The Universal Dream Key
The Electric Dreams Interview

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Patricia Garfield, Ph.D., interviewed by Richard Wilkerson
for the June, 2001, issue of Electric Dreams

Since the early 1970’s Patricia Garfield’s influence on the development of the Dream Movement has been monumental. She is a co-founder of the Association for the Study of Dreams and has been publishing her research for nearly 30 years. Her work has always been acclaimed as providing a balance of research, personal experience and clear understandings of dreaming and its creative applications in life. Her first book Creative Dreaming is still in publication and continues to bring new dreamers into productive relations with their dreams and lives in thirteen different languages. The creative dreamwork approach has been a model for most dreamwork taught since that time. Her continued efforts and research into the creative wisdom of dreams over the years have produced some of our most important and in-depth dreamworks. In Pathway to Ecstasy, Patricia Garfield drew together many of the developing trends in the 1970’s, such a feminism & the goddess movement, lucidity and spiritual transcendence, and the growing awareness of Eastern spirituality and Jungian psychology. In the 1984 Your Child’s Dreams, Patricia Garfield returns to the very practical matter of how to raise children in a way where we don’t abuse their dream life and tell them “Its just a dream.” However, the book is more than a how-to guide for handling nightmares, its a journey for all of us back through our childhood and the dreams we left there. In 1988 Women’s Bodies, Women’s Dreams came out and provided a companion piece to women’s attempt to see themselves as having a unique passage through life as seen in the unique cycles, births, deaths and healing that are unique to women. By 1991 her research on healing expanded to include the dreams of all-bodies and souls. Her commitment to bringing her personal experiences and research to the general public in the service of healing and wholeness is found in The Healing Power of Dreams. In 1997, her exploration and research had covered the full traditional developmental cycle and began to focus on how dreams of the departed not only address the wounds of the death of others, but can help us develop our own spiritual journey. This research was published in The Dream Messenger. (See a full bibliography and notes about finding these books below).

Perhaps it was only natural at this point for Patricia Garfield to note that dreams seemed to collect thematically like folktales and myths, butterflies and birds. (Actually she says in her book a question like this had been simmering for some time.) The results of this research, the themes and the meaning people attribute to them, is the topic of her latest book, The Universal Dream Key: The Twelve Most Common Themes Around the World.


Richard C. Wilkerson [RCW]: We are indeed fortunate to have Patricia Garfield, Ph.D. join us for an electronic interview here at Electric Dreams.

Dr. Garfield, hello and welcome!

Patricia Garfield, Ph.D. [PG]: Thank you, Richard. It’s fun to chat with you about dreams. You always have a fresh slant on things.

[RCW]: For those who haven’t read your book, or visited your website, I thought you could give us brief list or overview of the twelve types before getting into questions about them.

[PG]: Yes, see below for the list at the end of the interview. These are the types of dream themes that I find are shared by many cultures, across time-what I call “universal dreams.”

[RCW]: About the origins of the book. You wrote that this idea had been simmering for sometime. What brought these ‘simmerings’ together to the point you knew you wanted to research this more?

[PG]: I think it was being invited to be the President of the Association for the Study of Dreams for 1998-9. I knew I’d have to give a presidential address in Hawaii at our annual meeting. Wanting to present something new and intriguing forced me to mull over the ideas on my back burner to cook up a new dream dish.

[RCW]: You are one of the first dream researchers in dreams to realize that the Internet could be used for research. How did that work for you? Do you feel others who read your book will also do more online research in dreams?

[PG]: As we know, the possibilities of the Internet are staggering. What better way to compare a limited number of dream themes in different cultures with a standardized survey? Time and expense constraints made the net a good choice. Of course, in-depth dream work with individuals adds value. This is where my many years of dream exploration with people of various cultures over the years became useful. The method of collecting dreams via the Internet worked amazingly well for me. I was truly astonished at the breadth of information people provided, the number of people from different countries who participated, and the multitude of languages they spoke. I wouldn’t be surprised to see other dream researchers using a similar effective approach.

