Home » Blog » Disorders » Sleep » Uncovering Your Dreams: 12 Universal Themes

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.

5. Poor performance/Outstanding performance

When you’re about to take a test, something anxiety-provoking happens. (I’ve had these kinds of dreams so many times, even years after I finished grad school! I guess school can be pretty traumatizing for some of us.) It could be showing up late to your exam, not finding the classroom or being unprepared. This also could relate to any performance, such as getting on stage and forgetting or flubbing your lines. In contrast, you ace a test, give a great speech or perform well in another way.

6. Falling or drowning/Flying or swimming

You’re freaked out and can feel yourself falling or drowning. Garfield lists these two examples:

  • I am running when I trip over a stick and fall over a cliff, going down and down and I am about to hit the rocks below.
  • I’m swimming when a giant tidal wave washes over me; I can’t breathe.

The opposite is feeling absolutely carefree and either flying or swimming effortlessly (even if you started flying in order to escape).

7. Being naked or inappropriately dressed/Looking great

You’re either naked in public or wearing something odd or inappropriate. For instance, you show up to work in your PJs. One woman had a dream that her fiancé arrived at the altar in a clown suit. Alternatively, in other dreams you’re wearing something beautiful or feel as though you look great and really fit in.

8. Missing transportation/Happily traveling

You’re racing to catch a flight, train or another form of transportation, and miss it. Or you’re late to the event you’re supposed to perform in. On the other hand, you’re happily traveling and seeing some incredible sights.

9. Machine malfunctions/No malfunctions

You might be trying to operate mechanical equipment, but there’s a glitch. Oftentimes, these dreams involve malfunctioning telephones. One woman reported talking on the phone to her boyfriend when the line went dead.

Positive dreams, however, feature making clear connections and functioning machines. In a study of dreams during bereavement, Garfield found that some participants received messages from their deceased loved ones, which helped in the healing process.

10. Natural disasters/Natural beauty

You dream about some natural disaster such as an earthquake, strong storm, tsunami or volcanic eruption. Or you dream about manmade disasters like atomic bombs or chemical warfare. The opposite is dreaming about beauty or miracles in nature.

11. Being lost or trapped/Finding new places

You might be lost in a building, a maze or some strange town. Or you’re terrified and unable to move, speak or scream. Or, worse, you’re buried alive. The positive alternative is discovering a new beautiful space (like a room in your home) or finding amazing treasures.

12. Haunted by the dead/Guided by the dead

You’re criticized or cursed by someone who’s passed away. For instance, one person dreamed that her deceased mother scolded her for giving away her belongings too soon. Or you receive a significant message from your deceased loved one, which might even have a meaningful impact on your life.

?What do you think of the idea of universal dreams? Can you relate to the dreams Garfield describes?

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.

9 comments: View Comments / Leave a Comment
APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). Uncovering Your Dreams: 12 Universal Themes. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 9, 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
Published on Psych All rights reserved.