when her dead father appeared to her in a dream, accompanied by a doctor and yelled 'Get to a doctor at once! You have breast cancer!' She acted on that dream and believes that it helped save her life."

Eva Van Brunt is the West Coast media manager at the law firm DLA Piper. She thinks pregnancy is contributing to the intensity and vividness of her dreams. "It's been remarkable -- and a little annoying. Last night I dreamt I was in the security line at an airport and couldn't find my license. I woke up in an utter panic, and it took a few moments to realize the dream was not real."

But she's also found her vivid dreams helpful.

"A few days ago, I couldn't find my camera anywhere in my house. I grew quite anxious and ended up looking for it until bedtime without success. Eventually I got to sleep. Next thing I know, I am having a very vivid dream." The dream, she says, was about a concert she and her husband were at a month earlier. She was walking up to the gate and saw a no cameras sign and found herself getting flustered because she had one in her purse. Her husband suggested she put the camera in an inside zipper pocket of her purse because it likely wouldn't get searched. "In the dream, that's what I did. And it's also what I had done on the night of the concert." The next morning, she found the camera in the inner pocket of her purse. "The only thing I can think," she says, "is that my body triggered the memory to alleviate the anxiety."

What are we to make of the crazy dreams of adults?

Cognitive scientist and Duke University professor Owen Flanagan is the author of Sleep, Dreams & the Evolution of the Conscious Mind. He has written that "Bizarreness will increase ... the more you have on your mind."

Bert. O. States, professor emeritus of dramatic arts at the University of California, Santa Barbara, agrees. In a paper called "Dream Bizarreness and Inner Thought," he writes, "Dreams are a psychical prism through which reality somehow gets refracted -- as opposed to reflected."

Deidre Barrett is the immediate past president of the International Association of the Study of Dreams and author of Committee of Sleep. She says all dreams are a little strange by waking thought standards. "But artists and scientists report dreams we call bizarre or weird as quite positive or interesting or having creative potential."

Moss tells WebMD, "Crazy dreams may actually be crazy like a fox, using wild dramas and special effects to get us to remember and pay attention to something we have been blocking out -- or simply to lighten up."

All of us can recall strange dreams. But interpreting and understanding them can be tricky.

Some of the most common dreams include teeth falling out (indicating a possible fear of aging or death), falling (loss of confidence or threat to security), or public nudity (feelings of vulnerability or exposure of weakness). These are examples of archetypal dreams that exist across time, culture, and people.

But most dreams are intensely personal. They reflect the underlying thoughts and feelings of the dreamer. Symbols -- images or objects with obvious meaning in daily life -- serve as metaphors, representing something partially known. A lion in a dream, for example, can mean something different to a circus performer than to a teen who claims it as her favorite stuffed animal. By examining each dream element and looking for parallels between associations, you can decipher a dream's meaning.

"Even if it doesn't initially make sense to you, contemplate the dream, meditate on it, marinate in it," suggests Sullivan Walden. "Pretend you are on a treasure hunt. Your interest in uncovering the mystery of what your dreams are telling you will lead you to the gold that is waiting for you."

Barrett says that you can explore dreams on your own, with a peer-led dream group, or with friends. "We are often blind to our own issues and associations. But someone else can see things objectively."

Moss recommends you play the 'What Part of Me' game -- pretending that everything in the dream is a part of you and notice what its condition or behavior may be saying to you about yourself. "In your dream house, for example, if there's a problem with the plumbing or a room you have never explored, what could that be saying about a part of you that needs some TLC or a part of your potential that is waiting to be recognized and opened up."

Another technique he offers is to listen for puns and double entendres. "If there's a train on the tracks in your dream, could it be prompting you to think about what 'track' you are on, what 'line' you are following? Say your dream features shoes. A shoe has a 'sole,' which sounds like 'soul,' so maybe the condition of your footwear in a dream says something about the state of your vital energy."

Recurring dreams can continue for days, weeks, months, and even years.

Barrett says the majority of people over a lifetime have recurring dreams. "They are more important, on average, than other dreams. They are probably your unconscious trying to tell you something, a more significant issue."

She says there are two key clusters of recurring dreams. Most of them are nightmares, though some are positive or neutral in nature.

"The single likeliest [dreams] to get locked in are posttraumatic dreams, where you are reliving something that happened while you were awake," she says. Soldiers or victims of violence may experience such recurring dreams. "The details unfold like they do in real life but often go one step further. The thing you are most afraid of in real life presents in the dream."

The other type of recurring dream is one where you haven't experienced the trauma in your waking life. "These dreams include monsters and surreal, impossible settings," she says. "They are much more metaphoric. Sometimes symbolism is obvious, sometimes it's quite a puzzle."

Should we be concerned about recurring themes? Barrett says only if the content is troubling. In the case of disturbing posttraumatic stress dreams, she recommends seeking help from a therapist. "They will diminish over time."

Some people can remember several dreams a night. Others recall dreams only occasionally or not at all.

"People differ greatly in dream content, both the intensity and recall," says Scammell. Interestingly, according to Barrett, women and younger people report greater dream recall, as do those who sleep for longer periods of time.

Dreams are by their nature, uncontrollable. But there are things you can do to increase your dream retention:

  • Get enough sleep. Those who sleep for longer periods of time enjoy more REM sleep, resulting in more dreams and possibly greater memory of them.
  • Employ the power of suggestion. Experts recommend that before you go to sleep, remind yourself that you want to remember your dreams.
  • Keep a journal. Have a pen and paper or a recorder at your bedside so you can log your dreams when you awaken before hopping out of bed. If not immediately recorded, dreams become elusive and difficult to retrieve.
  • Get curious. When you first wake up, lie still, stay quiet, and see if you can recall a dream. It may flood over you. Mull it over. Having an open mind, reading about dreams, and discussing them actively with friends and family may encourage future dreaming.
  • Limit drug and alcohol intake. Sleep and, by extension, dreams are affected by alcohol. And medications, including antidepressants, can induce crazy dreams or even nightmares. Talk to your doctor about the effects of drugs on your dreams.