Although we dream anywhere from two to five times per night, we rarely recall our dreams. According to Matthew Walker, a neuroscientist and author of Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, people have their "most vivid, hallucinogenic, narrative, memory-laden dreams" during the REM stage of sleep. We don't always remember them, though, because we may not be waking up at the right time, Walker revealed to Business Insider. Still, most of us remember at least a few dreams — and some of them may be downright confusing. This is especially true when we're dreaming of someone other than ourselves.
Since the days of Aristotle, experts have been looking into the meaning of dreams. But, it's not exactly a hard science. "Like the wonderful diversity of dreams, there is a diversity in thinking about dreams," Meir H. Kryger, a physician and professor at the Yale School of Medicine, penned in an article for Psychology Today. "There may not be a right answer." Nevertheless, today's leading experts have offered their best guesses on the meaning behind specific dreams. Here's what they think your subconscious is trying to tell you when you have a dream about another.
Dreaming about someone you know
Carder Stout, a licensed psychotherapist and dream analyst, believes dreams play a significant role in our lives. "There is a shared understanding among therapists in my field that dreams are compensatory, meaning that they are not arbitrary and meaningless but have a distinct intention and purpose, which is to bring material from the unconscious into consciousness," the expert revealed in an article for Goop. Of course, much of a dream's meaning depends on what the dream was about.
When you dream about people you know, Stout explained that you're not actually dreaming about them. Rather, the people in your dreams actually "represent aspects of yourself." Stout explained further, writing, "If you dream about a close friend, then think about their strongest character traits. If you think of them as being humble then you are dreaming about the humble side of yourself." Yes, even in our dreams, we're all a little self-obsessed.
Dreaming about someone you used to know
Dreaming about your best friends may be more about you than them, but what does it mean when you dream about someone you used to know? As it turns out, this kind of dream might not be all that deep. "What happens is, when you fall into sleep, those thoughts and images and data that are spinning in your brain prior to sleep — those things are going to continue to spin throughout the night," clinical psychologist John Mayer (no, not that John Mayer), explained to Elite Daily.
So, say you had a dream about an acquaintance from high school — someone you haven't thought about for years and years. While the dream may seem totally out of the blue, it's possible that you saw someone earlier in the day who reminded your brain of your former friend. This may have happened without you even realizing it, but your mind stored the information regardless. "We have no control of how all that information you receive during the day might show up as you sleep," Mayer revealed. "That's why it can sometimes make people uncomfortable."
Dreaming about someone you used to date
Even if you've gone no-contact with your ex, that person may still occupy a part of your brain — especially while you're sleeping. "We all have a cast of characters who play in our dream theatre. And all of us have (at least) one ex with a recurring role," Kelly Sullivan Walden, a dream expert and author of Love, Sex, Relationship Dream Dictionary revealed to Bustle. "This is partially due to (mental) habit, partially due to what your ex represents to you, and partially due to an attempt to heal unresolved issues (perhaps the reason for breakup)."
Although dreaming about your ex can be disconcerting — especially if you're in a relationship with someone else — these dreams don't necessarily mean you want to get back together. Jennifer Freed, a family behavioral specialist, said it could mean that "you are making your best effort to own the parts of you that you gave over to them, whether good or bad, and that you have an opportunity to become more whole."
Dreaming about someone you don't know at all
Even creepier than dreaming about an ex or someone you once knew is dreaming about someone you don't know at all: a stranger. It may surprise you to learn that about 50 percent of the people we dream about are strangers. That is, people who are unfamiliar to us. An older study (via Psychology Today) found that these strangers tend to be male. Patrick McNamara, a neuroscientist, summarized the study in an article for Psychology Today, writing, "In short, male strangers occur very often in dreams and they invariably signal physical aggression." He continued: "...Male strangers appear to be a 'code' for aggressive impulses that are being processed in memory."
McNamara revealed that this is further proof that dreams do not necessarily mimic our everyday lives. "Instead they appear to be about other matters, matters (and characters) that we cannot capture adequately with images derived from everyday life," he added.
Dreaming about losing someone
If you've ever lost track of someone in a dream, you may awaken with an awful sinking feeling in your stomach. This type of dream is "unsettling," Carder Stout, licensed psychotherapist and dream analyst, confirmed to Goop. "We tend to be afraid that we will never find them again," the expert added. But, what does it mean? Well, according to Stout, the meaning changes slightly depending on who exactly is the person getting lost.