— 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.
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.
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 ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.