Just as thoughts constantly churn through your mind during the day, the same thing can happen at night. If you’re having a recurring dream about the same person every evening, you may wonder what it all means. According to experts, it depends on the context and who you’re dreaming about when your head hits the pillow. Nonetheless, it’s worth paying attention.
“If you’re always dreaming about your spouse or child, then you don’t have to wonder why, but if you’re dreaming about somebody that you don’t see very often, or someone who isn’t important in your waking life, then you may want to pay attention,” says Deirdre Barrett, a psychologist and dream researcher at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
If a person that you don’t think about often during the day emerges in your dreams as a source of support, then it may indicate something different than if that person is causing conflict, says Barrett.
“You may be feeling something that you’re not particularly conscious of towards them, or for some reason, they’re mirroring a side of you that you’re not conscious of in your waking life,” says Barrett.
Tip of the Iceberg
Still, for the most part, the purpose of a recurring character in your dreams isn’t laid out in the research, says Ken Paller, director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. He says that from a neuroscience perspective, this isn’t something that we’ve studied and perhaps more importantly, we only remember a small portion of our dreams each night. Judging our dreams by what we remember is likely inaccurate. You may remember one person from your dreams, but there could also be many more people from other dreams that you just don’t recall.
“The dream you might recall is just the tip of the iceberg. We never get the full story of our dreams, we get a tiny piece of them, so what we’re remembering is biased,” says Paller. “When people remember their dreams, it’s filtered through all these levels of what they focus on.”
According to Paller, to truly know what a recurring person means in a dream, you’d have to remember more of your dreams. One way to do this would be to wake people up periodically throughout the night, rather than just having them recall their dreams when they wake up on their own.
Paller co-authored a recent study in Current Biology, where participants communicated with researchers in the middle of lucid dreams through a series of eye movements.
“Lucid dreamers were able to follow instructions to compute mathematical operations, answer yes-or-no questions, or discriminate stimuli in the visual, tactile and auditory modalities,” write the study authors. One could use this type of communication to recall dreams in real time, just after they’ve happened, which would be more accurate.
While we’re not there yet, it doesn’t mean that dreams aren’t worth analyzing. Paller says that dreams can give us good information for working with issues we may be dealing with at the time.
“It could reflect what we’re thinking about a lot in our waking state,” Paller says.
Dreams and memories, in general, also connect to one another, says Paller. When you think of one thing, it might make you think of something else. This is also true of people. Our brain makes connections that we’re not privy to at night. It’s how we store memories, and it might also be how we dream.
In the end, there’s so much we don’t know about the dream state that it’s impossible to fully absorb what a particular recurring person might indicate. Still, Barrett contends that if a particular person is coming up time and time again, it might be worth exploring the reason behind it.
But you needn’t be concerned if you’re having a romance or erotic dream about someone other than your partner. Wondering about what a person might mean can be effective, but feeling guilty about them — let’s leave that to the dream state.