color image of a woman dreaming and floating under water

Anthropology: Sociocultural Sources and Explanations of Dreams

Whether we remember or not, we all do dream in our sleep. Dreaming is an essential function of the human brain that is present in most species. In anthropology, the topic of dreaming was largely neglected for much of the 20th century. Anthropology researchers grew more interested in dreams and dreaming in the 1980s. With new theories emerging from psychology, cognitive science, and even evolutionary biology, dreaming has become viewed as a great contributor to our sense of self and identity. 

Beliefs about dreams and their interpretations differ across cultures. In some societies, dreams are dismissed and considered irrelevant to daily life. In others, they are sources of important information about the future, the spiritual world, or about oneself. This article is going to explore what is already known about the sources of dreams and what are some of the cultural and social sources and explanations of dreams and dreaming.

Color image of a woman sleeping on ice
Credit: Egor Vikhrev (

What are Dreams?

Dreams are stories containing sensations, emotions, ideas, and images that we see involuntarily during the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep. Dreams may be fragmented, brief, non-narrative, thought-like, and/or contain basic sensory-perceptual experiences such as emotions, without necessarily comprising complex plots or activities. Dreams usually last between 5-20 minutes. Sometimes people may have several dreams each night, other times they do not remember any of their dreams when they wake up. On average we spend six years of our life dreaming.

REM sleep and dreaming

Most of the previous research about dreams and dreaming focuses on the link between dreaming and the physiological occurrence of REM sleep. Thanks to various experimental studies involving the use of electroencephalography (EEG), electro-oculography (EOG), and electromyography (EMG), it has been established that dreaming occurs as our brain is hyperactivated and enters REM sleep. According to Michael et al, 2005, there are three characteristics that define REM sleep:

  1. The brain is more active than in other stages. EEG studies show that this stage consists of alpha and beta activity, similar to waking
  2. Muscle activity is actively inhibited within the central nervous system in order to promote paralysis.
  3. Eye movements occur during this stage because muscle paralysis does not extend to the eye muscles.

Psychologists such as Freud (1900) proposed that dreaming and the meaningful content of dreams are related to mental functioning. However, the complex nature of dreams has made empirical research to support or falsify this claim very problematic. Researchers are unable to study the effects of dreams on mental functioning. This forces them to perceive dreams as the result of random neural activity. Moreover, researchers do not agree on the purpose of dreams. Therefore, there are various beliefs and theories related to dreams and dreaming.

Psychological explanations of dreams

The meaning of dreams varies across different cultures and times. There are various theorists who focus on the content of dreams. One of the most famous dream theorists was the German psychiatrist – Sigmund Freud. Freud believed that people can increase their self-awareness, which will help them cope with problems and traumas they have experienced in their lives. Freud focused on the actual content of a dream (manifest content) and the hidden meaning of a dream (latent content).

Black and white image of German psychiatrist Sigmund Freud holding a cigar
Sigmund Freud in 1921 (

Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist, believed that dreams allow us to access the collective unconscious. This is a theoretical repository of information shared by everyone. According to Jung, some symbols that we see in our dreams reflect universal archetypes with meanings that are similar for all people, regardless of culture or location.

Black and white image of sleep and dream researcher Rosalind Cartwright
Rosalind Cartwright in 1985 (

Rosalind Cartwright, the sleep and dreaming researcher, disagrees with both of these theories and suggests that dreams only reflect life events that are important to the dreamer. Cartwright et al (2006) provided empirical support for her claims, by studying women who were going through a divorce. The women were asked to report the degree to which their former spouse was on their minds and then was awakened during the REM sleep to provide details of their dreams. The researchers found a positive correlation between the degree to which women thought about their former spouses during the time they were awakened and the number of times their former spouses appeared in their dreams.

Black and image of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung smoking a pipe
Carl Jung in 1935 (

Later, in 2008 and 2009, two psychoanalysts, Beth Kalish and Charles Fisher, visited a population called the Achuar people, in the Amazon rainforest for whom dreams and dream interpretation are significant. The analysts gathered data by interviewing the Achuar about dream interpretations and talking to them about the dreams. They concluded, that the Anchuars’ dreams might predict the future in that they represent an unconscious plan of the dream and the anticipated response of others to this plan. Their findings suggest that the dreamer engages in action in his or her dream that the dreamer would really like to engage in. The dreamer then imagines via the dream how people might respond to it. Therefore, if the dreamer actually carries out such an action in real life, he or she might conclude that the dream predicted the future (Arehart-Treichel, 2011).

