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What Is a Dream Sign?

by Jimmy Leonard | Updated 24 Sep 2023

Sueño Labs does not provide medical advice. See our terms and disclaimers.

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If you’ve dabbled in the world of lucid dreaming, you may be familiar with the concept of a dream sign. Simply put, this is any character, object, or situation that alerts you that you’re dreaming.

Cue Inception: “Dreams feel real while we’re in them. It’s only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange.”

That’s the idea of a dream sign — realize it’s strange before you wake up. That way, you can have a conscious awareness that you’re in a dream world with some time to pay attention and manipulate it before your alarm rudely yanks you into the real world.

Here’s everything you need to know what dream signs are, how to identify them, and how they can help with your dream recall and lucidity.

What Is a Dream Sign?

What Are Examples of Dream Signs?

The concept of dream signs has been around for centuries. Ancient Greek physicians used dream interpretation as part of their real-world medical diagnosis, and the Book of Genesis recounts the symbolism of Joseph’s dream in Canaan. It was commonly understood that dreams contained metaphors for people or events in a person’s waking life, like Joseph dreaming that the sun, moon, and stars bowed down to him and everyone figuring out that sun = dad, moon = mom, stars = brothers, and family drama = high.

In modern dream interpretation, a dream sign is something that regularly occurs in your dream. It’s not necessarily loaded with symbolic meaning (although it could be!), and it doesn’t even have to be bizarre.

For example, if your dreams often include a dog or your childhood best friend, those are dream signs. If you often dream about being at the beach, that setting is a dream sign. It could even be an emotional situation, like often feeling lost or feeling like you’ve misplaced something.

Dream signs are personal and unique to each dreamer. There’s no definitive list of dream signs, and your common ones will likely change over time. Maybe while you’re in school you commonly dream about taking a test, but then you have this dream less frequently after you graduate.

Do Dream Signs Help With Lucid Dreaming?

Yes. This is by far the most practical application of dream signs in the modern sense. (Since, you know, we don’t make medical diagnoses off of dream events anymore.) By recognizing the common elements of your dreams, you are more likely to recognize that you’re dreaming. This is the first step toward lucidity.

Here’s the idea — it’s widely recognized that we dream in metaphors. In real life, you might be anxious about your job or hopeful about a new relationship. But in the dream world, that anxiety or that hope will manifest concretely. Your conscious brain isn’t necessarily anticipating the symbolism, and you have a hard time bridging the gap from conscious and logical to subconscious and creative.

Let’s say you have a vivid recurring nightmare about drowning. It’s frightening. It’s disturbing. You wake up completely freaked out. Now, it’s definitely worthwhile to ask yourself if there’s anything in your life causing fear or pressure, but sometimes there is no obvious answer or, even if there is, there’s nothing you can immediately do about it. You may find it’s more expedient to deal with the dream itself rather than whatever circumstance is stressing you out. It’s that whole “if you can’t change the situation, change your attitude” vibe.

If you can become aware of the dream while it’s happening, you can literally take control of the situation. Instead of panicking about drowning, maybe you can swim to a lovely white sand beach or ride a dolphin or conjure a luxury yacht with your favorite sexy celebrity at the helm. The world’s your oyster!

How Do You Find Your Dream Signs?

The best way to find your dream signs is through keeping a detailed dream journal. Some people prefer a good old-fashioned paper journal while others use an app. Paper journals have a lot of advantages (they don’t wake you up as much in the middle of the night, easier to draw pictures, more tactile), but apps are useful for the purpose of finding your dream signs. If you decide to record dreams on paper, consider transferring notes over to an app the next morning. Our favorite dream journal app is Dreams by The Lost Project in part because it so clearly sorts your common dream signs.

Once you’re in the habit of recording your dreams, take note of the people, places, objects, and situations that come most frequently. It helps to have several weeks’ worth of data before you identify patterns. Some recurring themes might be expected. Maybe you dream about your job or significant other multiple times per month, but look for the ones that don’t regularly occur in your waking life.

For example, I did musical theater growing up, but I somehow did not end up on Broadway as an adult (for the best, probably). So, if I find myself on stage in front of a live audience, that’s a giveaway that I’m in the dream world.

Choosing a Dream Sign

If you’re looking to improve your dream recall and dream awareness, it’s helpful to choose a handful of dream signs — maybe three or four at first — that you can focus on in your meditations. While dream signs are unique to each person, here are some common examples.

