When waking up from a deep slumber, you’re supposed to feel refreshed and ready to start the new day. But that’s almost impossible when you’ve just had a dream about someone and are suddenly overcome with questions about it. It’s straightforward enough when your significant other or best friend makes an appearance in your REM cycle, but it can be a whole lot more puzzling when the star or even a supporting character in your dream is someone you rarely think about during waking hours.
But before attempting to understand why you might dream about someone, it’s important to consider what exactly a dream is first. “A study done in Germany found that a dream is the equivalent of a data dump between the hippocampus (your brain’s browser) and the neocortex (the memory). So, dreams are the hippocampus clearing the browser for the day, prepping your brain for the next day,” says Christina Jeffrey, a licensed mental health counselor and Assistant Director at Humantold, a New York-based psychotherapy service. “Understood through a more traditional psychotherapy lens, a dream is a conversation between your conscious and unconscious minds—an opportunity to explore fears and the forbidden.”
So, what does it mean when someone shows up in this so-called mind conversation? “On some level—maybe consciously, maybe subconsciously—your mind is focused on a person, and your brain is dumping that image as you sleep,” Jeffrey explains.
Often, this happens when there are unresolved emotions or dialogues that need to be explored; if you’re unable to do this when you’re awake, the dream state will step in to help you express yourself, resolve conflict, or release emotional baggage. “But ultimately, I believe that dreams are about what we make of them, the meaning we assign to them, and the attendant feelings that arise along with that meaning,” she adds.
How can the people you interact with influence your dreams?
If you’ve ever had individuals you’ve seen or thought about in waking hours pop up in your dreams, you’re not alone. Oh, and—get this—you don’t even need to know a person for them to live rent-free in your dreamland. “What you witness or ingest by way of media or interactions with others can show up in your sleep… particularly when it is vivid or one of the last things we see in the day,” Jeffrey notes. So, if you watch The Notebook before bed, don’t be surprised if Ryan Gosling co-stars in your dream that night (and what a dream that would be!).
To keep your dreams pure and unaffected by outside media, the counselor suggests setting healthy sleep boundaries for yourself—turning off screens an hour before bed, using discretion with what you view or read, and establishing a regular bedtime—to ensure that you’re getting the best quality zzz’s possible.
The tone of what you do can also heavily impact the tone of your dreams. “Activities that are relaxing and therapeutic like yoga, journaling, or spending time with loved ones can bode for a peaceful sleep, as they encourage stillness. These dreams can be vivid and easy to remember because we are in a relaxed state before bed,” says Nicole Bowman, a certified dream analyst and Keen advisor. “Whereas, when we go to bed in a chaotic state, our dreams may be disjointed and difficult to recall, or we may not be able to sleep at all.”
How do you know when it’s significant that you’ve dreamt about someone and when it means nothing?
It’s no secret that of the many dreams you may have throughout the night, you’ll typically only remember one or two, if any. As Bowman points out, “significant dreams are the ones you can’t forget—the ones you remember in great detail even after years pass.”
But beyond that, it really goes back to what you believe and feel is significant. “This is one of those ways dreamwork often shows up in therapy: a client has a dream that leaves them feeling distress or confusion in such a way they need help unpacking the feeling,” Jeffrey says. “We can find out whether a dream is significant or not when we are deciphering meaning by exploring and unpacking our feelings around the event or image.” So, even if at the end of the day, you decide the dream means nothing, you’re still processing the feelings that surround it.
Watch this to learn more about what some common themes in your dreams can mean:
What does it mean when you dream about an ex?
Dreaming about an ex can signify any number of things, depending on your specific circumstances, but it can often mean that you have unfinished business. “Sometimes, the dream is about getting the closure you did not receive [in waking life]. If they were emotionally immature or dishonest, the dream may offer a resolution that they couldn’t provide,” Bowman explains.
