Ever wonder what your subconscious is trying to tell you as you sleep? So did Victoria Aitken. And what she discovered transformed her life.
One night, about 18 months ago, I had a vivid dream about a mole that was poisoning me. When, a few nights later, I had the same strange dream again, I Googled what being sick in a dream might mean.
Maybe, I decided, the mole could be a metaphor for somebody in my life who wasn't doing right by me — a figurative 'mole'.
At the time I was working with a bitcoin company, arranging strategic alliances, and there was someone in the firm who wasn't being honest with me, so I concluded the dream was a warning.
I'd been pretending everything was fine, but now I decided to follow my instincts, and told the person I couldn't work with them any more unless they were straight with me. When nothing changed, I quit.
But even after that, the dream came back — I would later learn that if you don't pay close attention to dreams, they keep repeating themselves. And it got me wondering. Perhaps I should take it more literally. Was my subconscious warning me about physical moles on my body?
I went to a mole-scanning clinic. It turned out one of my moles didn't look quite right and needed to be removed for safety. If I hadn't had that dream, I'd never have had it checked.
My dreams have always been detailed, but I never used to pay them much heed. After the mole dream, though, I started taking note of them — and the more I did so, the more I realised they were telling me about the issues I faced in my life.
I bought books about the theory of dreams and began to study them. I found it fascinating, and decided to enrol on an online dreams course at the Institute For Dream Studies, based in America. Dream Star Institute runs a good course, too.
One method of dream analysis taught is the Ullman method (Montague Ullman, who died in 2008, was a New York psychiatrist and champion of dream analysis), in which you discuss your dreams with a group of people.
Dreams are universal. In the Bible, Joseph interpreted Pharaoh's dream about seven years of good harvest and seven years of bad. The Ancient Egyptians believed dreams were messages from the gods, and the Roman orator Cicero accepted the idea of dreams which appear to predict the future.
Sigmund Freud first suggested that dreams were a manifestation of our unconscious minds and should be analysed. Carl Jung took this a step further, seeing dreams as subliminal images that the dreamer's memory might have forgotten.
Through my studies, I have learnt that we should listen to our dreams for the sake of our mental health. And I believe that if we all paid attention to what our brains are telling us while we sleep, we'd all have so much more insight.
Recurring dreams or nightmares happen because we are not listening to our inner voice. They are the subconscious screaming 'pay attention'.
I've been taught how to record my dreams, keeping a notepad and pen with a torch by my bed and writing down everything I recall as soon as I wake up.
Once I started doing this, I began to dream even more regularly and vividly. It was as if I had unlocked something.
At first I could remember only vague fragments of dreams, but as time went on it became easier. Beside each dream I would write what I did the day before, to spot links with my dreams.
Sometimes a dream wouldn't make sense for months, then I'd read it back and the message would be clear. Dreams really are like puzzles you need to solve.
For a while, I was in a long-distance relationship with a very successful man — let's call him Mr X — and I wasn't sure if he was right for me.
During the day I would think fondly of him, but my dreams told me a different story. One night I dreamt I was caught between the Russian President Putin and rocks, which suggested to me that this man wasn't a comfortable choice.
Then I had a dream about a long driveway. At first it was beautiful, but as I walked along it, the terrain became more barren. This showed me that if I got into a long-term relationship with Mr X, my life would be hard.
I didn't pay attention, and tried to convince myself that my waking mind knew best. So the dreams kept coming. There was one about a long corridor, telling me I'd developed mental 'tunnel vision'. In the next, Mr X was in a shallow swimming pool. I reasoned that, if I was honest, Mr X was a bit shallow. Or perhaps the dream meant I was the shallow one, because my admiration for Mr X's material success was blinding me to his unsuitability as a partner.
After I had skied in a race, in Sochi in Russia, I dreamt I was in another race but my ski poles were missing. I realised this coincided with a time when I wasn't feeling supported in my day-to-day life and needed to make changes.
You can even actively use your dreams to solve problems with 'dream incubation'. Write down a sentence about your problem and place the piece of paper by your bed.
Review this before sleeping and visualise yourself dreaming about the problem. Keep a pen and paper, and even objects related to your problem, close by.
The artist and poet William Blake did this, putting some sketches or poems by his bed to boost his creativity.
Many artworks and inventions exist because people listened to their dreams. Singer Paul McCartney woke up with 'a lovely tune' in his head that became the Beatles hit Yesterday. Wagner told a friend that he had dreamt the entire opera Tristan und Isolde. The Russian chemist Mendeleev dreamt the periodic table.
And the sewing machine wouldn't exist if inventor Elias Howe hadn't had a nightmare about cannibals attacking him with spears with holes in their tips. This allowed him to design an effective needle.
Sometimes, dead people can visit you in your dreams with messages for you or others. I remember one in which my late grandmother Nada appeared, telling me about a garage business that would be a good investment. A few weeks later, I discovered that my mother was working with a garage business.
My father, former Cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken, is now an ordained priest and the prison chaplain at Pentonville. I've suggested he should start dream workshops for prisoners — something that was done at San Quentin, the state prison in California, and was found to boost inmates' self-esteem and improve their mental health.
Listening to my dreams has meant I sleep better and feel calmer and more in control.
Many other people are realising the importance of dreams, too, which is why there are so many apps and courses. And that can only be a good thing.