Illustration by Alia Wilhelm.

Isn’t it funny how we spend a third of our lives asleep and then a big part of that time watching our minds weave together strange and wondrous narratives with images–which are sometimes totally absurd–projected onto the back of our eyelids? We pay to go to the movies even though we attend virtual cinemas in our brains every night. No matter what we do by day, when darkness slips in, we all become storytellers.

I’ve been obsessed with the unconscious ever since I learned about it in high school. Fast forward to me studying psychology in college and then, about a decade later, creating comics about lucid dreaming and patterns in thought. I’m 25 years old now, and I still think about the unconscious every day. It may be invisible but it is ever-present, so I muse on it when interacting with other humans, while analyzing my own behavior, and, of course, when waking up in the morning.

The internet has provided us with countless resources and dictionaries for dream interpretation, but the most powerful way to understand what your self-created narratives mean is to dig deeper inside of yourself. Here’s a brief overview of dream interpretation to help you figure out a few different ways of understanding your own personal movie theater.

The famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud viewed dreams as “the royal road” to the unconscious. In high school, my teachers drew icebergs onto classroom whiteboards with a horizontal line separating the tip of the iceberg from the rest of it: a symbol for the Freudian view that the vast majority of the material floating around in our minds is made up of unconscious forces. Freud thought that we spend most of our lives governed by a part of ourselves we can’t easily access. Since dreams are born in the unconscious, Freud saw dream analysis as the ultimate way of getting in touch with the root of who we are, our deepest desires, and our darkest fears. This theory is not so different from that of the ancient Greeks and Egyptians, who considered dreams a form of supernatural communication bordering on divine intervention.

According to Freud, dreams contain two kinds of content. There’s manifest content, or the literal part of the dream: the story or the images we remember upon waking. Then there’s the latent content, which is the inspiration for the dream or the meaning behind it. In Freud’s book, The Interpretation of Dreams, he claims that all dreams provide the sleeper with some sort of wish fulfilment. In other words, dreams express our desires. Since we’re not always prepared to face these truths, we unconsciously distort or warp our dreams to protect ourselves. Dreams that don’t seem to be about our desires are just well-disguised stories that have been through the process of self-censorship.

Unlike some of his followers, Freud thought that only a trained psychoanalyst who knows a patient’s history would be able to decode the dreamer’s dreams. The also influential psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Carl Jung disagreed. He placed a refreshing amount of responsibility on his patients, arguing that it is often only the dreamer who can shed light on what a certain person or object symbolizes. Say you dreamed about losing one of your favorite coats on an airplane (my dream from a few nights ago). How is your therapist supposed to know all of the memories associated with that item of clothing; all of the feelings and and smells and thoughts that came from remembering it?

Jung approached dreams in two ways. He claimed that you could either interpret the storyline objectively, choosing to see things literally so that a dream about a coat was simply a dream about a coat; or, you could take the more esoteric—but probably more rewarding—subjective route, and view every person or object in the dream as an aspect of your own self. In my dream, the coat I lost could stand for all sorts of things: my forgetfulness, my irresponsibility, or my youth (since I had owned the coat in high school). If you were to dream of being chased by a giant carnivorous balloon, it’s up to you to figure out what associations or experiences you have with balloons (and carnivores). If you were to dream of a person you don’t have a relationship with (e.g., someone you’ve met only once or twice, or a stranger’s face you don’t remember registering–because every face we see in a dream is a face we’ve seen before), it is likely that this person symbolizes a part of your own psyche. (And if you’ve ever been freaked out by a sex dream, have no fear—in Jung’s view, the person in your dream might symbolize an aspect of your own personality or emotional world that you might not be ready to embrace.)

Jung recommended distilling your dream into just a few words, as though creating a newspaper headline for it, and going from there. Since the personal significance of the objects and people you dream about are unique to you, only you have the answers to unlock the dream’s meaning. This is obviously very different from the common practice of looking things up in an online dream dictionary, where many images or events (losing your teeth, falling off a cliff, being chased, etc.) have a predetermined meaning. That said, Jung did believe that some symbols have common meanings. Death might symbolize an ending or a transformation; disease could represent an inner conflict or perceived flaw—a bit like a Tarot reading.

No matter how stressful or strange a dream has been, I try not to judge myself for my kooky narratives, and I advise you to do the same. You’ve let your mind roam free for a big part of the night and there is no need to be intimidated by the content or bewildered by its meaning. It’s good for us to have some time to imagine whatever it is we want to imagine, especially when we spend so much of our waking lives asking ourselves if the things we’ve said or done or thought are OK. The nighttime is a chance for you to access your mental playground! You can honor this freedom by examining your dreams with curiosity, like you’re discussing a good novel. Talk them out with friends, or write about them in your diary. You have all the answers within you.

One thing most analysts agree on is that when we dream, we are processing recent events that carry emotional significance to us. You are most likely to dream about something that has happened in the last day or two, something Freud called “day residue.” To me, the most magical thing about dreaming has to do with exactly that. By falling asleep and entering a state of total relaxation, we allow our minds to process recent ideas or events in a way that feels real but is physically unreal. We’re safe. We close our eyes, nestled under layers of soft sheets, and enter a mode of consciousness in which we’re free to confront thoughts that, in our waking life, we may be too afraid to face or too embarrassed to accept. In our dream lives, there are no “shoulds.” We can fly free. ♦