In the same way that information can be collected rapidly over the Internet we can distribute it swiftly. For example, I’ve provided a free download of the most requested chapter from my out-of-print book Your Child’s Dreams at the Library on my website. Distributing new or hard-to-find information or ideas over the Net is quick and easy.

[RCW]: Do you have any advice for other dream researchers that would like to conduct research online?

[PG]: Yes, make the analysis as automated as possible from the outset. At the beginning of my study I simply recorded the collected dreams into a table, computing the results by hand. After I set up Excel worksheets to enter a summary of the dream, it was infinitely easier to calculate the results, such as percentages of people who had this dream, how many were males or females, what the dreamer’s age was and the country of residence. This had to be done for each of the twelve categories so the paperwork/computerwork got to be cumbersome. Any automation of it makes the task easier.

[RCW]: Why Twelve? How did you come up with that number of Universal Themes? Is there an order to these from one to twelve?

[PG]: When I considered all the types of repetitive dream themes I’ve heard over the years, twelve seemed to finish the classification. Of course, twelve is a number heavy with symbolic significance-the stuff of dreams. Symbolically twelve is a number of perfection or completion. It shares with the circle the idea of wholeness. It’s cosmic. Think of the twelve months of the year, based on the twelve moon cycles; the twelve hours of the day and of the night; the twelve Zodiac houses. Then there’s the twelve Apostles, the twelve nights of Christmas, the twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve knights of King Arthur, Hercules twelve labors, and so forth. We are even told there are twelve nerves to the human brain.

When I started to formulate this classification, I thought there might be an order to the twelve categories of dreams, but only the first theme, being Chased or Attacked, proved to be first for most people.

[RCW]: There are positive and negative sides to each of these themes, like the Being Chased and Attacked has its flip side of Being Embraced or Loved. Can you tell us a little about why they have two sides and are now just more categories?

[PG]: Yes. Every action has its opposite action. In a dream of being Chased or Attacked, we are usually running away from the frightening animal, object, evil person or force; we try to prevent their harmful touch. In a dream of being Loved or Embraced, we move toward the animal, object, or loving person; we want to touch and be lovingly held. The direction of our behavior is reversed.

In some dream themes, the positive pole is actually more commonly reported than the negative one. For instance, people often describe to me dreams about being Guided by a Spirit, whereas dream about being Menaced by a Spirit are less frequent. However, I have included this dream category among the twelve basic negative ones because they are so traumatic to the individual who experiences them. They are important not because they are so common but because they are so significant.

[RCW]: What suggestions do you have for those who have dreams that they can’t fit into these categories?

[PG]: I think of the twelve Universal Dream themes as being basic building blocks. Our incredibly complex minds often weave stories using these basic units as part of larger structures, with additional, highly imaginative elements. If we can better understand the basic themes, we’ll have a head start toward comprehending our more intricate ones.

I do find that some people don’t readily recognize that their dream contains some basic elements. One dreamer for instance wrote to me to complain that the disturbing dream didn’t fit any of my categories; the dreamer went on to describe a horrific nightmare about being operated on and damaged. To my mind, it fits perfectly into the category of Injury or Death.

When a dream truly doesn’t correspond to any of the Universal Dream themes we need to work on it using other approaches. Break down the dream into key images. Then explore each of these step-by-step. It’s like getting definitions for words in a foreign language. Soon the meaning of the entire message begins to emerge. I’ve provided a couple of my favorite dream work tools in the Appendix of The Universal Dream Key.

[RCW]: There is a difference between the larger themes and what you call motifs. Can you explain the difference and how this works in the system?

[PG]: Yes, the larger themes are comparable to a broad general class. In biology, we call this the genus. The motifs are comparable to what we call the species in biology, different variations of the overall theme. For instance, we may dream about having trouble with a car or some other form of transportation. I call this general class of dream Car or Other Vehicular Trouble. But the specific examples of it vary: we may dream about losing our brakes, going too fast, crashing into another car, being driven by a crazy driver, or many of the other minor themes. These smaller themes I call motifs.

