Of all the topics about sleep, dreams have always fascinated me. In a psychology class in college, discussing dreams was the most enjoyable part of the class.
And I must admit that, though I am not a superstitious person, I do believe dreams hold significant meaning. I even believe that some dreams predict the future.
But, as always, this community is dedicated to understanding the science behind sleep. So today I will attempt to analytically discuss the concept of dreams.
What Are Dreams?
Our knowledge of dreams is limited. Dreams are still mostly a mystery to the scientific community. But here’s what we do know:
Dreams are subconscious imaginings containing vivid images, sounds, and sensations while we sleep. These imaginings can be based in reality, or complete fantasy. And we may dream as a passive observer, or we may dream as an active participant in our dream.
Dreaming can occur at any stage of sleep, but most frequently, and vividly, occurs in REM sleep. During REM sleep, we are in the process of coming out of deep sleep and our brain activity increases.
We actually dream several times a night, usually 4-6 times. But we don’t remember most of our dreams. It’s estimated we remember less than 5% of our dreams. In fact, we can go weeks or months at a time without recalling a single dream.
But the dreams we do remember can be surreal experiences. Some dreams are so unrealistic that we immediately dismiss them as weird. Other dreams seem so lifelike that we believe our dream actually happened. Either way, we eventually are able to recognize a dream as just that: a dream.
Why Do We Dream?
Why we dream is a mysterious, complex topic. Scientists and psychologists have interpreted the reason for dreaming numerous times, but there is still no definitive conclusion.
Arguably the most widely accepted theory is that dreams allow us to problem solve and process emotions. It is fairly common for our dreams to relate to events currently happening in our lives. And these dreams are usually tied to highly emotional moments in our lives. For example, it is common for people to dream about a loved one soon after their passing. Periods of grief and mourning have been strongly connected to vivid dreams.
Additionally, dreams can allow us to solve problems. These can be emotional problems or analytical problems. It appears that our subconscious mind is always trying to seek answers.
As a personal example, when I was in elementary school I took part in an advanced math course. We were tasked with figuring out an equation that had something to do with polygons (3-D shapes with flat sides, like a pyramid). I don’t remember the equation, but that’s not important. What is important is that I couldn’t figure out this equation for at least two weeks, and my teacher wouldn’t let me continue until I solved the equation. One night I had a dream that figured out the answer, I woke up, wrote the answer down, and that was the correct equation.
Some research studies have attempted to understand further the problem solving capabilities of dreams. One study took a contrary approach by purposefully preventing people from dreaming. Participants were woken-up as soon as they reached REM sleep. Results found that these participants had increased tension (physical and mental), difficulty concentrating, lack of coordination, and other potential health concerns. We should note, though, that these results could be related to dreaming, but could also just be from interrupted sleep.
Can We Interpret Dreams?
Attempting to interpret dreams can seem like voodoo magic. And, truthfully, there is not much science to accurately back-up any dream interpretations.
Aside from simple problem solving (like I just mentioned), dreams often make no sense, and most people aren’t interested in interpreting their dreams.
The most famous dream interpreter was Sigmund Freud, an Austrian neurologist and the creator of psychoanalysis. Freud believed that dreams serve as our wish-fulfillment. In other words, we desire things that are not acceptable to the world around us, so we repress these feelings and they become “real” in our dreams.
For example, think of the Oedipus complex. I’m sure we all know what that is, but as a quick refresher: the Oedipus complex states that men secretly desire to kill their father and be intimate with their mother. This is unacceptable in our world, but these desires may be realized in our dreams (according to Freud).
Freud is a highly polarizing figure, and is often dismissed in the scientific community. Regardless, he is still a major influence in psychology and the humanities.
Other than Freud, many people (psychologists, and regular people) believe dreams can predict the future or have other “mystical” properties. This can’t be backed-up scientifically, and any dreams that seemingly predict the future are usually pure coincidence.
I have to admit, though, trying to interpret dreams is fun.
Types of Dreams
People often try to categorize different types of dreams into very specific categories. For our purposes, I will discuss dreams in their broadest categories.
Standard dreams are what most people experience most of the time. These dreams are highly visual, and most people dream in color. Standard dreams can be influenced by real-life events, stress, or they may be complete fantasy. Recurring dreams are a specific type of standard dream because, as the name implies, they recur several times in one night or over several days. Some of the most common things people dream about are: school, being chased, falling, being late, and loved ones who are deceased being alive again.
Nightmares occur occasionally and are scary or disturbing. These can happen for no reason at all, or could be influenced by scary events during your day. Additionally, medical conditions, sleep deprivation, and eating right before bed can increase the chance of nightmares. And people who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are at a higher risk for experiencing frequent nightmares. One study found that the most common themes for nightmares are death, physical violence, and being chased or hunted.
Night terrors are similar to nightmares in that they are both scary and disturbing. What differentiates night terrors is that people often violently wake up from them, and usually have little-to-no recollection of their dream. People commonly wake up from night terrors by screaming, violently moving, sweating, breathing hard, and having a noticeably increased heart rate. Night terrors are more common in children. If severe enough, night terrors can be a sleep disorder.
Lucid dreams occur when we are actively aware we are dreaming. These can happen as we begin falling asleep or begin waking up, but usually still occur in REM sleep. Lucid dreams typically happen infrequently. Some people can actually control their dream, which can be beneficial for those who experience frequent nightmares.
This introduction to dreams has barely discussed all that can be said and analyzed about dreams. Like I said, dreams are the most fascinating topic for me about sleep.
Future articles will discuss the psychoanalysis of dreams, keeping dream journals, and just about anything else related to dreams. And I have always wanted to read Freud’s works, and this would be a great place to share what I discover.
- Dreams: Why We Dream, Nightmares, and Lucid Dreams
- What Are Dreams?
- Why We Dream What We Dream
- 10 Types of Dreams and What They May Indicate
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