Color image of psychoanalysts Beth Kaslish and Charles Fisher
Beth Kalish, Ph.D., and Charles Fisher, M.D. (

How are dreams perceived in different cultures and religions?

In most cultures, dreaming is just a different way of acting in life. For example, some people come to a new place for the first time but they say they have visited it in a dream. In other cultures, dreams allow for an entry to a different reality. Thus, in many cultures, dreams are sources of supernatural knowledge. No culture, however, confuses dreams with waking life. Culture supplies templates for dream imagery, interpretation, and expression. It has long been recognized that dreams can only be understood in reference to culture.

South America and the visions of the Achuar tribe

Shamans, priests, and mediums communicate with spirits in dreams. In South America, Shamans are religious figures that go into trance while contacting spirits for healing. In some cultures, ordinary people can do the same by simply dreaming. Some South American shamans cause events by dreaming of them. This belief is especially prominent among the Jivaro (Achuar tribe) in Ecuador. The Jivaro men believe that they acquire their arutam (a soul essential for success in hunting and warfare) in dreams or visions.  According to their culture, the soul resides in the head and sleep allows it to leave the head and travel, making observations. The information the soul gathers is incorporated into dreams. All aspects of their culture reflect on spirituality oriented around dreams and visions. They access dreams and integrate them into daily life through many ancient rituals. For the Achuar there are two categories of dreams. They include the ones that are the result of hallucinations due to the consumption of hallucinogenic plants and the ones that occur without ingestion of such plants. Dreams that follow the ingestion of hallucinogenic plants are believed to be more reliable for interpretation than others.

Dreams in Chinese culture

Dreams play an important role in Chinese culture. Dream interpreting is popular in China and ancient people used the book “Duke of Zhou Interprets Dreams” as a reference to understand the different meanings in their dreams. The Chinese believe that dreams can be either auspicious or inauspicious. For example, when people dream of a digger or a snake, it means that auspicious things will happen to them. The Chinese believe that dreams and dream interpretation could help us learn about our inner secrets and could be used to make important decisions or make positive changes in life. Such dream interpretations have some scientific basis as explained by psychological theories of dreams (Hui, 2011).

Dream meanings according to the Hindus

In India, the word for dream, “swapna“, means a decrease of touch or even ignorance (Eranimos et al, 2017). According to Hindu culture, dream interpretation can provide a window into the future. They do not agree with western views that dreams are, for example, just suppressed desires, feelings, and wishes. To Hindus, dreams have various symbols and meanings that can be interpreted and tell us what is going to happen to us. However, many symbols mean the opposite of what you might expect. For example, seeing birds flying in your dream means bad luck (Sivanada, 2019). All of the Hindu religious literature speaks about Jagrat (waking), Swapna (dream), Sushupti (deep sleep), and Turiya (an experience of pure consciousness, beyond the three stages of sleep). In holy ancient Hindu texts, there are 18 Puranas. One of them is Agni Purana, in which dream meanings are explained and gives knowledge about the meanings of disturbing dreams, omens, and other signs.

Dreams as messages from ancestors to Azande people

According to ancient African wisdom, there are several dimensions that exist at the same time. Thus, in African culture, dreaming is the journey of the spirit into the liminal dimension. The topics of dreaming and dreams are very significant and may be used as a way of communication with the spirits of ancestors. Dreams are believed to provide messages from those spirits. They are interpreted by spiritual healers, mystics, or clan elders (Aristrophe, 2020). The Azande people of Central Africa believe that people are bewitched by bad dreams.

Australian Aboriginal culture and the philosophy of the Dreaming

For Australian Aboriginal people, dreaming is the basis of their culture. Their philosophy is known as the Dreaming and is based on the inter-relation of all people and all things. The philosophy, however, is not really about dreams. In Aboriginal culture, the dream time is the period in which life was created. Dreaming is the word used to describe how life came to be. But dreams still do have spiritual significance. According to Dreamtime philosophy, the ancestral spirits dreamed the world, including their own forms, into existence (Dream Tending, 2019).

The Asabano people of Papua New Guinea and the wanderings of the soul

To Asabano people of Papua New Guinea, dreams represent the wanderings and adventures of one’s disembodied soul. Dreams are a valued source of information just like real-life experiences. Dreamers interact with the dead, with benevolent forest beings, with malevolent place spirits, and with other characters. Dreamers learn from countering beings who tell them in words or show them images that are valuable to their knowledge (Lochman, in Bulkeley, 2001).