A Universal Dream theme may make up the entire dream. Recurrent dreams are often a single theme of this type. However, and here is where it may get tricky, one Universal Dream theme (or more) may be only a part of a larger dream, thus becoming a motif. For instance, we may dream about Car Trouble as the whole dream. Or, Car Trouble may be only one part of an involved dream which may also include Being Naked in Public, Injury or Death, and other motifs. The basic Universal Dream themes may become elements, or building blocks, of an overall dream with a complex structure.

[RCW]: And what other factors do you see affecting these?

[PG]: I think there are four components that shape our Universal Dream patterns: our biological heritage; our general cultural heritage; our local subculture; and our personal experience. To give one example of the latter, a man who violently lost his temper during the day dreamed that night about a cap to his car’s tank exploding. All the elements of our physical being, our beliefs and ideas, as well as our daily life are condensed into the images of our dreams.

[RCW]: How do you see dream researchers using your new system?

[PG]: The system probably needs a lot of refining before it’s a valid research tool, but I’ve tried to organize a beginning.

A researcher who wants to explore one type of Universal Dream could start with the array of motifs I found in this theme among the dreams of the 500 people from 40 countries; these are given in the Appendix. Collecting his or her own material, or examining material already gathered in the same category, the researcher could see whether the same motifs emerge, and note additional ones. Comparing and contrasting results almost always teaches us something useful. If we compile several studies on the same theme, we may gradually expand our understanding of it, as expressed in different cultures. I was fascinated to observe how the villains in Chase or Attack dreams varied according to local threats, local myths, and local television and movie input.

[RCW]: I liked the added graphs and graphics in the book. The icons in the book for each Theme make it easy to use and fun to read, but that appendix is really elaborate and well organized. How do you see people using the Theme Appendix?

[PG]: Of course, my main audience is not researchers, but dreamers who want to understand their own dreams at present. I hope people who have a dream with one of the universal themes will be able to recognize it as such, locate it in the Appendix, and consult the meaning given there for this variation of the theme. I also hope the graphics or icons for each dream type will make it easy to refer to the section on that theme.

[RCW]: For dreamworkers, it is a small step from dream theme to dream meaning, but for some not familiar with dreamwork, this may be a larger leap. Can you say a little about how you assigned the various meanings to each of the themes and motifs?

[PG]: You know that I’ve been studying dreams for a long time. I started a dream journal when I was fourteen, and I’m still keeping it at age sixty-six, more than 50 years later. Naturally I’ve noticed correspondences between what was happening in my waking life and the dreams that emerged around the same time. So part of the meanings I give is understandably personal. They are also based on years of professional dreamwork with individual dreamers, exploring their associations to the dream images. Sometimes people who participated in my website survey volunteered information pertinent to their dreams that clarified their meaning. There is also a large body of dream literature I considered.

Remember that, with Universal Dreams, we are mostly dealing with dreams that are widely reported and frequently experienced. This allows us to rely more heavily on the meanings they seem to have for most people. However, there are always idiosyncratic differences we need to consider. I’ve tried to provide a guide to lead the neophyte dreamer through the maze of meaning; I think skilled dreamworkers will also find new and useful information.

[RCW]: It turned out from your research that the most common dream theme was being chased or attacked. Why do you feel this is such a prevalent dream?

[PG]: We don’t really know, but I suspect it may originate in experiences of our ancestors who were literally chased by wild animals or enemy tribespeople, in danger of our lives. The imagery of being Chased or Attacked has become a metaphor for feeling threatened in our waking life. The actual situation may be relatively mild, such as a sensed competitor for our job. In some cases, the threat is all too real, as I’ve found in studying the dreams of sexually or physically abused women.

[RCW]: The Telephone and Machine Malfunctions vs Smooth Operations theme is one we often explore here on Electric Dreams. It is not, however, one of the more frequently reported themes, is it?

[PG]: You’re right. About twenty-five percent of the 500 dreamers in my study reported this type of dream theme. Although that’s not an insignificant number, I anticipate that this theme will occur more often as electronic communication becomes even more widespread than it is now. You and readers of Electric Dreams will be in a good position to follow this theme over the coming years.

