Dreams are super fun to talk about when you’re the one doing the talking. I get it — being asleep takes up around a third of your life, and my recent dream where I was a sassy school bus driver is the most exciting thing that’s happened to me since mid-March. But what did my dream about being a sassy school bus driver mean? Do I subconsciously understand that I am the driver of my own destiny? Is my mind telling me to revisit my most banal childhood memories in hopes of uncovering something foundational to my identity?
My brain is just having a rootin’-tootin’ good time letting me play pretend while my body restores itself with sleep. Your dreams don’t “mean” anything, at least not in a functional or universal sense. There’s not, for example, one concrete answer to what it “means” to see yourself in your dream: For you, a dream in which you see yourself from another’s perspective might suggest that you feel detached from your own identity, or lack control. For another person, it might simply be their brain recalling the images of a video of themselves they previously watched. Either way, a dream in which you see yourself serves no actual purpose.
As G. William Domhoff of the University of California, Santa Cruz, explains in his article “Dream Research in the Mass Media: Where Journalists Go Wrong on Dreams” on UCSC’s Dream Research site, humans have long invented uses for dreams in order to explain why we dream at all. Psychoanalysts like Sigmund Freud speculated that dreams could be analyzed like a recorded text of our unconscious desires, through which one could glean information about themselves, and all that really got us is the idea that people want to fuck their moms.
More recent developments in neuroscience, however, suggest that dreams are simply a form of cognitive simulation, “a type of thinking that involves imaginatively placing oneself in a hypothetical scenario and exploring possible outcomes.” For this reason, says Domhoff, dreams have several parallels to theatrical plays. So, maybe instead of people actually wanting to sleep with their moms, as perhaps their dreams suggest, their brain is really just imagining the possibility.
In understanding the when, where and how of dreaming, Domhoff asserts that there is likely no “why” behind dreaming at all. Nevertheless, dreams may have some psychological meaning, but not in any abstract way: A dream in which you’re anxious, for example, likely just means you’re actually anxious.
With this framework, a question like what it means to see yourself in a dream essentially answers itself: If you saw yourself in a dream, it means you saw yourself in a dream. Whatever emotions you associate with that are already real, because you’re feeling them as you recall the dream now. More simply, your brain may just be playing around with the idea of what it would be like to see yourself from an outside perspective, utilizing images that are already in your head from looking in the mirror or viewing photographs and films of yourself.
By all means, read into your dreams all you’d like. If you find analyzing your dreams to be illuminating, that’s effective in itself. But there’s not much of a scientific basis to support the idea that the content of our dreams actually serves a function or purpose. Your brain is literally just doing its thing. Don’t overthink it.