The significance of dreams varies across cultures, yet the desire to talk about them — whether it be out of curiosity, concern, amusement, or simply the search for meaning — is universal.
It’s no surprise then that online dream-sharing communities sprang to life as soon as technology allowed, first appearing in the late 1980s in the form of regional Bulletin Board services before evolving into their current incarnations. Now, those looking to articulate their nocturnal visions can sign on to stand-alone social media platforms and message boards as well as pre-existing platforms like Reddit, Google groups, and Facebook to interact with other dreamers.
So, what are people sharing their dreams hoping to get out of it? And are they finding it?
“We can benefit from hearing others’ dreams, first because of the common situations faced by human beings that dreams address, and secondly because the source of dream imagery arises from the collective unconscious,” says Karen Jaenke, chair of consciousness and transformative studies at John F. Kennedy University in California, in an e-mail.
Long after Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung took dream-sharing out of its original spiritual context and planted it into a Westernized clinical setting, Jaenke says, dream interpretation has been democratized as a practice fit for anyone, regardless of whether they have had specialized training.
“Perhaps the greatest benefit of sharing dreams is that you can talk your way to the meaning and message,” writes J.M. DeBord in an e-mail. DeBord, whose Reddit username is RadOwl, has been the lead moderator of the r/Dreams forum since 2013, having joined as a participant in 2010. He continues, “By talking about your dream you create inroads into the interior places where you know what it means and what it’s really saying.”
The board has over 40,000 subscribers, so the odds are in a poster’s favor that someone will have had a similar dream. The downside of having a forum of this size is that not everyone’s there to lend an empathetic ear. DeBord notes that some users are just there for their own entertainment, while others perpetuate unfounded assertions, such as that dreams all come true.
One of the most popular forums is DreamsCloud, a social media platform devoted to dream sharing and interpretation. Available in English, Spanish, and Portuguese, the website has received over $7 million in investor funding and has over 450,000 active participants, according to Jean-Marc Emden, the platform’s CEO. The platform enables them to post dreams with cover photos, discuss, and rate them based on their emotional response.
“We identified that there is a need to share — we wake up confused and have an inherent need to share our dreams,” explains Emden, through e-mail. “We are social animals. We want human perspective.”
The most common dreams tend to be about sex, cheating, death, flying or falling, being naked in public, not being able to find a classroom, snakes, and being chased or chasing someone. Popular posts can rack up tens of thousands of views, which also indicates the importance of good storytelling in dream discussion.
The site’s users are eager to turn to others to gain understanding of their dreams, whether they’re searching for theories, a narrative to latch onto, or even reassurance that they’re not experiencing anything out of the norm. “When talking about dreams, every opinion is important, you don’t have to be a dream expert or a psychoanalyst,” DreamsCloud user Bruno Dante in an email.
“For example, one time I dreamt about rhinos, and someone commented something like, ‘Oh, did you know that rhinos are a endangered species?’ I had no idea about that, [but] it was the key to understanding the dream.”
Dante, who has over 17,000 followers, initially came to the site to satisfy his curiosity about the vivid dreams he was having as result of taking Ambien to end a five day-long period of insomnia. After posting his own dreams as well as responding to others for three months straight, he was recruited to be a “reflector,” someone who receives specialized training to offer educated feedback.
He works four hours per day, five days per week. It’s now his primary job. Dante approaches others’ dreams as if they were his own, providing his thoughts before posing questions to prompt the dreamer to engage in self-reflection.
Being an active dreamer is among the job requirements. “It’s like having two jobs: one awake, and another sleeping,” he says. “I need to explore and learn with my dreams. That can be challenging because, the dreams can show us our dark shadow — something we humans prefer to ignore. But, how can I help others if I can’t understand my own dreams?”
But sharing our dreams can also be perilous. “Dreams typically reveal parts of the self outside of the ego’s control,” writes Jaenke, adding that those parts may include aspects of ourselves that we’ve neglected or repressed. “When we speak a dream, we are opened up psychically. If the audience does not receive and treat the dream with utmost respect, it can be shaming and damaging to the dreamer.”
DeBord agrees. “When no one replies to a dream you share, it can have the opposite effect of making you feel connected and able to relate to other people,” he notes. “You feel more alone and disconnected. Some dreams are really obscure and require depth of analysis you don’t normally find in online forums. As an expert interpreter and author, I respond as much as possible to the dreams that no one else knows how to tackle. But it’s a lonely job sometimes, and the time required can add up to hours per day.”
Sonia Weiser is a freelance writer based in New York City.