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What Are Dreams and Why Do We Dream?

Do you ever wonder what your dreams mean? Dreams can be mysterious things. They can feel random, or they can also feel related to something that’s been on your mind.

a green landscape with moon in the sky on the left and sun in the sky on the right.

What are dreams?

What are dreams, anyway? Are they just our brain taking a break from reality, or are they something more? In this article, we’ll take a look at what dreams are, and what they might mean for us.

Some people say that dreams are just our brains trying to make sense of random information that we were exposed to during the day. Others believe that dreams are gateways to other dimensions, or that they might be messages from spirits or otherworldly beings.

Maybe it’s possible that dreams are actually a little of all of these things. It’s widely thought that dreams are a way for our brains to process information that we aren’t able to process while we’re awake. But maybe there’s even more to dreams than we realize.

When we’re asleep, our bodies are at rest, yet an inner world comes to life. By working to have better dream recall, and then recording and decoding the symbols in our dreams (and their personal meanings to each of us), there is great potential to learn about ourselves and improve our waking lives.

Instead of dismissing dreams as nonsense or random brain activity, it’s possible to use dreams as a vital tool for self-improvement, self-care, and unlocking a deeper understanding of ourselves on a core, innermost, universal, and spiritual level.

Continuous one line drawing of woman sleeping.

This is known as dreamwork. Work with your dreams and you’ll find that all of the answers you desire can be found within.

What’s truly magical about our dreams is that we all experience them differently. The dreamworld is a place of infinite possibilities, storylines, characters, and events.

And each dream is a window into our subconscious mind, our buried emotions, past experiences, and perhaps even a glimpse into the future.

Why do we dream?

There are many theories about why we dream during sleep. Like many of the most interesting topics in life, the answer remains a mystery. What we do know is that most dreams occur during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which happens about every 90 minutes.

Interestingly, dreams are not limited to the REM phase of sleep, although it’s thought that non-REM dreams are more mundane and less vivid. In addition to producing fantastical dreams, it is believed that REM sleep is important for brain functions like learning, storing memories, and even balancing our moods.

Sleep is critical for health, and for unclear reasons, so too are our dreams. Science has uncovered many interesting reasons for dreams, and one of the most compelling is called defense activation theory.

Defense activation theory

This dream theory purports that dreams have evolved as a means of maintaining the waking functions of the brain’s visual cortex. Put simply, the brain is an incredibly flexible organ that is capable of quite quickly rewiring itself. If one area of the brain is compromised, it can actually be repurposed.

This is the reason that people who have lost one sense (such as sight) can gain increased sensitivity in another sense (such as hearing).

The defense activation theory suggests that the brain compensates for the lack of visual input during sleeping hours by increasing brain activity in that area and creating dreams. In this theory, dreams exist to exercise our visual cortex, keeping it primed for waking hours.

Creating memories

It’s thought that our dreams serve to strengthen and solidify our memories. While our bodies are resting, our minds are at work preserving the events and feelings of the day.

In addition to cementing memories in our minds, this can be a crucial step in the process of learning. Our brain processes the new information we’ve taken in during the day and stores it for future use.

Processing our emotions

Along the same lines as the creating memories theory, many believe that dreams are simply our brains’ way of processing our experiences, thoughts, and feelings from the previous day.

This theory makes sense on an innate level – while we are at rest, our minds are processing what’s come before to help us prepare for the next day.

Develop creativity and problem solving skills

Also along the same lines as the two theories above, some think that we dream to help to hone our creative problem solving skills. In this theory, we spend our dreaming hours literally brainstorming new ideas and solutions to the complex issues we deal with during the day.

Bad dreams and nightmares can serve as practice for managing intense emotions like panic and fear, potentially helping us be more prepared to deal with high stress issues during waking hours.

It makes sense that early man’s mind would have needed to spend his sleeping hours honing hunting skills and preparing for dangerous or intense situations. Over time, the situations have changed greatly, but the core benefits remain the same.

Unconscious desires

It was Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, who popularized the theory that our dreams are motivated by unconscious, repressed primal urges and desires. Our dreams are expressions, often symbolically, of these underlying thoughts and impulses.

Freud believed that it is the “id” part of the human personality that is expressed through dreams. The id is the primitive part of our subconscious. Freud theorized that dreams are very often based in wish fulfillment and sexual instincts.

Dream rebound theory

Today, many elements of Freud’s dream interpretation theory have been debunked, as more and more research has been done on sleep and what happens in our brains while we’re dreaming. However, dream rebound theory agrees with Freud about repressed thoughts and feelings.

This theory states that things we try to suppress willingly or repress unconsciously will bubble up to the surface in our dreams.

Feelings that we try not to think about during the day, such as fears, worries, guilt, shame, or embarrassment have a tendency to express themselves when the conscious mind is at rest.

Activation synthesis theory

Lastly, there is the theory that dreams are triggered by normal electrical impulses in the brain. During sleep, our brains are still hard at work, stringing together random, insignificant ideas and visuals together.

This theory says that dreams become stories when we wake up, because it is our human nature to impart meaning to the random, disconnected string of information.

Alternate realities and glimpses into the past or future

One of the most fascinating dream theories is that during sleep, we’re transported to alternate realities or that we have the ability to see into the past or future.

There have certainly been countless reports throughout history of prophetic dreams, in which a dream has foreshadowed a future event. Many believe that our dreams can hold important clues about the future and can warn us about impending events.

a surrealist green island dense with trees.

Some also believe that it is our spirit guides, ancestors, or angels who visit us in our dreams to send along this information and help us to make the right decisions during waking life. This theory is very comforting for many because it gives us a feeling of being connected to and supported by the universe.

