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Uncovering Your Dreams: 12 Universal Themes

Have you ever been chased by someone in your dreams? Been naked in public? Flown like a bird around a city? Or just felt utterly lost in a maze-like building?

Psychologist and dream researcher Patricia Garfield asserts that these examples are part of 12 basic dreams that all of us dream, regardless of who we are, what we do or where we live.

These “universal dreams,” as Garfield calls them, are far from a dream dictionary packed with generic terms from A to Z. On her website, Garfield writes: “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 her book The Universal Dream Key: The 12 Most Common Dream Themes Around the World, Garfield explains that dreams differ based on four factors.

She writes:

Universal patterns are all around us in the natural world, yet each is affected by the local environment. Trees branch in a consistent way, leaves take their genetic form, rivers carve a sinuous route, snowflakes fall in their basic hexameter shape. However, a tree on the coast, exposed to a constant wind from the sea, bends away from the blast. Leaves turn to the direction that provides the best local light, so they may flourish. Rivers break their banks under seasonal downpours and carve new paths. Each snowflake – a variation of the six points – is nonetheless unique.

So, too, are your dreams. The Universal Dream patterns are bent and molded by local forces in your life. Your every dream is influenced by four broad sources of influence:

  • Your biological heritage
  • Your general cultural heritage
  • Your local subculture
  • Your personal experience

So what’s the basis of Garfield’s basic dreams? She explains that the universal dreams came from her analysis of the dream literature, thousands of dreams that she collected worldwide and her own dream diary, which she’s kept for 50 years.

Her book contains a more comprehensive description of the 12 universal dreams with information on incidence, meaning and coping tips. She features a “bare-bones version” on her site, which I’ve summarized below. The negative form appears first, followed by the positive. (Negative forms, unfortunately, are more common.)

According to psychotherapist Jeffrey Sumber, who studied global dream mythology at Harvard University and Jungian dream interpretation at the Jung Institute in Zurich, Garfield “has done a good job at identifying some of the most common types of dreams that wither intrigue or upset the average person.” But he reminds us that “there is no exhaustive list or ‘key’ to solve the riddle of our individual dreams. We are all far too unique for such simplistic one size fits all keys.”

1. Being chased and attacked/Being in love or embraced

A villain is chasing you and might harm or even kill you. It could be anyone from an animal to a bad person. Garfield notes that there are cultural differences about the sorts of villains who show up in our dreams. For instance, kids in India “reported dreams of vultures chasing them, while no American child did–they were more likely to picture sharks as a predator.“

The opposite of being chased and terrified is what Garfield describes as being embraced or loved, meeting a star or having a magical animal friend (more common in kids). Here, we experience what Garfield says is “pleasurable physical contact,” whether it’s with celebrities, an angel, a talking animal or our next-door neighbor.

2. Getting injured or dying/Getting healed or reborn

You or a loved one is injured, killed or passes away. Another common dream is your teeth falling out. The reverse is experiencing rebirth or healing.

3. Having vehicle trouble

You’re in a vehicle, like a car or plane, that has some sort of malfunction, whether it’s broken brakes, no gas or a flat tire.

The opposite of vehicle trouble is driving skillfully. Garfield says that these dreams aren’t very common. But when they do happen, they tell us something very important: That we have the necessary tools to deal with a difficult situation in our lives.

4. Damaged or lost property or on fire/Property improvements

You lose a valuable possession, which might be anything from your wallet to your keys to your wedding ring. Even your entire house might vanish. People also dream about their house or another building being on fire. You might be scared, seek escape or try to save others. The alternative is when you dream about remodeling or reconstructing a space.

Uncovering Your Dreams: 12 Universal Themes

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). Uncovering Your Dreams: 12 Universal Themes. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 17 Oct 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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