Dreams

Dreams can be entertaining, disturbing, or downright bizarre. We all dream, even if we don't remember it the next day. But why do we dream? And what do they mean, anyway?

What Are Dreams?

Dreams are basically stories and images that our mind creates while we sleep. They can be vivid. They can make you feel happy, sad, or scared. And they may seem confusing or perfectly rational.

Dreams can happen at any time during sleep. But you have your most vivid dreams during a phase called REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, when your brain is most active. Some experts say we dream at least four to six times a night.

Lucid dreams

A lucid dream is one in which you know you’re dreaming. Research shows that lucid dreaming comes with a boost of activity in parts of the brain that are usually restful during sleep. Lucid dreaming is a brain state between REM sleep and being awake.

Some lucid dreamers are able to influence their dream, changing the story, so to speak. This may be a good tactic to take sometimes, especially during a nightmare, but many dream experts say it’s better to let your dreams flow naturally.

Nightmares

A nightmare is a bad dream. It’s common in both children and adults. Often, it happens because of:

  • Stress, conflict, and fear
  • Trauma
  • Emotional problems
  • Medication or drug use
  • Illness

If you have a certain nightmare over and over again, your subconscious may be trying to tell you something. Listen to it. If you can't figure out why you’re having bad dreams, talk to a mental health care provider. They may be able to help you figure out what’s causing your nightmares and give you tips to put you at ease.

Keep in mind that no matter how scary a nightmare is, it’s not real and most likely won’t happen to you in real life.

Why Do We Dream?

There are many theories about why we dream, but no one knows for sure. Some researchers say dreams have no purpose or meaning. Others say we need dreams for our mental, emotional, and physical health.

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Studies have looked into the importance of dreams to our health and well-being. In one study, researchers woke people just as they were going into REM sleep. They found that those who weren’t allowed to dream had:

Many experts say dreams exist to:

  • Help solve problems in our lives
  • Incorporate memories
  • Process emotions

If you go to bed with a troubling thought, you may wake with a solution or at least feel better about the situation.

Some dreams may help our brains process our thoughts and the events of the day. Others may just be the result of normal brain activity and mean very little, if anything. Researchers are still trying to figure out exactly why we dream.

How Long Do Dreams Last?

REM sleep lasts only a few minutes early in the night but gets longer as we sleep. Later in the night, it might last more than 30 minutes. So you might spend half an hour in a single dream.

What Do Dreams Mean?

Famous psychologist Sigmund Freud believed that dreams are a window into our subconscious and that they reveal a person's:

  • Unconscious desires
  • Thoughts
  • Motivations

Freud thought dreams were a way for people to satisfy urges and desires that weren’t acceptable to society.

Just as there are different opinions about why we dream, there are different views about what dreams mean. Some experts say dreams have no connection to our real emotions or thoughts. They’re just strange stories that don't relate to normal life.

Others say our dreams may reflect our own thoughts and feelings -- our deepest desires, fears, and concerns, especially dreams that happen over and over. By interpreting our dreams, we may gain insight into our lives and ourselves. Many people say they’ve come up with their best ideas while dreaming.

Often, people report having similar dreams: They’re being chased, fall off a cliff, or show up in public naked. These types of dreams are probably caused by hidden stress or anxiety. The dreams may be similar, but experts say the meaning behind the dream is unique to each person.

Experts say not to rely on books or "dream dictionaries," which give a specific meaning for a specific dream image or symbol. The reason behind your dream is unique to you.

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Can Dreams Predict the Future?

Sometimes, dreams come true or tell of a future event. When you have a dream that plays out in real life, experts say it’s most likely due to:

  • Coincidence
  • Bad memory
  • An unconscious linking of known information

But sometimes, dreams can motivate you to act a certain way, thus changing the future.

Why Are Dreams Hard to Remember?

Researchers don't know for sure why dreams are easily forgotten. Maybe we’re designed to forget our dreams because if we remembered them all, we might not be able to tell dreams from real memories.

Also, it could be harder to remember dreams because during REM sleep, our body may shut down systems in our brain that create memories. We may remember only those dreams that happen just before we wake, when certain brain activities are turned back on.

Some say it’s not that our minds forget dreams but that we don't know how to access them. Dreams may be stored in our memory, waiting to be recalled. This may explain why you suddenly remember a dream later in the day: Something may have happened to trigger the memory.

Tips for Dream Recall

If you’re a sound sleeper and don't wake up until the morning, you’re less likely to remember your dreams, compared with people who wake up several times in the night. Some tips may help you remember your dreams:

Wake up without an alarm. You’re more likely to remember your dreams if you wake up naturally than with an alarm. Once the alarm goes off, your brain focuses on turning off the annoying sound, not on your dream.

Remind yourself to remember. If you make a decision to remember your dreams, you’re more likely to remember them in the morning. Before you go to sleep, remind yourself that you want to remember your dream.

Dream playback. If you think about the dream right after waking, it may be easier to remember it later.

How to Make Sense of Your Dreams

If you’re curious about your dreams or want to sort out any possible meaning behind them, consider keeping a dream diary or journal.

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Write it down. Keep a notebook and pen next to your bed, and record your dream first thing every morning, while the memory is still fresh. Write down anything you recall and how it made you feel, even if you can remember only random pieces of information.

Journal without judgment. Dreams are sometimes odd and may go against societal norms. Try not to judge yourself based on your dreams.

Give each dream a title. This may help if you want to refer back to a dream. Sometimes, the title you create can provide insight on why you had the dream or the meaning behind it.

Dreams have fascinated humanity since the beginning of time and will probably continue to puzzle us. Science has allowed us to learn much about the human brain, but we may never know for sure the meanings behind our dreams.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian on November 05, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

International Association for the Study of Dreams: "Common Questions About Dreams."

National Sleep Foundation: "In Your Dreams," "Dreams and Sleep."

DreamScience.org: "The Science of Dreaming."

University of California Santa Cruz: "The Quantitative Study of Dreams: Frequently Asked Questions."

PBS.org: "Dreams: Expert Q&A."

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