  • A place you used to live but have since moved away from
  • A place you’ve always wanted to visit
  • An activity you used to do frequently but no longer do, such as taking a test in school
  • Something you enjoy but rarely do, like skiing or riding a roller coaster
  • A stressful yet unusual situation, like being naked in public
  • An old friend or ex-significant other who you haven’t kept in touch with
  • A relative who is no longer alive
  • An animal that you’re unlikely to see in your daily life
Notice how all of these are otherwise normal situations, just not things you’re likely to experience in the day-to-day. If you used to live in New York but don’t anymore, then anytime you’re in New York, your brain can think, “Wait, I don’t live here anymore. Is this a dream?”

Don't Choose Something Too Ordinary

For that reason, it’s important to not choose a dream sign that is likely to appear in your regular waking life. If you frequently dream about your adorable dog who’s just the bestest boy and fills your life with joy, that’s great, but it won’t be that useful for dream awareness — at least not when you’re starting out. Your brain will think, “There’s my dog. Is this a dream? No, I see my dog every day.”

There’s also the problem that everyday objects and situations aren’t that remarkable, meaning it’s harder for your brain to clue in and notice something’s happening. It’s better to choose something significant.

Don't Choose Something Too Strange

That said, I do know some people who’ve recommended trying an unusual twist on an everyday situation. For instance, maybe you’d talk to your dog and see if he talks back. If he does, it’s a dream. Maybe that works for some people, but I personally recommend avoiding a weird, startling experience if you don’t want to jolt yourself awake.

One of the biggest problems that newbie lucid dreamers have is that they startle themselves awake. You realize that you’re dreaming, and then it’s like “OMG I’M DREAMING!” and the shock of that wakes you up. So while it is common to have dreams about flying or monsters chasing you or maybe even talking dogs, these things are so strange that they might hurt your chances of staying in the dream once you draw attention to them. Once you’ve had some practice achieving lucidity and not waking up, then you can try to fly across the room.

How Do You Use a Dream Sign?

The best way to use a dream sign is to practice reality checks — quick physical actions to assure you that you’re not dreaming. Some common examples are:

  • Trying to press your finger through your opposite palm (you may not feel any resistance in a dream)
  • Looking at your hands and counting your fingers (there may not be five on each hand in a dream)
  • Pinching your nose and trying to breathe (you may feel no discomfort in a dream)
  • Jumping up and down (you may float in a dream or gravity will not work as usual)

These should be accompanied by both a self-affirmation and a logical question about the dream sign. For example, if your dream sign is taking a test in school, the self-affirmation might be, “The next time I’m taking a test, I’ll know I’m dreaming.” The logical question would be, “Why am I taking this test?”

The process might look like this:

  • Throughout the day, close your eyes and visualize taking a test.
  • Say, “The next time I’m taking a test, I’ll know I’m dreaming.”
  • Try a reality check, such as pressing your finger against your palm.
  • While imagining the test, ask, “Why am I doing this?”
  • Answer: “Because it’s a dream.”

It might feel silly at first, but pausing for 30 seconds to do this at several intervals throughout the day can really pay off. The goal is that the next time you dream about a test — which ideally happens somewhat frequently, hence your choosing of this as a dream sign — you’ll realize that it’s a dream. 

I'm Skeptical. Do Dream Signs Really Work?

Asking if dream signs produce lucid dreams is a little like asking if eating salad will make you healthier. It’s part of the puzzle, but it should be incorporated with many other best practices and consistent discipline. In the case of lucid dreaming, you also should focus on getting enough sleep, relaxing before bed, and regularly dream journaling, among other things.

One study in 2018 did associate activity in the anterior prefrontal cortex with an increased frequency of lucid dreaming. That’s the part of your brain that does a lot of high-level thinking stuff including planning, reasoning, and multitasking. So if you plan to recognize a dream sign, introduce some logical reasoning to the creative dream world, and bring some awareness to the physical sensations in your body, the evidence suggests that you will be more likely to recognize that you’re dreaming.

Try It: Find Three Dream Signs

If you’re not dream journaling already, start one! Keep track of your dreams for at least a month. Then, go back through your notes to identify at least three dream signs. To keep it simple as you’re starting out, choose one person, one place, and one thing. Practice your daily reality checks and continue journaling about your dreams. Do the dream signs become more frequent? Do you find that it’s getting easier to remember your dreams? Even if you don’t become lucid in the first few weeks of trying a new technique, improved dream recall is a huge win. You’re on the right track! Let us know about your experience. We’d love to hear what worked.

Jimmy Leonard

Jimmy Leonard

Jimmy is a marketing content strategist and copywriter who moonlights as the editor of Sueño Labs. He sometimes dreams about being a writer, and he's often a writer about dreams. It does occasionally get confusing.

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