Freud famously regarded dreams as the "royal road to the unconscious". In Christopher Nolan's recent brain-twister, Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio and his industrial-espionage crew use dreams for a more devious purpose – invading the nocturnal wanderings of chief executives to steal commercially sensitive information. Using a combination of sedation and psychological profiling, he controls and manipulates their dreams.
So far, so sci-fi. But is this just Hollywood hogwash or do we have any influence over the often bizarre, meandering nocturnal journeys? Could we learn to dream differently, banishing recurrent nightmares or finding answers to the problems that we cannot solve in daylight hours? Strange though it may seem, the answer is yes. Research suggests that, using practical and psychological techniques, we can influence our dreams and use them to draw on the vast, largely untapped resource of our unconscious mind.
Deirdre Barrett – an assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School who wrote The Committee of Sleep: How Artists, Scientists and Athletes Use Dreams for Creative Problem-Solving – and How You Can Too – is convinced we all have the power to manage our dreams. "It is possible to influence dreams with a technique called 'dream incubation'," she says. "If you want to dream about a particular subject, focus on it once you are in bed. Since dreams are so visual, hold an image related to that subject in your mind as you fall asleep."
You can also place an object or photo that represents the desired dream on your bedside table, Barrett says. Another key component of using one's dreams creatively is to avoid leaping out of bed the moment you wake up. Doing so means you'll lose half your dream content as the day's distractions drag you into wakefulness. "If you don't recall a dream immediately, lie still and see if a thought or image comes to mind," Barrett says. "Sometimes a whole dream will come flooding back."
The point of this second strategy is to make use of the information presented by our unconscious as we slumber. It's hard to put an exact figure on the ratio of our unconscious to conscious mind, but psychologists estimate it to be nine to one. We may believe that thinking is our best problem-solving strategy, but the power of our conscious mind is relatively puny. And obsessively "ruminating" about a problem (going over and over negative or troubling issues in our minds) is strongly linked with stress, depression and anxiety. So letting the unconscious mind work on it may be healthier and more fruitful.
Barrett put this to the test in a week-long study with college students; she asked them to use dream incubation as a problem-solving tool. About half of the students dreamed about the problem and one-quarter of them solved it. "If we're stuck on a problem, it's our waking, linear reasoning that's stuck," Barrett says. "The dream's power lies in the fact that it's a different mode of thought – it supplements and enriches what we've already done while awake."
Most of us enjoy the lush, pleasantly surreal experience of dreaming (and we all dream – some people just don't remember it). But no one enjoys recurrent nightmares or the kind of disturbing dreams from which you wake, drenched in sweat. Even more anxiety-provoking, if you're a parent, are the scary dreams that plague your kids. "It's very common for young children to have recurrent nightmares about being chased by a monster," says Delphi Ellis, a counsellor and dream expert (www.delphilife.com). "This often happens as they get older and become aware of their place in the huge world."
When kids are going through a tantrum stage, they often have bad dreams because they're too young to articulate what's bothering them, so it manifests itself in their dreams, Ellis says. What to do? "Try asking your child what they would like the monster to look like," she says. "Then get them to draw the monster wearing a tiara, or being all pink and fluffy. That helps."
This technique can be powerful – a more sophisticated version is used to help people with post-traumatic stress, who often revisit the source of their trauma while dreaming. A word of warning, though: Ellis doesn't recommend taking complete control of or sanitising your dreams, even if we lived in an Inception-like world where that were possible. Instead, like Freud, she sees dreams as a potential goldmine of unconscious information, fantasies and unprocessed emotional material.
"As an adult, troubling or frightening dreams are often an indication of unresolved issues from the past. The more you ignore those dreams, the more your unconscious turns up the volume – so a nightmare is that message on full volume," Ellis says. "Dreams are an incredibly valuable resource, which most of us simply ignore. So learn to listen to them, even the horrible ones – they're always trying to tell you something."
What it all means
You're being chased
There's an issue you need to confront, but are not sure how to do so. Your pursuer is an aspect of your own character (which is why you can't escape it) trying to bring something to your attention.
Your teeth fall out or crumble
The only time in our lives when our teeth fall out is when we're children – having dreams in which this occurs signals you are lacking in confidence.
You're unable to find a lavatory
A lavatory is a place you go to for a fundamental need. So if you dream of searching for one, it means you are finding it difficult to express your needs.
You're naked in public
People usually dream they're naked in public when entering into a new job or relationship, causing feelings of vulnerability. In this dream, if other people don't notice you're naked they are confident in your abilities and the issue lies with you.
You're unprepared for an exam
Exams are about judging our ability to perform, so this dream shows you're actively examining your life. People who have this dream tend to be self-critical. It requires being able to accept your talents by celebrating your achievements.
This is about the need to let go of something. You might be trying to micromanage someone. The message from the dream is to relax and let go.
'The Top 100 Dreams, The Dreams That We All Have And What They Really Mean' by Ian Wallace is published by Hay House, £9.99. www.ianwallacedreams.com
How to have 'lucid' dreams
* A lucid dream is one in which you know you're dreaming as the dream is occurring – the kind of "dream within a dream" that the characters from the film Inception slip into.
* Spontaneous lucid dreaming is rare, making up less than 1 per cent of dreams in most studies.
* If you want to have lucid dreams, as you fall asleep every night tell yourself, "Tonight when I dream, I want to know I'm dreaming". Also, it helps if you try identifying something that's consistently different between your sleeping and waking experience – for example, most people can't read text in a dream. It's usually either fuzzy or hieroglyphics.
* If you keep checking this out in your dreams, eventually you will realise that nonsensical text only appears in a dream. Having a conscious awareness of this will mean you know you're dreaming – and are having a lucid dream.