There are many different theories around the reasons why we dream. Dreaming occurs during the deepest rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep. We experience REM for around 25% of the sleep cycle and will go through a couple of stages of REM during each night. Waking up in the middle of an REM stage feels disorientating but it is also when you are able to recall dreams most vividly.
Two of the most famous psychoanalysts who studied dreams were Sigmund Freud and his student Carl Jung. They where among the first to link dreams with subconscious desires and beliefs. In particular Carl Jung believed that dreams where a way to communicate with your subconscious, that the symbols in dreams reveal information about yourself, relationships and situations. In this way dreams help guide your personal growth and fully develop your personality. According to Carl Jung in Collective Works Volume 17:
“They do not deceive, they do not lie, they do not distort or disguise … They are invariably seeking to express something that the ego does not know and does not understand.”
Much of the information in the subconscious is stored from childhood events that where significant that you have not yet been able to understand or process. In addition during day to day life your brain is exposed to a variety of different information and messages. The brain will store much of the information that it is not able to process during the present moment. This could be something that takes your interest, something you don't quite understand, some piece of information you have gathered that relates to something else, a threat or warning etc. It is then stored in the subconscious. It is believed that dreams are mainly used by the brain to try and understand the information it has received, process, get rid of the unnecessary and store the necessary information. What your brain considers as important or necessary information to remember is often determined by views developed in childhood. This is why our dreams hold vital information about our core beliefs, fears, needs, emotions, wider viewpoints and creative ideas.
This is described further in What Dreams Are Made Of: Understanding Why We Dream by Francine Russo on Time.com:
"Patrick McNamara, a neurologist at Boston University School of Medicine and the graduate school of Northcentral University in Prescott Valley, Ariz., “the limbic part of the brain—the emotional part—gets highly activated while the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex, the executive part of the brain, is under-activated. So the kind of cognitions we experience during dreams are highly emotional, visually vivid, but often illogical, disconnected and sometimes bizarre."
There are a couple of steps to help you decipher and use the knowledge from your dreams for personal development.
Mediate for at least 5 minutes daily. Amongst other things this will help de-clutter your mind so that you are able to remember your dreams more clearly.
Get a diary and use it as your dream journal. Ideally a day a page and small enough to fit by your bed or somewhere easy to reach from bed. As soon as you wake up write everything that you can remember from your dreams. The more you start doing this the more you will find you remember. Write about what happened in your dreams but also any different feelings that you where experiencing. Try to highlight key symbols or objects and also take notice of what position you held at different parts in the dream i.e where you watching something unfold as a third person, where you the bad guy, did your roles switch at any point.
Set aside around 30 minutes a week to analyse your dreams. Write down word associations you have with the events and symbols in your dreams. Be as personal as possible rather than thinking of associations in general. Consider what the object or event means personally for you. Look for patterns, it may take you a few months of using the dream journal before you start to notice particular themes or events that keep reappearing. The patterns will show you your core beliefs and emotional needs.
Example dream analysis
The first pattern I personally noticed in my dreams was that I would often be looking for or eating sugary foods like cakes and chocolate. I had never noticed this reoccurring pattern until a few months into dream analysis and it occurred around once a week. I started writing down associations that eating sugary foods reminded me of. I don't have a particularly sweet tooth but I remembered a period of time during the ages of around 14-15 years where I would often eat sugary foods like cakes and was at my biggest weight. What did that age remind me of? feeling uncertain, awkward and like I was unable to seek or receive comfort. How did eating those sugary foods make me feel? like I was getting comfort, a controllable source of comfort. Therefore what I was actually looking for was a controllable source of love. I was then able to recognise that I actually needed love, during childhood I had developed a belief that it was safer if I didn't need anything from anyone. I had to start deconstructing and challenging this belief. I worked on accepting love and support from other people and how to show myself love. As I worked on providing self-love and my own stability I let go of a subconscious need to control love to feel safe.
Common themes and meanings
In general, looking up meanings of each object in your dreams should be avoided. However, there are common themes that appear often in most peoples dreams that can be used as starting points for your individual analysis.
Water - is associated with emotions. Themes like drowning represent feeling overcome by your emotions.
Looking for a bathroom, or unable to find a private bathroom - is associated with not being able to get your needs met. These are often needs that you have been subconsciously denying.
Being chased - is associated with low self-esteem or regard for self. Especially if you are the bad guy in the dream who is being chased. This represents a core belief that you are bad or unworthy of love. Occurs most often in people with anxious attachment style.
Looking for or eating food - is associated with needing love, attention or comfort.
Travelling in a vehicle - is associated with the degree of control you feel you have over the direction of your life.
House - is associated with representation of self. The condition of the house represents your emotional state.
Birth and death - is associated with change. The start of a new stage in your life or new idea.
It is worth noting that it will not be possible to decipher every dream that you have, neither is it necessary. Dreams have a variety of different functions, some of the dreams will be simple cataloging of information or echos of events that have happened recently as a way to work through the emotions. However, even the process of just writing down different feelings experienced in dreams helps with understanding of emotions. This is particularly therapeutic for people with avoidant attachment. Typically people with avoidant attachment start with the most bizarre dreams or have difficulty remembering them at all. This is because their emotions and needs have been repressed to such a degree that the subconscious has difficulty recognising and forming coherent images. Connecting to feelings and emotions through dreams is a relatively less intimidating method to start with.
Carl Jung, Collective Works Of C.G. Jung,Volume 17: Development Of Personality - First released 1 March 2014
Francine Russo, What Dreams Are Made Of: Understanding Why We Dream (About Sex And Other Things) - http://time.com/1210/what-dreams-are-made-of-understanding-why-we-dream-about-sex-and-other-things/