New Studies Shed Light on Dreams' Meanings

Clinical studies, incidentally, have provided the basis for much of our understanding of what our dreams mean. Patients with serious psychological disorders also dream, and their dreams tend to be similar to the dreams of others who share their affliction. That has helped psychologists grasp the relationship between various dreams and different human emotions.

Those of us who like to think of ourselves as "normal" also have many of those same dreams, even though we may not be psychopathic. Mental illness, my undergraduate psychology professor once told me, is only a matter of degree, so our dreams might help us understand our own emotional problems even if they are substantially less intense than those that afflict some others.

The Chase

As we all know, some dreams can be so frightening that we wake up in a sweat. That includes the most common of all human dreams, the dream of being chased. But the meaning of that dream is very different than it seems on the surface.

"Sometimes people will have lots of dreams about being chased, and they will think that means something terrible about them," Tonay says. The scene that the dreamer creates in his or her own mind has nothing to do with reliving the past, or the approach of some dreadful encounter, she adds. And as the nights wear on, the dream is repeated, but it evolves slightly each time.

"Typically, people have a dream where someone or something is coming after them, and they don't know what it is," she says. "Later, they will have a dream in which they see who it is, and still later they recognize it as someone they know."

But that dream continues to evolve, she says, leading to a "dream about themselves acting in a way that they don't ordinarily act."

So that dream isn't about somebody else who is out to get us. It's a dream about ourselves.

"There's some part of themselves that they are not in touch with, or they are trying to deny, and it's coming after them," she says.

It is, she adds, a message from within.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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