Dream meanings in Islam

Dream interpretation is popular in Islam. The most famous interpreter in Islamic history is Ibn Sirin. Ibn Sirin believed that the content of dreams should be interpreted based on the personal characteristics of a dreamer and the meaning of the dream itself. Ibn Sirin highlighted that the Qur’an teaches Muslims to respect the spiritual and psychological significance of dreams. Qur’an speaks about dreams using different terms, such as ru’ya (vision), hulm (dream), manam (sleep), and bushra (tidings). To Muslims, dreams are some kind of spiritual perception. One Hadith (a narrative concerning the words and deeds of Prophet Muhammad) said:

“A good vision (ru’ya) is from Allah and a bad dream (hulm) is from Satan; so if one of you sees anything (in a dream which he dislikes), he should spit on his left side thrice and seek refuge with Allah from its evil, and then it will never harm him” (Sahih al-Bukhari, 3118)

Beliefs about nightmares according to different cultures

Just as with dreams, in different cultures, there are different explanations for nightmares and interpretations of what they could mean. These meanings and interpretations often interconnect. In Brazil, the indigenous people known as the Parintintin, believe that we can sense the presence of demons by dreaming nightmares. Similarly, Hindu mythology and the 7th chapter of Agni Purana, suggest that nightmares may predict bad luck. In Judaism, anyone who is disturbed by a nightmare should fast in order to ward off the possible evil effects (Jacobs, 1995). In Slavic cultures, nightmares are the work of the evil spirit of Kikimora, who would sit on a person’s chest at night.  Something similar has been talked about in old Germanic folk tales. The tales say that nightmares are caused by evil elves that come into the house of a dreamer, torture and choke them, giving them night terrors and nightmares. According to anthropologists, these old tales were people’s attempts to explain sleep paralysis.

Color image of the painting by Henry Fusel, titled "The Nightmare"F
Henry Fuseli’s painting of “The Nightmare” (1781) shows sleep paralysis as a demon sitting on a woman’s chest (

Social aspects of dream interpretation

Telling a dream can be an important social disclosure. The way a dream is told in a public context may differ from the way it is told in a private context. Therefore, it may have different meanings. In Hinduism, bad dreams, nightmares, omens, and negative signs, should not be discussed with others. If one experiences a nightmare, they should wake up, drink water, pray to their guru or God, and then sleep again. If one experiences both good and bad dreams during the same night, they should only discuss the good dream.

For the Achuar, their daily life circulates around dream-sharing (wayusa). Each morning, before dawn, the Achuar gather in households to drink an herbal infusion called ‘wayus’, which is a mild stimulant. After drinking, they take turns sharing their dreams. Together they attempt to interpret the dreams, and if they happen to not agree on the interpretation of a given dream, they actively seek to understand the dream throughout the rest of the day.

Cultural significance in anthropology

Explanations about the sources and meanings of dreams from different cultures, societies, and religions are significant for anthropological knowledge. They are responsible for significant scientific accomplishments, as they laid an important foundation; translation, interpretation, knowledge, and experience that is useful for many fields of science, such as medicine, psychology, sociology, and anthropology. Different cultural explanations try to account for dreams and the terrifying experience of dream paralysis and nightmares. Together, the tales and explanations show how a single biological phenomenon can be interpreted differently by societies (Miller, 2016). By researching different beliefs and interpretations of dreams, social scientists are able to better understand the complexity of the issue, the importance of sleep, some sleep disorders, and dreams. And as a result of this, they expand the already existing knowledge in relation to these fascinating topics.


Antistrophe (2020) The Meaning of Dreams According to African Beliefs. Available: Artistrophe

BaHammam, A., S. et al (2018) Medieval Islamic Scholarship and Writings on Sleep and Dreams. Annals of Thoracic Medicine. 13 (2). Available:

Bulkeley, K. (2001) Dreams: A Reader on Religious, Cultural and Psychological Dimensions of Dreaming. Available: SpringerLink

Dream Tending (2019) Here’s What These Ancient Cultures Believed About Dreams. Available: Dream Tending

Earhart-Treichel, J. (2011) Amazon People’s Dreams Hold Lessons for Psychotherapy. Available:

Eranimos, B., Frunkhouser, A. (2017) The Concept of Dreams and Dreaming: A Hindu Perspective.  The International Journal of Indian Psychology. 4 (4). Available:

Hui, F. (2011) Chinese Dream Culture. Available:

Jacobs, L. (1995) The Jewish Religion: A Companion. 1st Ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Miller, S., G. (2016) The Demon on Your Chest and Other Terrifying Tales of Sleep Paralysis. Available: Live Science

Siva nada, S. (2019) What Your Dreams Mean in Hindu Symbolism. Available:

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