Understanding what your dreams mean is by no means an exact science, but there are a lot of theories. The study of dreams has been happening in one form or another for centuries. The human mind is, after all, one of the last great mysteries of mankind.
In many cases, when you dream of other people you may not be dreaming about that person at all, but what they represent to you. The person may represent desires, fears, uncertainties and so much more. So how do we break it down? Let’s take a look at what goes into dream interpretations and dream meanings and what the people you dream about may mean in your waking life.
A History of Dream Interpretation
There’s a good chance humans have been trying to understand their dreams for about as long as dreams have existed. Some of our first recorded attempts of figuring out what dreams mean date back to around 3100 BC in Mesopotamia. There, dreams were recorded on clay tablets which allowed them to be used for the purposes of divination.
In much of the ancient world, dreams were considered to be divine. The Egyptians, Greeks, Mesopotamians and many others held this belief or beliefs that incorporated these ideas. The Epic of Gilgamesh, widely considered the earliest piece of literature in existence, features several passages relating to Gilgamesh and his prophetic dreams.
Ancient Sumerian kings built entire temples based on messages they felt they were given in dreams. So, clearly, dreams were held in high regard and not dismissed as just pointless thoughts of the unconscious mind.
The ancient world was also home to many dream gods. Most of us are aware of the god Morpheus, an ancient Greek god associated with sleep and dreaming said to be the son of Somnus, the god of sleep. In more modern times he’s perhaps better known as the central character from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series and Netflix series. There were dozens of other such gods in various belief systems all around the world, however. This all speaks to the perceived power of dreams.
When the Modern World Tries to Interpret Dreams
Obviously we’ve moved away from the idea that dreams are divine, at least as far as science is concerned. The scientific study of dreams is called oneirology and it’s a remarkably recent development, at least as far as scientific research goes. It really wasn’t much of a field at all until the 1950s.
It was in 1952 when the idea of sleep cycles was first proposed after EEG scans of the sleeping brain revealed that we go through stages when we sleep and one stage, what we now commonly refer to as REM sleep, or rapid eye movement, was notable for brain activity that was similar to a waking brain. This time, when your brain is most active, is when you dream most vividly. It’s not the only time you’re dreaming but you could consider it when your dreams are at their most potent, if that makes sense.
Most people don’t retain waking memories of their dreams, or they retain only small portions. And most of us only have perhaps two to three dreams a night.
In purely scientific terms, a dream seems to be a result of something called “synaptic efficacy refreshment.” Basically, that means your brain organizes itself when you are not awake. Old memories are reinforced and bolstered while new memories are organized and committed to long term memory. The result of this process is interpreted by our brains upon waking in all manner of ways, from replaying events to create new scenarios and events that can be wildly divergent from anything we have ever experienced or could ever experience.
Your brain may rehearse events of real and waking life, though the exact reasoning for this is speculative at best. There does seem to be evidence that it helps reinforce various neural pathways.
The Fundamentals of Dreams
Have you ever had a dream that you felt like lasted for hours? There’s almost no chance it did. Your sleep cycles don’t last that long and research has shown that the average dream is rarely more than 5 minutes to a maximum of about 20 minutes in length. Upon waking you may be able to pull out details that make it seem like the dream lasted all night, but it didn’t.
You spend about 2 full hours per night dreaming which means about 6 years of your entire life will be devoted to living in a universe created by your own mind. Remarkably, the exact part of the brain responsible for dreams still isn’t known. We can see what areas are affected and participate in the process of dreaming, but where it begins or what part might be the overall control center for dreaming isn’t understood yet.
Dreams can usually be broken down in two ways – authentic dreams and illusory dreams. An authentic dream would be considered more mundane in waking terms and may literally just be a memory of real events that recently happened, replayed in your unconscious mind. Illusory dreams involve more fantastic and impossible elements, things that never happened and could never happen. It’s been theorized that this may happen, in part, because the memories the dream is based on have somewhat eroded and are not full of errors which your brain is trying to sort through. In other words, you no longer have a perfect memory of an event and other memories or stimuli have been added to it in a way that warps the perceived reality.
So What Do the People From My Waking Life Mean in Dreams?
Now, to the true question at hand. You wake up from a night of sleep and remember having a dream about your boss and your favorite actor fighting on an airplane, something that clearly never happened in real life. What on Earth does that mean?
If your brain truly is organizing, collating, condensing and making sense of your own memories, thoughts and emotions, then people in your dreams may have a number of potential meanings. There are a handful of theories regarding what they mean.
You Dream About People As Memories
If you spend all day with someone, you are very likely to dream about them that night. Your mind is full of memories and thoughts about that person and they are the freshest and most vibrant memories you have. In your dreams it’s incredibly likely that you will replay those events including the ones with that person just as part of the natural process of running through what’s been going on in your own mind.
You Dream About People Representing Yourself
Many of our more perplexing dreams, the illusory dreams, may include thoughts of others we haven’t seen in years, people we don’t know in real life, and situations that make no sense or are certainly not representative of reality. Some researchers believe when we dream of someone in a situation like this it’s less about who that person really is so much as what they mean to us as the dreamers.
