science of us

How to Actually Interpret Your Dreams

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

We’re generally taught to ignore our dreams, laugh at them, or at the very least acknowledge their dullness (“dreams” being one of This American Life’s seven most boring conversation topics, alongside diet and periods). But life is also filled with nudges toward dream-interpretation: there are books, courses, podcasts, games, specialists, and endless internet speculation (what does it mean to dream about an ex, for instance?). Whether a dream can or should ever really be interpreted remains up for debate, but in my opinion the closest thing to a “real” dream interpretation — now that I’ve experienced it firsthand — is what happens in a dream group. I found out about these groups by way of science writer Alice Robb, who discusses them in her new book, Why We Dream: The Transformative Power of Our Nightly Journey.

Dreams aren’t boring, Robb writes, and the act of discussing them in a group setting can be surprisingly connective: “Just as dreams open up conversations on sensitive or embarrassing issues in a therapeutic setting,” she writes, “they can also facilitate intimate conversations among friends.” A dream group is a gathering of people — typically fewer than 15 — who meet once a month in someone’s home to discuss dreams (and life), in a three-stage process. (The process was conceptualized in the 1970s by psychoanalyst Montague Ullman.) Only one dream, from one person, is discussed per meeting, and a session typically takes about two or three hours. Food and drinks are often served, and the session is usually run by the person who started the group, although there’s no official prerequisite.

When Robb invited me to sit in on her and her friends’ dream group, I wasn’t immediately sold on the idea of spending hours discussing a stranger’s dream (which did sound a little boring), but by the end of the experience I had been converted. The overall feeling was intimate and thoughtful, and I was struck by the group’s gentle intensity.

To start your own dream group, you need a few open-minded acquaintances willing to follow the three-stage process, outlined below. Also, Robb’s advice: “Stick to the steps, even if it feels forced; you’ll get used to it, and having that structure in place makes it easier to have an emotional conversation. And this applies to any group you’re trying to gather: do not ask people to take a poll about their schedule. Just tell them when/where the thing is happening.”

Robb’s group was mostly women in their 20s and 30s, and we met one evening in one of their Brooklyn apartments. The host had ordered pizza and made salad, and we sat around her coffee table drinking wine and seltzer while music played quietly in the background. The person who’d brought the dream, J., seemed a little nervous but also excited.

Here’s how it works:

Stage 1: The dreamer distributes copies of their typed-up dream (200–500 words) and reads it aloud. Afterward, the group asks the dreamer strictly technical questions about the dream, for clarification. For instance, some questions that came up after we’d heard J.’s dream: “The melon that came out of the vending machine — was it loose or in a container?” (It was in a container.) “Did you know the mom in the car?” (No.) “Tell us more about the guy in the ’50s-style motel — how did you know he’d killed somebody?” (It was just understood.)

At first I was surprised that people were asking about parts of the dream that had little interest to me. Who cares about the mom in the car, I thought, let’s talk about the crazy ending with the train stuck in an eternal time loop! Although as Robb writes in the book: “Different members of the group pick up on different layers of meaning.”

Stage 2: In the next stage, the dreamer goes quiet while the rest of the group digs a little deeper and speculates on what the dream would feel like if it were their own: “If this were my dream, I’d be struck by the sense of frustration…” “If this were my dream, I’d notice the reappearance of the metal eyes…” This was the longest part of the process, at least for the session I sat in on. Everyone shared what fears and worries or memories the dream would have prompted in them — and what objects and patterns and textures they would have noticed. At first I didn’t know what to say, but then I suddenly had many things to say. “If this were my dream I would have felt a sense of dread at the end,” I said. “Getting on the same ride again, being stuck. Like, ‘What am I doing?’” Weeks later, I still sort of feel a sense of dread about this part of a stranger’s dream.

Stage 3: In the final stage, we talk to the dreamer again, asking more questions, except this time they’re juicier: “How did knowing you were trapped make you feel?” “What’s going on in your real life with W.?” “Do you feel worried about so-and-so? Do you think X has to do with your relationship to Y?” The dreamer also gets to respond to the speculations and observations made in stage 2.

By this point, the social boundaries felt blurry and people were asking the dreamer such personal questions — and the dreamer, J., was responding with such candor — that I felt kind of hypnotized, and I think I stared at J.’s face while they spoke for something like 15 minutes straight. Eventually, slowly, a sort of “solution” begins to emerge — a general consensus, agreeable to the dreamer, about what the dream means or suggests about reality. Once this loose solution has been reached, another person (not the dreamer) rereads the dream aloud, marking the session’s end.

Afterward, over email, I asked J. if they felt that their dream had been “solved.” They wrote:

By the end of the session I felt, as I always do, sort of shocked. I went into the group almost unsure of my dream, but the group pulled out what I couldn’t see, and what I think I needed to hear. I don’t know what I’m going to do now, but at least I see this problem in my life more clearly. Dream group is a wild experience! But a very safe-feeling one.

That night I went to bed intending to remember my dreams — apparently this intention helps, as does regularly writing dreams down in the morning (or at least playing them back to yourself). It worked: I dreamed my dad and I were swimming in a dark swimming hole on the side of a cliff. It was weird and rugged terrain, sort of like the surface of the moon, and before we had figured out how deep the black water was, he dove in headfirst — wait where are you going …

How to Actually Interpret Your Dreams