If you ever find yourself naked in a public place, meeting your favorite celebrity, or arriving unprepared for an exam, you will most likely wake up and ask yourself, “Why did I just dream about that?” To determine an answer, you might contemplate a larger question; what is a dream and what purpose does it serve? A dream is a sequence of thoughts and images that are formed by our brain throughout the night. They are profound narratives that play out in our head as we sleep, and can follow direct story lines or be more abstract. Since dreams vary person to person, there is still so much unknown surrounding dream meanings and why we have them to begin with – but I believe that they can be practical and valuable if their insight is applied correctly.
Professional Dream Analyst Lauri Quinn Loewenberg states: “Dreaming is a thinking process. In fact, it is a continuation of your thoughts from the day. That chatter in your head that goes on all day long continues as you drift off to sleep, and, once you enter REM sleep, when dreaming takes place, those thoughts continue in symbols and metaphors instead of in words” (Atherton ‘What Do Our Dreams Mean? The Theories Behind Dream Meanings’).
Psychologist Sigmund Freud also believed that dreams revealed to us the unconsciously repressed conflicts from our lives. Research also supports a link between dreams and education. “A pair of studies followed students taking a French language course. The ones who made more progress during the course (i.e., learned more French) tended to have more dream activity than their peers. They also reported French playing a larger role in their dreams, with some of them even communicating in French” (‘What Do Dreams Mean? Learn the Meaning Behind Your Dreams’). Though it may be impossible to narrow it down to one theory, Loewenberg expresses: “In my experience, people are beginning to be more open to the fact that dreams are more than random misfiring’s of the brain, and that they are telling us something about ourselves. In a nutshell, you want to do a comparative analysis between the imagery and actions in the dream to the events of your previous day” (Atherton ‘What Do Our Dreams Mean? The Theories Behind Dream Meanings’). That being said, you should never overlook the connection between your dreams and everyday life.
During the 4 stages of sleep, your brain waves change repeatedly. In light sleep you have theta waves, and during deep sleep you have delta waves. During Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, also known as “dream sleep”, your brain waves mimic the alpha waves that you have while you are awake. This triggers thoughts from past events (‘What Do Dreams Mean? Learn the Meaning Behind Your Dreams’). Nevertheless, you can dream at any time throughout the night, but you must be in REM sleep to experience the most vivid dreams.
According to Facty, some neuroscientists are certain that “dreams are not only necessary but purposefully triggered by our minds for specific reasons” (‘Why Do People Dream?’ 2019). This includes dealing with memories and emotions, working through problems, and finding new solutions in more creative / original ways. This is additional proof towards the theory that dreams are more than random thoughts jumbled together in unrealistic ways! Dreams are a biological defense our brain uses to prepare us for intense situations and to help us overcome our fears, as supported by the Threat Simulation Theory. For example, if you are afraid of heights, you may dream about skydiving or another challenging activity to give you an opportunity to face your fear and overcome it.
Dreams have many memory, emotional, creative, and learning benefits, such as introspection. Loewenberg states that: “Our dreams are full of information, advice, guidance and even warnings we need to know about ourselves and about our lives. Dreaming is a very deep and profound thinking process in which we focus solely on the self. Through dreaming, we examine our current issues, behaviors and goals. We come up with ideas, we sort things out, we look at ourselves in a deeper light, we gain a clearer picture of ourselves and situation so that we can make better decisions. Those of us that are dream researchers and who use dream work in our mental health practices have found that dream interpretations are the deepest form of therapy available.” (Atherton ‘What Do Our Dreams Mean? The Theories Behind Dream Meanings’).
We dream in five to 20-minute periods at 60 to 90-minute intermissions (‘Why Do People Dream?’ 2019). Scientists also estimate that we forget roughly 95% of our dreams by the next day and have an average of three to six dreams per night. According to Tuck, peers who weren’t allowed to sleep through the night compared to ones who did missed out on dreaming and experienced higher rates of anxiety, depression, lack of focus, and weight gain. Whether we remember them or not, we all dream on a nightly basis. Since we only remember about 5% of our dreams, the memories we are able to recall become less and less specific as time passes. So, why is it that we remember little or nothing at all from our dreams?
“A 2011 study sought out to determine why we remember dreams better directly after REM sleep. The researchers found that those who experienced more brainwave activity in their frontal lobes had an easier job recalling their dreams, further confirming the connection between dreams and memory. These same frontal lobes display similar activity when we’re recalling memories when we’re awake. The same researchers also found that our most intense, bizarre, and vivid dreams are associated with the amygdala (the part of your brain responsible for processing emotions and emotional memories) and the hippocampus (the part that helps us commit short-term memories to long-term)” (‘What Do Dreams Mean? Learn the Meaning Behind Your Dreams’).
Additionally, there are certain individuals who experience a rare neurological disorder – called Charcot-Wilbrand Syndrome – which causes people to lose their ability to dream. This syndrome is extremely rare, affecting on average 0.00019% of the total world population. In the first recorded case of this syndrome, the patient suffered an injury to her visual cortex – the same part of the brain where dreams happen – causing her to stop dreaming. The visual cortex is also accountable for helping us create vivid memories.
