— It's the first week of school, and there you are, a college freshman, standing in the middle of a campus crowd, buck naked. No one around you seems to be paying any attention to you, but you, of course, are horrified.
It should. Most of us have had that dream at one time or another in our lives, most likely when we were thrust into a new situation where we weren't quite sure what we were expected to do, or how we should behave.
"It's the typical first-year college student dream," says Veronica Tonay, a clinical psychologist and lecturer at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Tonay has spent years studying other people's dreams, and she takes them very seriously. Like many others in her field, she believes dreams play a crucial role in helping us handle the many challenges of surviving and coping in a world filled with complexity.
That's fitting because our dreams are also extremely complex, sometimes revealing the fears and phobias that govern so much of our activities, and rarely as sinister as they seem on the surface.
Message to Self
Just because you dreamed of being naked in front of all of your friends doesn't necessarily mean you are a closet exhibitionist and a sexual deviant. But of course you can't be sure, unless you truly understand your dream, which in turn should tell you a little about who you really are.
"Dreams are extremely useful," Tonay says. "They're messages from yourself, really."
Tonay is so hooked on dreams that she has written several books, including the recently published Every Dream Interpreted, to help people analyze their own dreams instead of sending off a few bucks to some Internet sharpie who may, or may not, have a clue as to what dreams really mean.
Ever since Sigmund Freud first postulated that our dreams reflect what we do while we're awake, and indeed even allow us to sleep because we can deal with some problems in our dreams instead of leaping out of bed to attack them head on, experts in psychoanalysis and the neuro-sciences have been trying to figure out why we dream and whether our dreams are significant.
Those two fields have not always agreed on the importance of dreams, but they seem to be drawing closer together. Experts from both camps generally agree that we dream because dreams serve a biological as well as emotional purpose.
"Nobody really knows why we dream," Tonay says, "but it's obviously a necessary biological process because we all do it, every one of us, and it might have some survival purpose behind it."
And to a surprising degree, we share many of the same dreams.
Researchers around the world have found that human beings tend to dream the same kinds of dreams, although with subtle differences. Men, for instance, tend to be more aggressive in their dreams, particularly with other men, and women tend to dream of interactions with friends.
But most of our dreams are unpleasant.
"About two-thirds of our dreams are unpleasant," Tonay says. "And we wonder why."
We also dream a lot more than we remember.
On average, we dream about five times a night, but "people tend to remember only about one to two dreams a week," Tonay says.
One reason we don't remember most of them is we have only three seconds to recall our dreams after waking up, according to clinical studies. If we wait more than three seconds, our memory of that night's dreams is wiped out.