Humans have been fascinated with dreams for likely as long as humans have been dreaming. Trying to figure out what it means when you dream about someone has likely lead more than just me down a Google search rabbit hole or five. While our dreams remain something of a mystery—scientists still can’t fully explain why we dream in the first place—you are among good, scientific company if understanding what our dreams mean interests you at all.
You’ve likely heard theories about what it means if you dream about your teeth falling out or how to interpret dreams where you’re falling. Dream interpretation is often associated with the same level of scientific evidence as things like horoscopes. While studies certainly haven’t proven that dreams are, say, psychic premonitions, there is some research that suggests dream interpretation isn’t entirely pseudoscience.
“The data on dream content do 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),” Patrick McNamara, Ph.D. wrote for Psychology Today in 2013. However, things like “dream dictionaries” do little to give any scientific reasoning for why you dream about what you do. As Stephanie A. Sarkis, Ph.D. puts simply for Psychology Today, “Your dream chipmunk is not someone else's dream chipmunk.”
I mean, it would admittedly be absurd if all of our dreams about Michael B. Jordan meant that we all weren’t meant to be with Michael B. Jordan. His schedule doesn’t have the kind of time.
So, if there is no single definition of a dream and if dreaming about Michael B. Jordan doesn’t make the chances of meeting in real life any greater, why examine our dreams at all? Essentially, understanding our dreams can help us better understand our brains and how they work.
Was that dream you had about your high school guidance counselor particularly vivid? Instead of trying to reconnect on Facebook, it might be worth asking why you had a vivid dream at all. We sleep in cycles and dreams occur during the REM cycle, which first happens 70 to 90 minutes after we fall asleep. If you wake up feeling like you had an especially vivid dream, it could be because you woke up during the REM cycle. Things like being sleep deprived, drinking alcohol before bed, and having low blood sugar are all factors that can make your dreams more vivid, according to previous research.
Another reason you may dream about someone? Your brain was reminded of them earlier in the day, either consciously or subconsciously. "When people you know show up in dreams, they are representing something within yourself," Carolyn Cole, LCPC, LMFT, NCC, tells Bustle via email. "So, it's important to also take into consideration any feelings that arise in the dream and the context or any other symbolism, to really understand it more clearly."
Clinical psychologist Dr. John Mayer told Elite Daily that we can think of our brains as a computer. “What happens is, when you fall into sleep, those thoughts and images and data that are spinning in your brain prior to sleep,” Dr. Mayer said. “Those things are going to continue to spin throughout the night.” Basically, you may have had a thought, memory, or experience your brain has somehow linked to that person you dreamt about, whether you realize it or not.
“We have no control of how all that information you receive during the day might show up as you sleep," Dr. Mayer explained. “That's why it can sometimes make people uncomfortable.”
So, no need to fret too much about whatever weird sex dream you may have had.
Because there is no one-size-fits-all interpretation of dreams, there’s no way to say with certainty why your ex was in your dream last night or what it means if you keep dreaming about your college roommate.
"With everything, it's important to dig a bit deeper to see what part of your unconscious self is being shown to you in the dream," Cole tells Bustle. "It can be helpful to talk it through with someone, such as a therapist or dream expert. Many of my clients now say "oh my gosh, let me tell you about this dream I had" and we break it down and talk through it to better understand deeper information that's being communicated to them."
While your dream could be symbolic of a repressed or unresolved problem, it’s just as likely to be as simple as having seen them while scrolling through your Instagram feed before bed or as random as walking by person that kind of looked like them earlier in the day.
Rather than freaking out entirely (or, god forbid, texting your ex), think about what you may have encountered earlier in the day that reminded you of them. Cole also recommends keeping a dream journal as a way to track recurring themes in your dreams. Think about what feeling, space, idea, etc. that person represents to you. Or you could just think about spending your life with Michael B. Jordan.
This post was originally published on November 1, 2017. It was updated on June 19, 2019.