The Universal Dreams

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By Patricia Garfield, Ph.D., President of ASD — 1999

What Are the Universal Dreams?

e’ve all had them–those alarming dreams of being chased by something grisly, a loved one getting hurt or dying, driving a car without brakes, not knowing the answers to a test, falling fearfully through the air, appearing naked or half-dressed in public, or racing for the train that has just departed. These and other bad dreams that everyone experiences at some point in their lives are too familiar.
What most of us don’t realize is that these very same dreams are universal. They have existed from before the beginning of recorded literature, and will occur tonight in every country of our planet. They cross different cultures and classes. They endure over time.
I have labeled this set of dreams that transcend time and cultures “the Universal Dreams.” Like a hearty stew that is rich with local produce, the universal dreams differ among different peoples, but they are all nourishing variants of the same wholesome meal. They are as old as humanity and as widespread as our globe. Possibly further.
In my presidential address to the Association for the Study of Dreams, in Oahu, Hawaii in 1998, I asked the audience of more than 200 professional dreamworkers to participate in a brief test to demonstrate the universality of these dreams. Six dreams were read. The audience was asked to guess in which century the dream took place, and the dreamer’s nationality, gender and age.
Despite knowing a great deal about dreams, very few people recognized Gilgamesh’s earthquake dream as being 4000 years old! Fewer still identified the dreamer of the lost gloves as living in China.
I propose that there are 12 basic dreams, each of which have positive as well as negative versions. By understanding more about these 12 bad dreams, and their mirror opposites, how these basic themes vary, and what the motifs they contain usually mean, we’ll be able to share our knowledge about dreams in a clearer, more specific, theory-free form.

Classifying Dreams

lthough we have learned a lot about the mechanics of dreams this century–the pattern of dreaming during the night and its physiological components–we have made little progress in understanding the meaning of our dreams. As a science, even as an art, dream interpretation has remained on a plateau. I think this has occurred because we have not yet organized our knowledge about dreams for maximum use.
Science has always progressed by the observation and naming of specimens. Whether a researcher is examining the animal kingdom or the plant kingdom, thousands of samples are gathered and then organized according to some obvious differences and similarities. Names or numbers are assigned to make it possible for other scientists to communicate in specific rather than in general terms. When a large body of material is gathered and spread out, be it butterflies, fossils or folktales, the researcher is able to generate theories to account for the great diversity he or she witnesses.
In dream study, we have progressed only to the level of specimen collection. Each theorist has his or her own view, and pushes that method of dreamwork as the best or only approach.
This paper provides the start of a universal language. It must, of necessity, be provisional. Other dreamworkers have attempted to classify dreams. But I feel that none have taken firm and satisfying international hold. The nearest to a generally accepted system is the one that Calvin Hall and Robert Van de Castle evolved in 1966. Like other research-based dream scoring systems (Folkes, Kramer & Winget, Piotrowski, Hunt) , this system is helpful for research but leaves the individual dreamer with the question,   “What does my dream mean?”
Popular books, in contrast, offer answers to that question, but without much scientific foundation or little agreement from book to book. The Universal Dreams concept may bridge research and popular needs.

The Dream Key

he word taxonomy refers to the science of classification. It derives from the Greek words “nomos” meaning “the law,” and “taxis”, meaning “arrangement.” Taxonomy, the law of arrangement, provides a system for comprehending a great range of material, making it easier to retrieve information and simplify comparisons.
This is accomplished by reference to a “key” (the technical term) in which the general (genus) and the specific (species) aspects of a specimen are defined and described in detail.
Once we have such an instrument, dreamers can easily locate one or more of the universal dreams they are certain to experience. By comparing their individual dream to the variations of a worldwide dream theme, people will be able to grasp the most probable meaning of their dreams.
Yet, regardless of how much we share with other humans, we are unique beings. We have acquired “accents” in our culture, and subculture, so, we still need dreamworkers to adjust the fit of the probable dream meaning to each dreamer’s exact size.
My analysis of the universal dreams is based upon a worldwide collection of thousands of dreams, a synthesis of the professional literature on dream content, and my own 50-year-long dream diary. I have also drawn upon the system to classify folktales devised by folklorist Kaarle Krone, and developed by his follower Antti Aarne, both in Finland, as well as the catalogues compiled by folklorist Stith Thompson in the United States. This method, that has been used to classify all the folktales in the world, can be adjusted to classify dreams because of the strong resemblance between dreams and folktales.
Each dreamer has something valuable to contribute to the international project. Like diagraming the human DNA (human genome project), or mapping the starry skies, many keen observers are needed to chart the vastness of our dreams.
Below is an bare-bones version of the twelve universal dreams (I’ve omitted comments on incidence, the usual meanings of each theme, and suggestions for coping. For fuller descriptions, please refer to The Universal Dream Key: The 12 Most Common Dream Themes Around the World, HarperCollins, 2001). Since the negative, or nightmare form, of the dream is more frequent, it appears first (e.g., 1.0-1.49); then the positive, or uplifting, form follows (e.g., 1.50-1.99). The numbers in front of each definition refer to the classification of that universal dream. (The logos, designed by Phyllis Clark Harvey and myself, are intended to make it easy to instantly identify the basic theme.)

