In my own experience, I have found that dreams generally fall into certain categories. Among them are the following:
Some people say they are plagued with frequent nightmares, but I have been very fortunate in having experienced these kinds of dreams very rarely. I define a nightmare as a terrifying dream that usually will cause one to awaken, sometimes abruptly from the dream itself, with physical signs of fright: cold sweats, trembling, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, and such like. I personally doubt that I have a true nightmare more than once every few years. Though I’m sure I’ve had more, I can only remember two specifically — one that occurred when I was about 7 or 8 years old and the other when I was in my 40s. I will record them below.
These differ from nightmares in that, while they are disturbing or troubling, they do not result in true fright. Generally one does not awaken abruptly from these dreams, but because of their disturbing nature they may stay on one’s mind for some time after waking. Usually these types of dreams involve either the dreamer or someone close to them being in a life-threatening situation, dying, killing someone else, committing a crime, or other such things. In my own experience, these occur far more frequently than nightmares, but I do not have them often. I read once that both disturbing dreams and nightmares are usually brought on by indigestion. As I have not had enough true nightmares to make that assessment regarding them specifically, I have noticed that most times when I have disturbing dreams they are accompanied by some degree of indigestion, often indigestion that began before going to sleep. Thus how we feel physically upon retiring must have some impact on determining what we dream.
These are by far the most common to me. They involve things that happen in everyday life. While they may (and often do) involve distortions, anachronistic time sequences, and other fantastic elements, they otherwise focus on things and events common to everyday experiences. I have the least ability to remember mundane dreams in detail, perhaps because they generally are not very memorable by their very nature.
I suppose mundane dreams also can be pleasant, but by this term I mean more specifically dreams that are truly pleasant experiences, that give one fond memories of them upon awaking, and that tend to remain with one for some time. Usually when I experience a pleasant dream I strongly desire for the dream to continue and wish I could go back into it, either in real life or just dreaming about it again on another night. I have these types of dreams fairly often, perhaps as frequently as once every month or so, and always look forward to them when they occur.
Dream researchers define a lucid dream as one in which the person dreaming is aware that he is in a dream. Sometimes the dreamer may even be able to control the actions of the dream. Although my reading on the subject tends to imply that these types of dreams are rather rare, in my own experience they are fairly common.
As stated above, most of the time when I dream I know I am dreaming. Especially when something bad happens in one of my dreams, I often tell myself, “It’s only a dream, this isn’t really happening.” But sometimes we have dreams that seem as though the events are actually occurring. Dreams of all categories could fit within veridical dreams, as I have had mundane, disturbing, and pleasant dreams that seemed quite real while they were taking place. Typically when one awakes from these types of dreams it take several minutes to realize it was nothing more and that the events did not really happen. When I have pleasant veridical dreams I am usually greatly disappointed that they were not real. On the other hand, disturbing veridical dreams often cause a good deal of stress until I am thoroughly convinced that the tragic events in the dream did not take place in real life.
These dreams can be embarrassing, but I think everyone has them and cannot control when or of what type they will be. I do not experience them often anymore, but they do visit me on occasion. Sometimes they involve the sex act, and when they do in my case it is rare for me to be involved in sex with someone I know in real life. Most often it is a person that exists only in the dream. On the few occasions when I have dreamed of having sex with someone I actually know, it is usually with my wife. I can recall only three times I ever dreamed I was having sex with someone I know in real life other than my wife, and in none of the cases was it anyone I would ever have a desire to have a sexual relation with in real life. Sometimes I find sex dreams enjoyable (in most I either am with my wife or am not married), but sometimes I find them quite disturbing, especially when I am married in the dream and realize I have committed adultery. Interestingly, I cannot remember ever achieving an orgasm in a dream. It is something like dreaming about falling — you never hit the ground.
Some people believe in prophetic dreams, but I hold little credence for these. In the past I have had a few dreams that I felt were prophetic (not in a biblical sense of their being divinely given but in a precognitive sense), but I cannot recall ever having one of those pan out with any degree of accuracy. I will admit that there is considerable anecdotal evidence that some people do on occasion have prophetic or predictive dreams (in addition to those described in Scripture), and also dreams that would seem to be telepathic or clairvoyant, but having never experienced one myself I maintain a healthy skepticism about whether they really occur.
