During REM sleep, your subconscious puts on a fantastic show—but the plot can be tough to follow. (Why were you on a trampoline in Indonesia?) "A central function of dreams is to allow us access to thoughts and feelings we may not be aware of," says Mark Smaller, PhD, president of the American Psychoanalytic Association. We asked Smaller to explain the dream-deciphering process. Just grab a pencil and take a dip into your subconscious.

Step 1
As soon as you wake up, write down everything you can recall about your dream, recording as many objects, people and locations as possible. Says Smaller, "One of Freud's greatest discoveries was that tiny elements of your dreams can point to big issues. A lot of information gets condensed into a small detail."

Step 2
Write down the association each detail carries for you. For example, if the dream took place in your childhood home, consider what's significant about that place and how it might relate to the larger premise of the dream.

Step 3
Write down the emotions the dream sparked. Were you exhilarated, afraid, upset, giddy? How about when you woke up?

Step 4
Ask yourself what else in your life inspires these same emotions. For example, if your childhood home reminds you of being bullied by your older brother, think about what's happening in your life now that parallels that experience.

Step 5
Return to your list of associations and try to combine them into a single narrative. (Your childhood home reminds you of being bullied.... The orange you were eating reminds you of Florida.... Your boss, who grew up in Miami, was pretty aggressive with you in that meeting yesterday....) Then go forth into your waking life armed with greater insight into what's going on in your head.

To kick-start your analysis, Smaller shares the meanings of three common dreams...

Dream: Your Teeth Fall Out

Possible meaning: "If in the dream you can't speak, you may be feeling in waking life that there's something you don't want to—or can't—say. If you can't eat in the dream, it may be about unfulfilled desires (in fact, some interpret this dream as inherently sexual). Perhaps there's something you're hungry for."

Dream: You Cheat On Your Partner, Or Vice Versa

Possible meaning: "First off, why now? What's happening in your relationship that's bringing this to the surface? The dream may be a measure of your anxiety about your partner—or it could also be that you saw someone attractive on the bus. Not all dreams have a deeper meaning."

Dream: Seeing a UFO

Possible meaning: "Maybe it sounds obvious, but the key word here is invasion. Is something unwelcome intruding on your space right now? And consider what we know about heavy machinery: It doesn't have feelings. Does that describe you—are you feeling dulled, like you're on autopilot?"


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