[RCW]: The notion of the machine as a metaphor of the body seems very interesting and productive. How did you come across this idea?

[PG]: I’m not sure where or when I first became aware of the connection, but as I recorded my dreams I often noticed a close association between the operation of machines or equipment in my dreams and actual menstrual periods, pregnancy, childbirth, and physical illness or recovery from it. To give one example, I dreamed about a faucet stuck on, causing a sink to overflow, one night just prior to the onset of my menstrual flow/blood.

[RCW]: So Patricia, what was your favorite theme to write about or dream about?

[PG]: I particularly enjoy having dreams of the type I call Natural Beauty, Miracles, or Rituals. They are the opposite pole of Disaster Dreams. The ones that I wake from feeling uplifted and full of wonder are a delight both to dream and to re-experience when I write about them. These dreams give a sense of connection with something extraordinary, almost magical, mystical.

[RCW]: Do you have any favorite dreams of your own in this theme you can share with us?

[PG]: Happily, yes. One of my all time favorite dreams is one I call “The Ritual Dance of Loga-Shana.” It was a powerful expression of a wish to blend beauty of spirit and wisdom, not something I consciously thought about, but that emerged in the drama of a dream dance of invoking goddesses. And the flying dreams “The Great Steering Wheel” and “Flying to the Moon.” And…and…

[RCW]: Electric Dreams readers always want to know what dream researchers and authors are reading themselves. What’s your favorite dream book written by someone else?

[PG]: Hmm…that’s a tough one. One recent book I like very much is Anthony Steven’s book Ariadne’s Clue: A Guide to the Symbols of Humankind (Princeton University Press, 1999). The dream reference I like for its mythological and folklore content is Ad de Vries Dictionary of Symbols and Imagery (Amsterdam: Elsevier Science Publishers, 1984), but it’s very hard to find.

[RCW]: When you originally began working with others to create the Association for the Study of Dreams, there was very little going on in the world in the way of coordinating efforts in dream studies. Did you think that it would become an international forum for so many fields; psychology, anthropology, biology, writing, arts, dreamwork, spirituality and telecommunications?

[PG]: We did think an organization like ASD was possible and needed. It has certainly fulfilled that “dream.” However, we had no idea what hard work was involved in developing an international forum and how much business and administrative skills were needed to keep it functioning.

[RCW]: Besides pioneering dream organizations, research topics and new areas in dreaming and dreamwork, you have also inspired many people to join the field and create a career for themselves. Do you have any advice for people who are interested in dreams and want to make a career that is related to dreams and dreaming?

[PG]: Study your own dreams intensely, along with how they vary with your daily experience. There is so much you can learn from yourself. Those dreamworkers who have gone before can provide a variety of tools and techniques, but the motivation to understand yourself, to discover how your mind creates its own language of pictures, is something only you can do. It’s a wondrous adventure.

[RCW]: Dick Cavet said this was an author’s least favorite question, but I have to ask anyway: Do you have plans for another book?

[PG]: Well, there are some other pots of book ideas still simmering on the back burners. I’ll sample the contents and see how they taste now.

[RCW]: I know you are quite busy now with your book tours and appearances, and so I wanted to thank you for taking the time to being with us here at Electric Dreams. If our readers would like to meet with you, is there a listing of your appearances?

[PG]: Yes, you can always stop by my website and look at the Schedule of appearances. Your readers will also probably want to know about the ASD conference being held this July at Santa Cruz, California. It’s a great place to meet fellow dreamers, learn new approaches to dreamwork, and polish old dream skills. They can get more information about it at

[RCW]: OK, and we are providing more information below about your site and books. Thanks again!

[PG]: That was fun, Richard! As usual, you make me think. Thanks for asking.

 Universal Dream Themes : From the online questionnaire

1.0 Being Chased or attacked by something or somebody? Wild animals, evil persons, monsters, supernatural beings, “things” and so forth.

1.5 Embrace or Love? The mirror opposite of dreams of fleeing from a dangerous pursuer are those in which the dreamer happily embraces another. These figures may be animal or human (celebrities, movie stars, politicians, royals), angels, imaginary people, or the boy or girl next door. The defining element of this category is pleasurable physical contact.