Unfortunately, we still do not know exactly why we dream or what they mean. Even though there are several theories out there, it is still unclear why we dream. We all have countless questions surrounding this topic. What does it all mean? How should you interpret you dreams to find out what they really mean? Do they actually mean anything in the first place? The Activation-Synthesis Hypothesis states that dreams are nothing but the results of electrical impulses in our brains. Yet on the other hand, the Threat Simulation Theory (as referred to above) states the opposite.
Dreams have been interpreted as divine messages by many cultures for centuries. According to Tuft & Needle, “Ancient Mesopotamians kept records of the symbols and themes that appeared throughout their dreams, hoping to decode messages from the gods. A wise elder was usually consulted to interpret dreams. Likewise, Ancient Greeks believed in a god named Morpheus who carried messages to mortals in their dreams, and many other civilizations have similar beliefs” (‘What Do Dreams Mean: Dream Interpretation’ 2019).
Today, we rely on science and technology to understand what goes on inside us while we sleep. There is no denying that dreams reveal your inner emotions and tell you a lot about yourself. Since dreams are fabricated by your brain, when you are attempting to interpret dream meanings consider your current circumstances instead of resorting to generalized symbolism. For example, if you dream about becoming homeless, the reason behind it may merely be that you recently moved house and dreams are the way your brain is processing that change. Dreams seem to dramatize things, so do not panic!
Some of the most common themes that people mention when they recall their dreams include: falling, being late, flying, being involved in an accident, and being chased. All of these topics mean different things and can help you determine current stresses. For example, if you’ve had a dream in which you or someone you know dies, it normally indicates a recent life change or event, and this is your brain’s way of expressing that change! Dreams about your teeth falling out is another common topic. “Dream experts believe teeth are a symbol of personal power and communication skills, so without them, we feel powerless, embarrassed, and unable to communicate” (‘What Do Dreams Mean? Learn the Meaning Behind Your Dreams’).
It is assumed babies and animals also dream, but there is no way to “see” dreams in a scientifically measurable way (‘What Do Dreams Mean? Learn the Meaning Behind Your Dreams’). Because babies and toddlers spend a lot of their lives sleeping (with half of that in the REM sleep state), scientists think that all of that time is spent building pathways to communication, not dreaming. Animals similarly experience REM sleep, but seeing as animals communicate differently than humans, they could easily dream in different ways. Twitching, quivers, smiles, and other movements could indicate intense dreams too!
There are several different types of dreams which include: prophetic, complex, recurring, nightmares, daydreams, and lucid dreams. Prophetic dreams claim to predict the future, whereas complex dreams are considered a source of creativity by following an irrational story-line. Recurring dreams and nightmares are both often related to an unresolved life conflict. However, also be careful what you eat before drifting off! According to Facty, too much spicy foods, sugar, alcohol, and caffeine are linked to causing nightmares due to shortening, delaying and disturbing sleep (‘Why Do People Dream?’ 2019). Daydreams occur during the day when our imaginations take over – some people spend up to two hours daily doing so. Last but not least, lucid dreams happen when the dreamer knows they are dreaming, and often they wake up from these types of dreams. Overall, there are many types of dreams that all let your imagination run wild.
There are many simple and easy ways to influence your dreams. “This includes wearing a sleep mask, listening to specific sounds, and evocative scents in your room. Thinking intensely about something just before you fall asleep will make it more likely to dream about that topic.” (‘Why Do People Dream?’ 2019). More REM sleep also means more opportunity to dream, so aim to get at least seven hours of sleep every night. Give yourself time to relax and wind down by avoiding technology, and make sure to keep a dream journal by your bedside to better remember your past dreams.
Dreams are quite interesting and we learn more about them every day. The average person spends 6 years of their life dreaming in total. Even people who are born blind dream – they just experience other senses in their sleep such as noises and smells. That being said, not everyone sees colorful dreams. Many famous artists and inventors credit their creative work to dreams. According to Tuck, Elias Howe discovered how to make the needle work in his invention of the sewing machine, while Mary Shelley got inspiration for her book Frankenstein from a dream. Also, keep in mind that you cannot snore and dream at the same time!
A dream is a series of thoughts and images that are created in our minds throughout sleep, and I believe that they can be practical and valuable if their insight is applied properly. Dreams are complex. Although there is no right way to interpret dreams, they can help you understand yourself, therefore benefiting you and serving a purpose. Studying dreams is a developing subject that will continue to fascinate us for years to come.
- Atherton, Sam. “What Do Our Dreams Mean? The Theories Behind Dream Meanings.” Dreams, The Sleep Matters Club, https://www.dreams.co.uk/sleep-matters-club/do-people-actually-believe-dreams-mean-something-to-us/.
- “What Do Dreams Mean: Dream Interpretation.” Tuft & Needle, 6 Nov. 2019, https://www.tuftandneedle.com/resources/what-do-dreams-mean/.
- “What Do Dreams Mean? Learn the Meaning Behind Your Dreams.” Tuck, https://www.tuck.com/dream-guide/.
- “Why Do People Dream?” Facty, 14 Feb. 2019, https://facty.com/network/answers/science/why-do-people-dream/1/.