Dreams are a common experience among people of all different ages, backgrounds, and cultures. Given their prevalence and often their vividness, they are the subject of much thought and discussion. But what exactly are dreams and why do they happen? And what do they mean? Read on to learn more as we delve into each of these questions.
What Are Dreams?
In effect, dreams are just stories that are conjured up by our brains while we are asleep. Normally, we are the central character in our own dreams, but the rest of the content of dreams can take on an enormous variety of forms.
When we sleep, we progress through different stages of brain activity. A full sleep cycle of all of these stages normally lasts around 90 minutes. The initial stages are known as NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep, and the last part is called REM sleep. REM sleep involves the highest level of brain activity. Because of this, dreams are often associated with REM sleep, but they can actually happen during any sleep stage.
All people dream, but some people are more adept at remembering their dreams. Because we don’t have any way to directly monitor what a person is dreaming, we don’t know for sure how long dreams last. But overall, it’s believed that the majority of dreams only last for a few minutes although some dreams may feel like they are strung together or connected. In total, it is believed that we spend about 2 hours per night dreaming.
Why Do We Dream?
Though sleep and dreams have been the subject of much research, there is no consensus about the reason why we dream. Many researchers believe that we’ll never fully know the nuts-and-bolts details about the role that dreams play in terms of our mental health and cognitive wellness. Nevertheless, there are a number of theories about why we dream.
- Dreams simply reflect what’s in our minds: according to this theory, dreams are essentially just the result of electrochemical impulses such that they replay or review things that we’ve seen or experienced.
- Dreams are part of building knowledge: dreams may play a role in helping to smooth out the functioning of the neural networks in our brain. This theory postulates that by purging connections that don’t serve us and strengthening those that do, dreams can boost our learning and memory.
- Dreams boost problem-solving and creativity: this theory holds that dreams are a way for the brain to work through complex issues or to explore innovative ways to address situations that we confront during everyday life but are not able to properly resolve. This theory is supported by some evidence that lucid dreamers can find new methods for dealing with problems that didn’t come to mind when awake. It may also be related to the theory that dreams are a way of boosting knowledge by cleansing of neural networks.
- Dreams as a way to process emotions: another view is that dreams are an opportunity for us to delve more deeply into difficult emotional challenges and find ways to work through and process those emotions in ways that we don’t normally do or can’t do when awake.
- Dreams as “threat simulation”: this theory advances the idea that dreams are like a flight simulator for threatening situations in life. By letting us play out different responses and outcomes, dreams may work to prepare us for the problems we may come up against when we’re not sleeping.
What Do Dreams Mean?
In 1900, Sigmund Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams, and the goal of understanding the significance of dreams has not abated since. But because we don’t know why we dream, it’s also difficult to know what our dreams mean. Though researchers have tried to monitor brain activity during sleep, it’s still hard to say with any high level of confidence exactly what the meaning is for any particular dream. It’s also possible that dreams are simply a biochemical process and not tied to any specific meaning per se.
That said, there are many people who believe that some of the most common types of dream images, such as falling, running, or being chased may be related to underlying emotional issues such as anxiety, stress, or a lack of control over life events. The fact that these types of dreams are experienced by various people in different circumstances suggests that there may be some inherent meaning to this type of dream. That said, sleepers should be skeptical of any attempt to claim that there is one single and definitive “meaning” to any type of dream.
How Can You Better Remember Dreams?
Are you someone who struggles to remember dreams or wants to have a better record of what's going through your head when you sleep. Here are some tips for remembering dreams:
- Give yourself a command: it sounds silly, but telling yourself several times before you go to bed that you want to and will remember your dreams seems to help with dream recall.
- Replay your dream right when you wake up: it’s easy to forget a dream once you think about anything else. As soon as you wake up, try to replay your dream in your mind before you do anything else.
- Keep a dream diary: keep a pen and paper by your bed and jot down anything you remember about your dreams as soon as you can after trying to replay them.
- Avoid alcohol or sedatives: both of these can inhibit the deep sleep that produces more intense dreaming and may also inhibit memory.
- Drink water before bed: there is some evidence that waking up in the night makes it easier to remember a dream, so if you drink water so that you have to go to the bathroom and have pen and paper handy, it may boost dream recall.