It’s also possible, she says, that an ex may appear in your dream because they’re thinking of you, whether because they want you back or are simply reminiscing on your relationship. But, if you’re thinking about sendinga “Noticed you were trying to reach me telekinetically” text the next day, you should probably just let sleeping dogs lie. They’re your ex for a reason—best to keep it that way.
What does it mean when you dream about someone you’re dating?
Similarly, this can mean different things depending on your situation and the nature of your relationship. “If the relationship is relatively new, the dream may reflect the hope and optimism you feel for the union, but it may also touch on your fears and insecurities about dating,” says Bowman. “Alternatively, if you are having disagreements with a long-term partner, the dream may be a way of releasing frustration and pointing out what you need to address with them in waking moments.”
It could also just be, as Jeffrey puts it, a brain dump. “They are on your mind, and you probably see them regularly,” she says. “So, your brain is getting rid of those images that aren’t significant enough to become memories.”
What does it mean when you dream about having sex with someone?
In dream land, sex is often about intimacy and wanting to feel a connection, rather than the sexual act itself. Consequently, dreaming about having sex with someone tends to happen when feeling alone, isolated, or in the process of starting anew. “For example, it is very common to have sexual dreams when you are moving to a new place, entering a new job, or feeling distant from those you love,” Bowman explains. “Physical contact is actually a metaphor for the spiritual and emotional connection we desire. It is a sign to open up, try new things, and let the good stuff in.”
Additionally, sex dreams may be prompted by hormonal changes. “Depending on where a woman is in her cycle, hormones can affect our thinking, so why not our dreams?” poses Jeffrey. “It could also mean you’re really attracted to someone, and your mind is playing with the idea. So, the dream means what you think it means.”
What does it mean when you dream about cheating on your partner or your partner cheating on you?
Jeffrey believes that both of these dream scenarios are two sides of the same coin. “Cheating is often a response to dissatisfaction, so possibly your dream is revealing either your dissatisfaction or your insecurity about your partner’s dissatisfaction,” she says. Rather than take these dreams at face value,take a sec to unpack the feelings that arise both in the dream and from the dream. Were you cool as a cuc while sleeping and are now suddenly racked with guilt? Journaling about your dream and the emotions it elicits can help you figure out what it means.
On that note… a dream about cheating could also signify a lack of trust in your partner or questions about their devotion and loyalty to you, which could very well stem from your own insecurities or past experiences. For instance, if your last partner cheated on you, you may have a heightened fear that this will happen again, even if your current S.O. has given you zero reasons to worry.
And of course, practically speaking, if you are actually cheating on your partner or think they may be cheating on you, your brain is simply digesting the day’s images.
What does it mean when you dream about someone who’s no longer in your life?
“There are times when we wonder about the people who left our lives: Where do they live? What are they doing? Are they happy?” Bowman explains. “And these dreams can be the answer to those questions because they give us a snapshot of the person we once knew and insight on how their life is going.” The very nature of wondering about these people can mean that we miss them, but it could also be a reminder of an experience you had with the person or even a quality that they possessed.
What does it mean when you dream about someone who’s no longer alive?
To Jeffrey, dreams of the deceased are ultimately about “missing that person, missing what they brought into your life, or wishing they were still around,” but Bowman offers a more spiritual interpretation. “This is confirmation that you have help and assistance in the spirit world,” she says. “The deceased may appear when we feel alone, doubtful, or need some extra love, and their presence signifies that an unseen force is constantly supporting and guiding us.”
What does it mean when you dream about someone you’ve never actually met?
There’s an old belief that you can only dream about people you know, but that’s untrue. Not only can people you’ve never met appear in your dreams, but it’s often not as innocuous as it may seem. “When we dream about people we’ve never met, they could be a placeholder for someone we do not want to see, for whatever reason,” Jeffrey notes. But these strangers could also be a manifestation of a part of ourselves that’s not yet known or familiar.
That said, if you find yourself dreaming of Beyoncé, it’s probably not because you’re secretly a world-class singer, but rather because you listened to “LEMONADE” last week.
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