For instance, if you dream about someone you have romantic feelings about, that could be representative of your own desires for them, or maybe your fears about love and intimacy. If you dream about someone you consider strong it could be indicating you are feeling strong yourself, or even the opposite and that you fear you aren’t strong enough to manage something.
It can be difficult to interpret these kinds of dreams because it may be hard to fully understand what an individual in a dream represents to you, especially on an unconscious level. Our minds can be very tricky and sometimes we don’t consciously want to acknowledge things that come up unconsciously. Examples of this can include things like feeling attracted to someone you don’t want to feel attracted to, or feeling sympathy for someone you sometimes feel like deserves none. Dreams reflect far more than what we think about in our everyday lives.
Is Someone in Real Life Thinking Of You When You Dream About Them?
This is actually a little myth you may have heard before. People say it means you have a connection with this other person and you must be on their mind. The implication is one of a psychic link of some kind. Now, if you want to believe in that sort of thing, then by all means. Some people are heavily invested in the idea of psychic phenomenon and such links. But from a science standpoint it’s not a thing that has any evidence to support it at all.
Could that person have been thinking of you? Sure! Were they for real? You’d have to ask to find out for sure.
What Does it Mean If I Dream About Someone I Hate Like My Ex?
Dreaming about people you don’t like, or an ex, doesn’t necessarily have to have anything to do with that person specifically. It’s very possible you’re focused on the feelings that person represents rather than the person themselves. In the case of an ex you may have unresolved issues from your relationship, especially if it ended badly and you didn’t get to clear the air to your satisfaction.
Someone for whom you have a strong dislike showing up in your dreams could simply represent your fear or hatred of that person and indicate you’ve been preoccupied with those negative emotions or something that reminds you of the negative association you have with that person.
You may have done something as simple as run across the name of your ex, something they owned, or someone who looked like them, and it triggered the memories to come back.
Most people will experience a dream about an ex or another person that they feel a strong dislike for at one time or another. This doesn’t mean you need to do anything about it in your waking hours, or try to resolve or address anything with that person, especially if they make you uncomfortable.
What Does it Mean if I Dream About Someone I Barely Know?
Often, your mind doesn’t seem to care how well you know a person. You can have dreams about people you only met once years ago, or people you forgot you ever knew. The links between that person and what inspired the dream can be varied and also quite tenuous. Something as simple as a smell – maybe you smelled the same perfume or cologne that this person you haven’t seen in a long time was wearing when you did see them last. Maybe you heard their name or saw someone or something that reminded you of the time you were together. Your unconscious mind built on that, drawing them from your old memories and working through that in a dream.
Does it necessarily mean anything? Perhaps not. Or maybe that person does have significance to you. The mental state you were in back then compared to now, or maybe circumstances or events and people in your present can be from that time or just reflective of that time. There are many potential links which can be both very apparent or very hard to figure out.
As with dreams of people you are more intimately familiar with, this person could also represent things about yourself. Try to think of the feelings and ideas you associate with them when you’re awake to see if you can find any connection to your present state of mind.
What Does it Mean if I Dream About a Stranger?
Sometimes you may find yourself dreaming about someone you don’t know well at all or someone who is completely unknown to you. It may be someone you literally only saw in passing and can’t remember seeing before in your life. Maybe it’s someone who doesn’t even exist and your mind created the image of this person in much the same way it can create creatures, things and places that don’t truly exist in reality but are amalgamations of other things.
In these cases, the ideas and feelings associated with the person in your mind are likely what your subconscious is trying to sort through. If the person is attractive to you, then you may be preoccupied with feelings of love, lust, loneliness, desire, and so on. You may be feeling uncomfortable in a relationship, or worried about your partner.
On the other hand, the person could represent fear, the unknown, something spontaneous and adventurous, or many other such feelings. Again, your best bet to try to determine a meaning, if possible, is to try to focus on the image of the person and be aware of the feelings that arise when you do so.
What Does It Mean if I Dream About Someone All The Time?
Generally speaking, it’s a safe assumption that if you dream about someone regularly then they play a significant role in your life. That doesn’t mean you necessarily have to like that person and, in fact, the exact opposite could be true. You may be more inclined to feel that you’re experiencing nightmares rather than dreams in that case, especially if you have an extremely negative relationship with that person.
It’s not unheard of for people to dream about those who have mistreated and abused them for years after their relationship ended. Often this indicates that you have unresolved feelings related to that person, which is very common and normal. If someone was able to harm you in some way, and especially if you feel like that was never properly resolved, it may be difficult to free yourself from those subconscious thoughts. In a way it can feel like they are haunting your dreams as a result, even though you have no desire to remember this person or what they represent to you.
On the other hand, someone you dream about constantly could be someone you spend a lot of time with and thus your mind has a lot of memories about them to work through, as well as a lot of feelings. Research has shown that people dream about their romantic partners incredibly often. About 95% of people who remember dreaming about a specific partner dream about romantic partners at least once a month. These don’t always have to be sexual dreams and may just be a recurring dream with a hidden meaning about the same person we see all the time and trust or care about deeply.
