Dream interpretation has long fascinated humans. We’re constantly searching for meaning in our dreams, trying to make sense out of what’s often nonsense — although this kind of interpretation can get a little messy when you’re dealing with real people appearing in dreams. For example, what does it mean if someone dreams about you? According to experts, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re crushing on you or anything like that (so, uh, sorry to dash your hopes if that’s what you were thinking); it’s all about what you represent to them more abstractly.
The important thing to remember — about all dreams, but especially when they involve real people appearing in them — is that context matters. “Dreams are symbolic, they are not real people,” Jungian analyst Vocata George, Ph.D. told the Huffington Post in 2011. Additionally, as Stephen Klein noted over at DreamStop earlier in 2017, actual people appearing in our dreams can be representative of “an emotion, thought, or feeling that is tied to that person.”
For this reason, dreams about real people often aren’t about those people at all; rather, they reveal something about the dreamer, whether it’s an unexplored part of themselves or an emotion they’re currently working through. Klein gave as an example a dream about someone’s partner: If that person represents “a safe place” and “a feeling of being loved,” not being able to find that person in a dream “could indicate an internal fear of losing your safety blanket.” Or, said George to HuffPo, a dream about a person from someone’s past who was often sad might prompt the dreamer to ask themself, “What part of [myself] is sad?”
Sometimes, though, dreams about people aren’t as clear-cut as that. It can help, as clinical psychologist Dr. John Mayer told Elite Daily recently, to think of the brain as kind of like a computer processing data. “What happens is, when you fall into sleep, those thoughts and images and data that are spinning your brain prior to sleep — those things are going to continue to spin throughout the night,” Mayer said. The thing is, we don’t always know how that “data” might surface in our dreams, which can make it all seem kind of random — even when the “data” in question is a person or figure in someone’s life.
So: If someone has dreamed about you, it’s important not to read too much into it. While it might be indicative of the person who dreamed about you associating you with certain emotions, it’s not actually about you — it’s about how the dreamer relatesto those emotions. Your image just happens to be a useful conduit through which they can examine them. Or, it might even just be that they saw something during the course of their day that reminded them of you, even unconsciously, which then translated into you appearing in their dream that night — a phenomenon called “day residue.”
Of course, an adjacent question to all of this is whether dream interpretation is legit at all, or whether it’s just pseudoscience. As Patrick McNamara, Ph.D. wrote at Psychology Today in 2013, research on dream content does “support some common linkages between specific dream content variables such as type of characters (e.g. male strangers) and very broad outcomes in dream action (such as presence of physical aggression in the dream)”; we also know that our brains sometimes use sleep to solve waking problems. However, the idea of “dream symbols” — of certain elements appearing in dreams universally meaning something specific, as many “dream dictionaries” suggest — isn’t rooted in science. Stephanie A. Sarkis, Ph.D. put it succinctly at Psychology Today: “Your chipmunk is not someone else's chipmunk.”
Me? Based on my own personal experiences, I’m inclined to think that dream interpretation is real, but only to an extent. I don’t always (or often) remember my dreams, but I do know that when I’m overly stressed about something, I always have a classic “HOLY COW MY TEETH ARE FALLING OUT” dream. When I was still working in the theatre, I used to get actor’s nightmares a lot, too, although typically only after I’d closed a show, rather than before it opened or during a run; I assume this somewhat bizarre habit was my brain’s way of letting go of all the stress inherent to, y’know, working in the theatre.
That said, though, sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar — and the same, I think, is true of dreams.
So, if someone tells you they had a dream about you? Don’t take it personally. It’s not about you. It’s about them. And, honestly, it might even mean nothing at all.