I have had few recurring dreams in my life. These are dreams that either repeat themselves each time one dreams them or else take one back into the same circumstance and place with the same characters as earlier dreams. I can recall only one set of recurring dreams that I had while a child, and that one only a few times. There are a few others where I have found myself in the same place as in previous dreams, but the dreams were not entirely alike otherwise. In one instance I can recall going back into the same dream and continuing where it left off. These I will try to describe below.
Circular dreams are dreams in which one is dreaming of attempting to do something but can never quite get it done. In the process one finds oneself doing the same thing over and over, often in exactly the same way, with the same non-completion. I’m not sure what causes these dreams to occur, but in my experience they often are about something I have worked on during the day which I then continue to attempt to do in my sleep without success. Sometimes, though, they just happen for no apparent reason whatever but always are very frustrating and lead to a restless sleep. I typically awake from these dreams as exhausted as when I went to bed.
I have never seen this type of dream classified elsewhere (at least not by this name), but these are dreams that one experiences when in what I call a half-wake state. Rather than occurring in deeper REM sleep, they pass by very fleetingly just as one is on the verge of falling asleep and while still being conscious of things going on around them. In my experience these often are little more than rapidly appearing and disappearing images or short segments of a dreamlike series of events. I’m sure they have been described in the literature someplace, but I have never read much about them.
I classify certain dreams as inspirational when they provide me with an idea that I can utilize in real life. I do not mean to imply that I believe these dreams to be divinely inspired, but only that they inspire me to perform or complete a task once awaking. Perhaps they should be better called “problem-solving dreams.” For example, I sometimes will dream I am composing and occasionally remember enough of the musical motif on awaking that I incorporate the idea in an actual composition. At other times I go to bed contemplating a particular difficulty I’m having with a score and will dream its resolution and can fix the problem the next day. I wouldn’t say these dreams happen often, but they are often enough that I give them their own classification. But sometimes these dreams, while inspirational, are also frustrating in that I may dream of a wonderful piece of music or of a solution to a particular difficulty that I want to write upon awaking but cannot remember enough details about it to do so.
There are likely other classifications that one could use about the dream world, but these are the primary types of dreams I experience. Should anyone wish to add their own thoughts to this list of classifications, I would be interested in reading about them.
I do not put much stock in dream interpretation these days, though when I was younger I believed wholeheartedly that dreams were our subconscious mind’s attempt to communicate cogent thoughts to our conscious mind. I used to try to interpret my own dreams and even offered my services to others, though I would say that at best my interpretations were generally so vague that, when seemingly accurate, they would apply to virtually anyone at one time or another. One interpretation, however, stands out to me as rather exceptional, and its apparent accuracy bothered me to the point that I thereafter stopped trying to interpret other people’s dreams.
The dream was told to me by a friend’s cousin, a 15-year-old girl in whom I had a budding romantic interest. I do not now recall the details of the dream, but I do remember something of the interpretation. The interpretation I made did not seem to fit her at all, because I thought I knew her as a very nice, rather shy young girl. Because what I interpreted bothered me so much, I first gave her an alternative explanation of what I thought the dream might mean, making the interpretation very general and inoccuous. But then I gave her the initial interpretation I’d devised, assuring her that I believed it to be incorrect.
In the initial interpretation I told her that she had been thinking about having sex with some boy. But if she examined the prospect seriously, she would utterly reject the idea and would not do so. As I believed her to be a virgin with no serious interest in becoming sexually active, I felt very embarrassed even mentioning this possible interpretation, but for honesty’s sake I thought I should present it to her just to get her thoughts about the whole dream-interpretation process. As I did not hear from her for some time afterward, I was afraid I’d offended her and asked my friend what her reaction had been to my letter. He related that she only said it was “interesting.” It was a few more weeks before I had any further news of her, but the next thing I learned was that she was married! She had discovered that she was pregnant, and in that day young girls found to be pregnant out of wedlock generally married the father of the child to avoid impropriety. Though only 15, she had married the boy who had impregnated her.
I decided after that incident that I would stay out of other people’s dreams as I evidently learned more information about them than I wanted to know.
Do dreams carry special meanings for us? I’ve no idea, despite the apparent accuracy of this particular interpretation. I suppose on occasion dreams do try to communicate important things to us, but whether that is the norm I cannot say. It remains an open question for me.