The Universal Dreams

1.0 Chase or Attack

Definition: You dream of being pursued or attacked by a wild animal, evil person, monster, or other threat. The villain may catch, harm, eat, or kill you.
  • There’s a hairy black tick crawling in my bedcovers. (teen aged girl involved with older man)
  • I’m swimming when a shark attacks me and takes a huge chunk out of my side. (child)
Although the element of chase or attack is consistent from culture to culture, the assailant varies. Children in India, for instance, reported dreams of vultures chasing them, while no American child did–they were more likely to picture sharks as a predator.
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.
1.6 Meeting a Star

We consort with the famous in our dreams, whether they be movie, theater, or media stars, politicians and heads of state, or royalty. In this sub-category, we are not making love specifically, but have a pleasant encounter with the famous.
1.7 Having a Magical Animal Friend

Although children are more likely than adults to encounter mythological or talking animals in their dreams, adults sometimes have this dream theme, too, encountering enchanted beasts, such as a precious tame, talking bird, a snake who wears a golden crown, or a beautiful woman with a fawn’s body.
2.0 Injury or Death

Definition: You or another dream character (often a loved person) is injured, killed, or dies. Usually the cause is accidental. The villain or threat is not emphasized; injury or death just happens. This theme includes the common dream that your teeth are falling out.
  • My mother dies
  • My child is accidentally struck by a car. I am hysterical.
  • I shrink. Someone comes along and squashes me.
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 Vehicle Trouble

Definition: You dream of being in or near a car or other vehicle that is out of control or has some other problem that hampers your mobility. The circumstances vary. You may find that you have no brakes, or that the steering wheel won’t work, or that you are out of gas. You may be going off the road, off a cliff, going through a red light, or crashing into an object or person. You may be in the driver’s seat, in the passenger’s seat, or in the back seat. You may be at the control panel of an airplane, seeing that you are almost out of gas. Your vehicle may be a bicycle that gets a flat tire. You may or may not try to regain control of the vehicle.
  • Suddenly I find that the brakes on my car are gone. I veer off the road and off the side of the cliff.
  • I’m at the controls of an old-fashioned airplane when I realize with horror that the gas tank is almost empty.
3.5 Driving Skillfully

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 House and Property Damage or Loss
4.1 Losing Valuable Possession

Definition: You dream that your pocketbook or wallet is missing, misplaced, or stolen. Variations include loss of some other valuable possession, such as a watch, a diamond ring, a wedding ring, a precious vase, artwork, and so forth Even your entire house, or part of it, may vanish.

  • I fall into a bog and my purse sinks with the airline tickets in it.
  • My diamond slips off my finger and falls to the bottom of the lake.
4.2 Being in a House on Fire
Definition: You dream of being in a house or other building that is on fire. You may feel frightened, make efforts to escape, or try to save others.
  • My house is ablaze and my family jumps out of the window.
  • I look out the window and see a beautiful garden with flowers. Then I realize my house is in flames.
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 Poor Test or Other Performance

Definition: You dream of anxiety-filled activity related to taking an examination in school, or of being tested in some way. There are several versions of this nightmare. You may arrive at the room to find the test has already begun; you may not be able to find the right room; you may be handed the test and realize that you do not know the answers or have never even read the books upon which the test is based. You may not have time to finish. In any case, you are uncertain you are able to pass or to graduate. In another version of the same theme, you may be due to perform in a play, musical, sport, or other event and, as you begin, realize you have forgotten the lines, do not know the part, do not recognize the material or don’t know what to do.

