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 dreams mean, anyway? I will take a look at what makes us dream and helps unravel the mysteries behind dreams. The Dreams are basically stories and images our mind creates while we sleep. Dreams can be vivid. They can make you feel happy, sad, or scared. And they may seem confusing or perfectly rational. Dreams can occur anytime during sleep. But most vivid dreams occur during deep, REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, when the brain is most active. Some experts say we dream at least four to six times per night.
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 and are nonsensical activities of the sleeping brain. Others say dreams are necessary for mental, emotional, and physical health.
Studies have shown the importance of dreams to our health and well-being. In one study, researchers woke subjects just as they were drifting off into REM sleep. They found that those who were not allowed to dream experienced:
- Increased tension
- Difficulty concentrating
- Lack of coordination
- Weight gain
- Tendency to hallucinate
Many experts say that 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.
Sigmund Freud believed dreams are a window into our subconscious. He believed they reveal a person’s:
- Unconscious desires
Freud thought dreams were a way for people to satisfy urges and desires that were unacceptable to society. Perhaps there is merit with all these theories. 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.
Dreams are communications from the unconscious mind.
Around the turn of the 20th century, Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, who happened to also have a fetish for mommy-daddy issues, thought that dreams were messages from the unconscious, which he fancied himself the discoverer of. “The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind,” he wrote. The purpose of dreams, he maintained, was to fulfill repressed wishes, and you could tease apart their individual meaning through associations. Hismentee and later rival Carl Jung took a more future-oriented perspective: Dreams, he said, are a way for the parts of you beyond your conscious awareness to get you to notice things, delivered to you through universal, yet personal, symbols. So a dream of the girl or guy that got away could be read as a sign that you’re letting an opportunity slip away. Jungian analyst Maxson McDowell, who uses dream interpretation in his therapy practice of 29 years, told me that a dream is “a communication to consciousness of some insights that the wider personality feels is important and necessary,” a bid from “the wider personality to get consciousness to expand a little bit, understanding something more about itself.”
What Do You Dream?
Dreams can be about, well, anything at all. They can be magical and exhilarating, totally strange, or even horrifying (those could be called bad dreams, nightmares or night terrors). Dreams could include the most obvious individuals in your life—such as family members, friends, and pets—as well as people you’ve never seen before. They might take place in a familiar setting, like the office where you work. Or the setting might be a faraway location, such as the moon, or a fictional place, such as a main character’s home on a television show.
Sometimes dreams are a long way from sweet. They can, in fact, be quite the opposite—haunting, distressing, or worse. But when you or your kids have an unpleasant or scary dream, there may be times when it’s hard to tell if it’s actually a bad dream, a nightmare, or a night terror. Let this insider’s guide on how to tell the difference come to your rescue.
A step down in intensity from nightmares, bad dreams can be disturbing. The main difference is that you’re likely to continue sleeping through them. You may remember a bad dream’s storyline, themes, or images right when you wake up or even later in the day, but these unpleasant dreams typically cause less emotional distress than nightmares do. Bad dreams tend to be more common than nightmares.
While in the midst of these vivid, frightening dreams, the dreamer usually wakes up abruptly and can describe the nightmare, often in detail. Nightmares occur during REM sleep, which typically lasts longer in the early morning hours. Approximately one in four children ages five to 12 has frequent nightmares, and they are not usually cause for concern, though they may occur more often when the person feels stressed out or anxious. When a kid has a nightmare, he or she typically wants to tell his or her parents about it and gain reassurance that it was just a dream and not real. Because the child may be frightened or upset by the nightmare, he or she may have trouble going back to sleep. As a parent, you can probably relate, since adults can get nightmares, too
They’re like nightmares in overdrive but are much less common. Night terrors often induce terror or panic in the dreamer, causing the person to scream or shout, sleepwalk, or frantically thrash around in bed. They are sometimes caused by post-traumatic stress disorder and typically occur during the non-REM stages. In contrast to a person having a nightmare, a person having a night terror will remain asleep, though he or she may appear to be awake. It’s difficult to awaken someone during a night terror, so don’t even try; simply wait it out. Night terrors can be distressing to witness but they don’t cause harm to the dreamer and he or she is unlikely to remember the horrifying event in the morning. Night terrors are most common in kids, ages four to eight, though they can continue into adolescence or even adulthood. The good news is: Occasional night terrors usually go away on their own. But if you’re losing a lot of sleep from night terrors on a regular basis or you’re experiencing severe anxiety during the day, talk to a doctor.
Why Do Nightmares Occur?
Nightmares, or bad dreams, are common in children and adults. Often nightmares are caused by:
- Stress, conflict, and fear
- Emotional problems
- Medication or drug use
If you have a recurring nightmare, your subconscious may be trying to tell you something. Listen to it. If you can’t figure out why you are having bad dreams, and you continue to have them, talk to a qualified mental healthcare provider. They may be able to help you figure out what is causing your nightmares and provide tips to put you at ease.
Keep in mind that no matter how scary a nightmare is, it is not real and most likely will not happen to you in real life.
What Are Lucid Dreams?
Have you ever had a dream where you knew you were dreaming during your dream? This is called a lucid dream. Research has shown that lucid dreaming is accompanied by an increased activation of parts of the brain that are normally suppressed during sleep. Lucid dreaming represents a brain state between REM sleep and being awake.
Some people who are lucid dreamers are able to influence the direction of their dream, changing the story so to speak. While this may be a good tactic to take, especially during a nightmare, many dream experts say it is better to let your dreams occur naturally.
Can Dreams Predict the Future?
There are many examples of situations where a dream came true or was telling of a future event. When you have a dream that then plays out in real life, experts say it is most likely due to:
- Faulty memory
- An unconscious tying together of known information
However, 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 are designed to forget our dreams because if we remembered all our dreams, we might not be able to distinguish dreams from real memories.
Also, it may be harder to remember dreams because during REM sleep our body may shut down systems in our brain responsible for creating memories. We may only remember dreams that occur just before we wake, when certain brain activities have been turned back on.
Some say our minds don’t actually forget dreams, we just don’t know how to access them. Dreams may be stored in our memory, waiting to be recalled. This notion may explain why you may suddenly remember a dream later in the day — something may have happened to trigger the memory.