Because you have deep feelings and an emotional connection to this person, and presumably you have many memories surrounding them, it makes sense that they might have a frequent place in your subconscious mind.
As with any dream aspect, it can also be that this frequent star of your dreams represents something very important to you. It may not be the person themselves but a feeling, or a circumstance, that is occupying your thoughts. They could potentially represent some kind of anxiety, a hope, a goal, a puzzle or something you may not be able to clearly define.
What Does It Mean If I Dream About Someone Who Has Died?
Like other dream situations this could be a simple matter of something in our waking lives stimulating a memory of an old friend or family member who is gone from your life. Also, as with other cases, it may be that this person is only a representation of your own feelings and concerns.
Your mind is able to store a massive amount of data. Since we most easily understand memory capacity in computer terms these days, let’s look at it like that. The human mind has been estimated to hold around 2.5 petabytes of memory. That’s the same as 2.5 million gigabytes. If you have a DVR recording TV for you, it would be able to record shows non-stop for 300 years to use up all that memory space. It works out to about 3 million hours if you used it to store film.
As you can see, your mind is absorbing a lot of information. So even though you may not consciously remember every tiny detail of your day, your brain has stored it somewhere. Sights and sounds and smells from every moment has been recorded and stored. At night, in your sleep, your mind cycles through all of that and can combine it with your entire lifetime of memories and thoughts up until that point.
Even if you didn’t realize it, you could have glimpsed or heard something that your mind has linked to a moment years in the past. Then, in your dreams, the two things can merge and bring forth the image of a person long forgotten.
Another possibility for dreams about someone who has passed away, or even people you are no longer in contact with, is the fact that you simply can’t have any contact or communication with them anymore. If a friend or a loved one made you feel safe, supported or loved, then they can be present in dreams when you experience those emotions in real life. You may be reminded of that perhaps and, unable to express your feelings because they’re gone, your subconscious brings their memories forth as a way to help bridge that gap and address what you’re feeling and experiencing.
Your subconscious may be working through feelings past or present, and you may even be reconstructing or creating scenarios in which you play out what could have happened had you not lost that person.
How Can I Dream About or Not Dream About a Specific Person?
This is a hard question to answer and there are no real guaranteed ways to succeed in this task. Some people who find themselves plagued by unwanted dreams about specific people have found success in spending time before bed focusing on specific things as a kind of distraction. If you focus on reading a book, watching your favorite movie, playing a game or listening to music, you may refocus your attention elsewhere. This can help keep your mind on other things as the memory will be fresher in your mind and may make it less likely for you to dream of other things. Sadly, there are no guarantees it will work, of course.
Likewise, if you do want to dream about a specific person or thing, you can try to devote your time before sleeping to concentrating on that person. Watch videos or look at images of them, re-rear correspondence you have had with them, something like that. Again, there’s no guarantee it will work but the fresher the memories are, the more likely you are to recall them during your sleep.
What About Lucid Dreaming?
Lucid dream is a documented phenomenon in which people are aware that they are experiencing a dream and in some cases are even able to control the flow and events of the dream. Some people believe lucid dreaming is just a myth or wishful thinking but actual scientific experiment has shown lucid dreaming to be a true phenomenon. During tests, dreamers have been able to engage in two-way communication with researchers while EEG results demonstrate they are still very much in a dream state. Lucid dreamers have been able to make use of eye movements and facial expressions while asleep to demonstrate they hear and understand people in the waking world.
Learning how to lucid dream is a process that takes some time. There is also no guarantee you will ever master it. But there are methods online that you can look into that can guide you through the process in an attempt to, if not master it, at least attempt to give it a try.
In a proper lucid dream you may have the ability to banish things you don’t wish to dream about, such as certain people, and even bring forth others that you would wish to dream about. The more you do it the more control you should be able to get over your dreams and the more likely you would be to ensure that you only dream about who you want to dream about.
The Bottom Line
You can dream about a person for all kinds of reasons, some good and some bad. Often, the reasons can be entirely lost on us and are extremely hard to determine. Because your brain is constantly processing information from the course of a day, it can take time and effort to reflect on a dream and truly come to an understanding of what a dream might have meant. And even if you do feel certain you have come up with a meaning, there is no outside source you can defer to in order to determine if your understanding is correct.
Your subconscious mind can be wrapped up in emotions, memories, doubts and riddles that are easy to solve and others that are never solvable. You may dream of a person because you love them dearly or hate them bitterly. Your mind may associate them with feelings and events you’re dealing with in the waking world, or a simple accidental and random thing may have triggered a long dormant memory for no reason more complex than perhaps the person in your dream had the same shirt as someone you saw at a store.
Your best bet for understanding why you dream about a person is to reflect on your dream. Write out the details as well as you can remember in a dream journal, then consider the feelings you associate with the person, with the scenario, and with your waking life. In time, perhaps you can solve the riddle of your own unconscious mind.