  • I’m handed the exam and glance at the questions. I realize with horror that I don’t know any of the answers. I never read the books for this test.
  • I’m standing on the stage in my costume. Suddenly I can’t remember any of my lines. Am I in the wrong play?
5.5. Giving an Outstanding Performance
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

Definition: You dream of falling through the air, frightened. You may or may not strike the ground before awakening. A variant of this dream are images of drowning or near-drowning.
  • I am running when I trip over a stick and fall over a cliff, going down and down and I am about the hit the rocks below.
  • I’m swimming when a giant tidal wave washes over me; I can’t breathe.
6.5. Flying Joyfully through the Air; Swimming 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

Definition: You dream of being nude in a public place. You may also dream of being inappropriately dressed in public, for instance, showing up at work in your nightgown or pajamas. A variation of this theme is the appearance of some other dream character being naked or wrongly dressed.
  • I’m in the office when I become aware that people are looking at me in a peculiar way. I look down and am shocked to see I have no clothes on.
  • My groom shows up at the altar wearing a weird outfit, a mix of an ethnic costume and a clown suit. I’m mortified.
7.5 Dressing Harmoniously and Handsomely
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 or Other Transport

Definition: You dream of rushing to catch a train, bus, ship, or other transport, and miss it. You may dream of arriving too late for a performance in which you are supposed to participate, and find that the play, musical production, sport competition, or other event, has already begun and you are unable to be involved.
  • I’m racing to catch the plane but just as I reach the gate the plane takes off without me.
  • I hurry into the theater and get my cello out. I can hear the music playing–they’ve already begun the concert without me.
8.5. Traveling 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 Machine or Telephone Malfunctions

Definition: You dream of trying to operate some mechanical equipment when it malfunctions. Many such dreams involve telephones, with the dreamer having trouble dialing, getting disconnected, or making a faulty connection. Other machines jam or break, or in some cases become actively malevolent.

  • I’m talking with my boyfriend when the line goes dead.
  • There was a garbled message on the answering machine from my (dead) father–never did understand that man.
9.5. Operating Machine or Telephone Easily
Conversely, dreams 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 Disasters, Natural or Manmade

Definition: You dream about being confronted with overwhelming natural or manmade disasters. The dream may involve a flood, torrential rain, or a tidal wave. You may see yourself or another dream character drowning. Natural disaster variations include earthquakes, typhoons, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, firestorms and other devastations. Manmade disasters include attacks by atom bombs, hydrogen bombs, chemical warfare, and so forth.
  • I am at the beach when suddenly a huge tsunami appears on the horizon–the whole seacoast will be devastated.
  • The mountain begins to smoke and rumble, about to erupt.
  • There is a great flash of light like an atomic bomb–it’s an attack.
10.5 Natural Beauty or Miracles

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

11.1 Lost

Definition: You dream you are lost, perhaps feeling desperate. You may be trying to find your way in a forest, in city streets, in a maze, or inside a large building.
  • I am in a strange part of town that looks threatening. I keep trying to find my way out but get more and more mixed up.
  • I am in a hospital basement. All the corridors look alike–I’m lost. 
11.2 Paralyzed or Stuck or Trapped

Definition: You dream you are unable to move, perhaps unable to scream or breathe. The circumstances vary. You may dream that you are buried alive, or that you are caught or trapped in some other way. You may feel terror.
  • I am buried alive. I bang on the lid of the coffin, but no one can hear me. (man who felt stuck in a marriage)
  • I’m lying in a hospital with dead people on stretchers all around me. I’m alive but I can’t move or scream. I’m horrified. (sexually abused teenaged girl) 
11.50 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.
11.51 Finding a New Room in Your House

Opening a door in your ordinary home to discover a whole new room is an uplifting variant of Discovering New Spaces. Some dreamers find incredible treasures they didn’t realize existed in the attic of their dream houses.
12.0 Menaced by the Dead

Definition: The deceased curses or otherwise berates the dreamer.


  • Deceased mother berates daughter for having divided her belongings too soon (the day of her death)
  • Drowned sister’s skeleton chases and punishes dreamer (dreamer actually caused sister’s death by negligence) 
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.

Classifying Your Own Universal Dreams

Those of you interested in classifying your own universal dreams may wish to take part in the training workshop at the 1999 ASD conference in Santa Cruz. As we enter the 21st century, our worldwide cooperation may provide better tools than ever to unearth the buried treasure within our sleep. Our universal dreams can guide us into the new millennium.



*  Garfield, Patricia (1999). The Universal Dreams. Dream Time, A Publication of the Association for the Study of Dreams, 16(1&2), Winter/Spring, 1,25-26.