2.0 Being injured or dying by accident? Falling, getting hurt, being hit by a car, being sick, dying, etc.

2.5 Healing or Rebirth ? The opposite to dreams of injury or death are those dreams in which we become healed or reborn.

3.0 Having trouble with a car or other vehicle? Finding your brakes are gone, running out of gas, obstacles in the road, etc.

3.5 Driving Well? Few dreams fall into this category, but when they do they are extremely significant, suggesting easier access to skills for coping with difficult life situations.

4.0 Losing valuables or having damage to your house or other property? Your purse or wallet is missing or stolen, a special ring is gone, your house burned down, your plants are destroyed, books torn up, household goods broken.

4.5 House or Property Improvement? The opposite of dreams about House or Property Damage or Loss is House or Property Improvement. Here, also, is where our dreams of reconstruction and remodeling occur.

5.0 Having trouble taking a test or performing onstage? You can’t find the room where the text is taking place, you haven’t read the books for the test, the questions are for a different course, you are in the wrong play, etc.

5.5 Performing Well? Of course, dreams about speeding through a test and knowing you’re doing well, or performing superbly in an event, speak of a different level of confidence in the dreamer. These dreams may serve as rehearsal for an approaching performance.

6.0 Falling or drowning? You are falling through the air without support, you are sinking in water and can’t breathe, etc.

6.5 Flying, Swimming, or Dancing Joyfully? Whizzing along in space, feeling the wind, sensing a delicious freedom is probably the all-time favorite dream. Although this theme may evolve as an escape out of a fearful situation, dream flying soon becomes a joy-filled activity. A similar feeling of pleasure can emerge in dreams of moving effortlessly through water.

7.0 Being naked or inappropriately dressed in public? You suddenly realize you have no clothes on while at the office, school, or market, you are only partially dressed, you are wearing the wrong outfit for the occasion, etc.

7.5 Well-dressed? The opposite of naked or ill-dressed-in-public-dreams are those in which we find ourselves wearing beautiful clothing. These dreams sometimes refer to satisfaction with the appearance of our bodies, or may refer to a situation in which we feel that we “fit” well.

8.0 Missing the boat, train, bus, plane or other transport? You are rushing to catch some transport and it leaves without you.

8.5 Travelling Happily? The opposite of dreams in which problems arise around a vehicle are those relatively few dreams in which travel proceeds exceptionally well. Trips to fantastic places and past or future times also are featured here.

9.0 Having trouble operating a telephone or other machine? You have trouble getting through to your party, you get cut off, loose the connection, have a fuzzy line, struggle with some malfunctioning machine, etc.

9.5 Smooth Machine Operation? The converse of trouble with machines is dreaming in which we make easy, clear connections or machines that operate smoothly suggest improvements in our emotional connections. Many of the dreamers who participated in my study of dreams during bereavement reported dreams of clear connections with their deceased parent, spouse, or child. In these cases, the dreamers received messages in the dreams that dramatically helped them cope with their losses.

10.0 Being in a natural disaster or in a manmade one such as war? You are caught in a tidal wave, flood, earthquake, fire, you are in the midst of a war, exploding bombs, pollution, etc.

10.5 Natural Beauty, Miracles, or Rituals? The opposite of dreams in which natural or manmade disasters occur are those dreams in which the dreamer is inundated by the beauties of nature, rather than by destructive forces. The dreamer may observe or participate in miraculous occurrences.

11.0 Being lost or trapped? You are unable to find your way in a strange setting, you are trapped with limited movement, you are paralyzed, etc.

11.5 Discovering New Spaces? The opposite of dreams of being trapped or paralyzed are those in which the dreamer discovers marvelous new spaces. There are several versions of this universal dream.

12.0 Being menaced by dead people that you knew? You are threatened, criticized or berated by images of dead people you know.

12.5 Guided by the Dead? Some of the most powerful dreams we have are dreams about loved ones who have died. Men and women have changed their life paths, and sometimes their non-belief in an afterlife, based on dreams in which they felt they received direct messages from the departed.