Anthropologists, psychologists and dream workers have found similar themes in dreams. These so-called universal dreams transcend all generations and cultures. While not all experts agree on the same list and frequency, here's a compilation from the book "The Universal Dream Key: The 12 most common dream themes around the world" (HarperCollins, 2001), by Patricia Garfield, based on her international survey, worldwide travel and research.
While people have many more negative dreams than positive ones, each theme has negative and positive sides.
- Being chased or attacked
More than 80 percent of people dream they're being pursued or attacked, although who or what is attacking or doing the pursing varies from place to place. These dreams are a natural response to life stress, Garfield says, possibly reflecting fear, anxiety, anger, hatred and envy.
Flip side: Being embraced or loved.
- Being injured, ill or dying
One myth about dreaming is that if you die in your dream, you die in life.
That's not true, of course, but dream deaths do occur. They involve deaths of famous people, your parents or children, a lover and even yourself. Garfield believes that when you dream about an accidental death of any person, that person's death symbolizes something in you that is no longer functioning.
One of the more common scenarios under this theme is of teeth falling out or crumbling.
This might have a physical origin in people gritting or grinding teeth during sleep. Other psychologists believe the dream reflects anxiety about appearance and how others perceive you.
Flip side: Being healed, born or reborn
- Car or other vehicle trouble
Fairly common nightmare among all people and ages, whether or not the dreamers actually drive.
Sometimes they have problems with an aircraft they're flying. May occur when the dreamer feels events in waking life are out of control.
Flip side: Vehicular pleasure
- House or property loss or damage
In these dreams, your house is damaged or destroyed by fire, water or other causes. These dreams may surface because you feel that some valuable aspect of waking life is at risk, she says.
Dreams about losing a wallet, watch or cherished piece of jewelry, such as a wedding ring, also fall into this category. Meanings vary depending on what is lost or damaged. Biologically, they may reflect a basic need to defend your territory.
Flip side: House or property improvement
- Poor test or other poor performance
You've probably dreamed of arriving for a test and found the exam has already started. Or you search fruitlessly for the room. This is a common nightmare and can occur years after you've faced the SAT. Garfield says it usually occurs when you feel you are somehow being "tested" in waking life.
Flip side: Great test or other fine performance
This may occur when the dreamer feels that she is doing well in waking life.
- Falling or drowning
Falling is one of the most common nightmares among people of all ages and may be a reflection of feeling insecure, helpless or of having no support or solid grounding.
Dreaming about drowning is less frequent and often occurs when a person feels overwhelmed. Garfield says that falling dreams of modern day often take place from high buildings, elevators and rooftops.
Likewise, dreams of drowning go to our inborn need to breathe for survival.
People often awake to "escape" the danger in the dreams.
Flip side: Flying, swimming or dancing joyfully
- Being naked in public or inappropriately dressed
This is a common scenario that occurs at all ages, including with children. The dreams involve feelings of exposure and vulnerability and often include an element of embarrassment or shame.
Meanings vary depending on whether this occurs at school, at work or on an open street, and depending on what part of the body is exposed.
Wearing the wrong clothing also has various meanings. A bride being inappropriately dressed for her upcoming wedding, for example, could suggest second thoughts she has about the union.
Flip side: Being well-dressed
- Missing the boat or other transport
You rush to catch a departing bus, train, airplane or ship, only to have it leave without you. Garfield suggests that these dreams reflect feelings that you are missing out on something in waking life.
Flip side: Pleasant travel
- Machine or telephone malfunction
Moderately common and more frequent in women. These occur when you feel anxious about making an emotional connection or when you feel you're losing touch with someone. They can relate to mechanical difficulties with your body.
Flip side: Smooth operation
- Natural or man-made disasters
You're confronted with overwhelming floods, tidal waves, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tornadoes, hurricanes, bombings or chemical warfare. These dreams may depict personal problems raging out of control.
They can be among the most frightening dreams. People through the ages have sought to harness nature, which can help them survive but also destroy them.
Flip side: Natural beauty, miracles or rituals
- Being lost or trapped
In these highly common dreams, you're lost and feeling desperate. You may be buried alive or locked in a cage. Or you dream of not being able to move; you're powerless to scream or breathe.
These dreams may occur when you feel confusion or conflict about how to act in waking life. Such dreams could reflect frustrations in waking life, such as feeling trapped in a relationship or a dead-end job.
Flip side: Discovering new spaces
- Being menaced by the dead or a spirit
You feel you are being haunted or berated by someone who has died. There may be feelings of terror, guilt, resentment or abandonment. They may occur when you feel guilty or responsible for a death, or anxious about the situation.
Flip side: Being guided by the dead or a spirit