What do Dreams Mean?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on September 17, 2021
3 min read

Dreams have long been speculated over and studied. In Ancient Greece, Hippocrates hypothesized that dreams are a sign of illness, while Sigmund Freud believed dreams are methods to avoid emotional stress. Carl Jung viewed dreams as a way to problem-solve through archetypal conflicts. Alfred Adler later expanded upon Jung’s theory, believing that dreams were a way of playing out inferiority complexes. In the modern era, we are still trying to understand dreams scientifically, spiritually, and emotionally.

Technically, dreams are an involuntary series of sensations, emotions, ideas, and images that mainly occur during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep. REM sleep is a high brain activity stage of sleeping, shown to have movement that is most similar to actually being awake.

REM is differentiated from other stages in the sleep cycle by constant eye movements. While you can dream during other times of sleep, these dreams are often less impactful or memorable.

Dreams can last for a few seconds or up to 30 minutes. People who can remember their dreams have woken up during their REM stage of sleep. Usually, you will have between five and seven dreams per night and dreams seem to get longer the more you sleep. Typically, during a whole 8-hour night of sleep, you will experience around 2 hours of dreams.

Whether dreams have meaning is a difficult question to answer because there is no way to answer objectively. Meaning is not a scientific thing. Even extremely revered leaders in the field of psychiatry, such as Freud and Jung, have theories that are not technically substantiated.

Some other theories about what dreams mean include:

  • Activation-synthesis theory. A group of Harvard University psychiatrists posit that dreams occur in the brainstem and are prompted by new information.
  • Threat-simulation theory. Created by a Finnish cognitive neuroscientist and psychologist, this theory states that dreaming is a way to prepare for real-life situations that you're worried about.
  • Biological response to life. One study claims that dreams are an evolutionary response, especially when people have negative dreams, particularly those involving violence or enemies. It's a way for the dreamer to understand and move past these antagonistic relationships.
  • A way to wrap your head around new information and memories. Another study proposes that dreaming is just a way that your brain organizes knowledge, forms connections, and helps with memory. In addition, it suggests that dreaming helps with problem solving, decision making, and prioritizing.

Generally, today most people seem to embrace a Freudian outlook on dreams that reveal hidden emotions and desires, and that their dreams also help in problem solving, memory formation, and random brain activity.

Most people accept that their dreams are connected to their unconscious and can be terrifying, exciting, magical, adventurous, sexual, and much more. Usually, dreams happen without the dreamer controlling them; sometimes dreams can be inspiring and sometimes they can be terrifying.

While Freud created a complex psychological system to attempt to decode, understand, and try to source the dream (in Freud’s case, he theorized dreams might be repressed childhood memories), for centuries humans collectively have sought to understand the real meaning of dreams.

However, we can’t stop dreams from happening or ever truly understand the causes of human emotions, images, and memories. Perhaps rather than trying to understand exactly what they mean, simply try to enjoy your dreams each night.

Sometimes you might have nightmares. Often, nightmares will come and go. However, suppose you are experiencing intense nightmares to the degree that your social, professional, emotional, and physical wellbeing is jeopardized. In that case, you should seek out help from your physician or a sleep specialist.

Sometimes nightmares can be caused by tangible things like stress, trauma, or medications like beta blockers or antidepressants. You may also have an REM behavioral disorder, which will cause you to act out your nightmares by being physically violent. REM behavioral disorder can be an early sign of Parkinson’s disease, so if these symptoms persist it might be time to book a check-up.