How to tell when dreams replay memories from waking life

Most memorable and impactful dreams reflect deeply internal processes of the psyche, Dr. Carl Jung and many other dream psychologists agree. Which is why I teach that you should interpret a dream from the inside out and look first for how it reflects internal processes and events. Everything you see and experience in your dreams arises from inside you.

But dreams also process memories, and many memories form around the events of our waking lives. They arise from outside you. When dreams process and replay memories from waking life, they translate them to a story told using symbolism. Don’t expect the dream to replay the memories directly. Instead, look for details that could be translations of some event or situation from outer life. I have a great example to illustrate this lesson. I’ll summarize, and you can read the full description and my interaction with this person by using the link at the end of the description:

I dream I’m at an event and my boss tells me to go there to meet people and take a break from work, even though I’m on the clock. Sweet! All told I’ll get 90 minutes away from my regular work. I find a couch to sit on and relax. This young kid is next to me having fun by himself and he’s the only one I talk to.

Then his mom comes over and woah she’s hot and close to my age! She asks if her son has been bothering me and I say nah, he’s been good. The three of us walk around the campus as she and I talk about work and our favorite things. It’s delightful. Then my boss calls and asks if I went to the event, and I realize I have to get back to doing my regular work. Before I leave I ask the mom if she’d like to go out on a dinner date, and she says yes. I don’t remember asking for her phone number, but I know I already have it.

Shared at Reddit Dreams

The standard approach to interpreting this dream would be to focus on identifying what the kid and mom symbolize about the dreamer, and delve into his internal life. The mom could be an anima figure that represents the feminine aspects of the dreamer’s personality. His interaction with her could be interpreted as exploring those aspects and getting comfortable with them.

For example, the dreamer could be learning to be more sensitive and open to people — traditional feminine personality traits — and the kid could represent an inner child aspect that has not adopted the traditional masculine trait of aloof separation. His “job” after all is to go to the event to meet people, and there’s a certain female-oriented energy associated with bonding in social groups. It’s not to say that men don’t bond, they just do it differently, and maybe he’s learning a new way to bond in social groups or meet people.

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But my hunch is that the opening scene relates to the memory of something that occurred at the dreamer’s work the previous day, so it means the interpretation process should focus on his external life rather than internal life. The story is specifically constructed around the idea that he’s at work and also at an enjoyable event, and it looks to me like a symbolic way of saying “enjoying myself at work.” When dreams replay memories, they do it with a twist, usually, and only allude to the memories. They use symbolism that captures the dynamics of the situation.

Since the dream creates a scenario where the dreamer gets to have fun at work, I use that observation to ask him:

In your dream you get a break from work but you’re still working. Can you think of any recent memories related to work that fit that idea?

His reply:

Actually, every Wednesday I get to work with a female co-worker for [90 minutes]. We all communicate through ZOOM while we work. She and I are always talking for however much time we have and sometimes that distracts the both of us from work because we’re always catching up and having conversations about a lot of topics. Usually it’s just us two in the same meeting, that’s why we have the liberty to just converse. Yesterday we were talking about Halloween plans and what not. I actually didn’t think to connect my dream with that, I think you nailed it lol.

dreams replay memories
Memories transform as they are processed while dreaming

Wednesday night / Thursday morning he dreams the dream, making it likely that he’s processing the memories about speaking with his female co-worker. In the dream he expects to be away from his regular work for 90 minutes, and every Wednesday he gets to work with his female co-worker for 90 minutes. The overlap of these details between the event and how their shown in the dream are strong indicators that we’ve found the source memories used by the dream.

But why is the young kid in the dream? He has a significant role in the story as the child of the mom and the first person the dreamer interacts with. To be confident a dream interpretation is correct, all of the dream’s details must fit together and be understood. I ask him, and he replies:

If I were to guess, I think the kid represents the inner child in me. I’m the most lively worker in my department, I express myself and joke more than the other guys, and I make the girls laugh a lot. I’m like that even on my own, and every now and then I will talk to myself and make myself laugh. And now that I think about it, I come in to work an hour before my female co-worker IRL and I’m usually on my own, and I think me meeting that kid before I meet the woman in my dream shows that. Wow…

Yeah, wow, the dream clearly plays off the memories. The boy character is a projection of a playful aspect of his personality. Now we can account for most of the major details of the dream, and I think the interpretation is correct.

Dreams replay memories from waking life. It happens nightly, but most schools of thought about dream interpretation do not account well for these dreams. I’ve even read respectable sources say that all dreams begin and end with the internal life of the dreamer, and that’s true to an extent because dreams are inner experiences. But it creates the impression that outer experiences play no role in dreams or their interpretation, and that simply isn’t true.

The dreamer and I discussed other details of the dream, including why he asks out the mom character. If she represents his co-worker, does it mean romantic feelings are involved? But perhaps here’s where we really need to see deeper to what the character truly represents. The dream translated the idea of his co-worker and his interaction with her into a young, hot mom who agrees to a dinner date. Read that detail literally and it’s easy to conclude the guy has romantic feelings for his co-worker. Even if true, though, there’s likely to be more to it. The mom character is still a projection from the inner world of the dreamer, and his attraction to her in the dream could actually demonstrate his attraction to the side of himself that’s brought out when he interacts with his co-worker. Hello, dream psychology. It’s not actually his co-worker in the dream; it’s the psychological imprint she made on him. Asking her out really means he wants to create a stronger internal bond with that side of himself.

Ooh, tricky eh? Dream characters are rarely what they appear to be. In this case, even if the character is a surrogate for the guy’s co-worker, we need to keep digging because ultimately everything in a dream leads back to the inner world of the dreamer.

To interpret this dream we had to dig into memories that formed around an event in the guy’s waking life, but perhaps the old rule of hand is true and everything in a dream really does begin and end with the inner life of the dreamer.

Below, another example. First, I’ll give you a link to my online course on dream characters, where I teach you my secrets for interpreting and understanding them.

RadOwl

I'm J.M. DeBord, aka RadOwl. I'm a best-selling author of four books including The Dream Interpretation Dictionary, RadOwl's Crash Course in Dream Interpretation, and Dreams 1-2-3. I also created DreamSchool.net, the online home for dream interpretation courses, and D3, a 3-step process of dream interpretation. I've been a guest on Coast to Coast AM, was quoted extensively in the Boston Globe, and was featured as a dream expert in Woman's World Magazine.

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