American President Abraham Lincoln famously had a dream about his death three days before he was assassinated. According to Learn Religions, it was a White House guard in his dream who informed him that the president had died.

This type of prophetic dream is particularly interesting. The dreamer is given information about their future self by an outside presence in their dream, making a great case for the spirit guides theory.

This sort of theory may never be proved or disproved, but it is infinitely fascinating and lends a new flavor to the way we think about and interpret our dreams and the people in them.

Visiting the past and recurring dreams

Along with dreams regarding the future, some dream about visiting the past. A common dream theme is an intense feeling of deja vu, the sense that you’ve been in that place or situation before.

I frequently experience dreams in which (during the dream) I know I’ve been in that place, building, or space before. I seem to return to several dreamscapes on a regular basis.

Why do we have these feelings and why would we visit the same places or scenarios again and again – even though we may have never experienced them in waking life?

Some theorize that these places are alternate dimensions within the multiverse that our dreams allow us to visit. It’s a wild, but again, very interesting idea!

Types of dreams

There are six primary categories of dreams: regular dreams, lucid dreams, nightmares, daydreams, false awakenings, and recurring dreams.

surreal illustration of figures walking in a field of flowers that is spilling out of a building.

Standard dreams

These are the normal dreams we have in which we’re not aware that we’re dreaming. The content and themes of our dreams can vary wildly and take on many forms. Some dreams are about waking life and day-to-day experiences, while others can be surreal.

REM dreams vs non-REM dreams 

It’s known that we dream during non-REM sleep, although it’s less common. These dreams tend to be less vivid and strange than REM dreams. Non-REM dreams can feel like a stream of thoughts and ideas, remembering mundane events of the previous day, or a continuation of the thoughts you had as you were falling asleep.

Anecdote: I believe that I frequently have this sort of dream and that this is the mental space where I get some great insights. Because I have small children, I’m woken often throughout the night. While this isn’t great for my overall sleep, it has led to me becoming more and more aware of my dreams and the types of dreams I experience throughout the night.

When I’m first falling asleep, my thoughts feel as though they drift and expand and new or different information cycles in and out of my usual ideas. It was during one of these non-REM-just-fallen-asleep dreams that I suddenly had the idea to sell my business.

This was a thought that had never occurred to me before and it created a mental shift that ended up ultimately improving the way I thought about and managed that business.

Although it’s the wild, often fantastical REM sleep dreams that are the ones that get the most attention, I think that the more subtle and less visual dreams can be a source of great insight and personal growth as well.

REM sleep is the fourth stage of sleep and it occurs about ninety minutes after falling asleep. During this phase, the body experiences changes from the three previous, more restful stages of sleep.

The eyes move around rapidly as brain activity and heart rate increase. Other physical changes occur such as irregular breathing patterns and a complete relaxation of the muscles.

Because the brain is more active, REM sleep is actually less restful than the earlier stages of sleep. You’re also easier to wake up during this lighter sleep phase. The deepest sleep happens in stage three, just before you slip into the vivid dreamworld that is REM sleep.

Lucid dreams

Some say that our dreams are an alternate reality. And if you’re lucid dreaming, it’s true! Lucid dreams are a form of alternate reality because we are aware that we’re experiencing the dream.

Like a hyperreal video game, experienced lucid dreamers can actually control what happens in their dream and create their own imaginative dreamscapes. 

There is a lot of information out there about how to train yourself to have more lucid dreams and to get better at controlling the dreams without waking yourself up.

Learn all about this in my Ultimate Guide to Lucid Dreaming (for Beginners!)

Lucid dreams are incredibly fun and exciting, and often the minute we realize we’re dreaming, those feelings of excitement wake us up. Over time, you can learn to steady your dream mind and dream feelings to stay in the lucid dream for longer.

Why do lucid dreams occur? According to WebMD, research has shown that an increase in brain activity leads to lucid dreams. As a result, this kind of dream is less restful for us than one in which we lack awareness that we’re dreaming. Less restful or not, lucid dreams are my favorite kind, and the fun is worth the lack of rest!

Lucid dreaming appears to be caused by changes in the brain as it moves toward waking at the end of REM sleep. This in-between stage when we’re not fully in our dreams and not fully awake is the lucid dreamer’s playground. 

Nightmares and night terrors

Nightmares are bad dreams. They’re those awful dreams that cause you to startle awake, your heart racing, sometimes not even remembering what led to those intense feelings of fear and stress.

Nightmares are often associated with children, but anyone can experience them at any age. Some common causes of nightmares include high levels of anxiety and stress, trauma, illness, and medications. Illicit drugs and alcohol can also lead to unpleasant dreams.

During college, I went through a period of chronic nightmares and generally very unrestful sleep. At the time, I felt that it was directly connected to the high levels of stress and anxiety I felt moving to a new city and a new school, but looking back I also wonder if my diet, dismal nutrition, and questionable blood sugar had anything to do with it. 

Food and our digestion can have an impact on our sleep, so it’s possible that certain foods or eating late at night can affect our dreams. Anything that can cause frequent waking can affect how we remember our dreams.

The more we awaken, the more we remember, making it seem like we’re having more unpleasant dreams, when we might only be remembering them more often.

Although not scientifically proven, some believe that certain foods will lead to different kinds of dreams. Many believe that eating sugar before bed will lead to stranger dreams and that eating spicy foods or dairy can trigger more disturbing dreams.

It seems most likely that eating anything before bed that can upset digestion could affect your dreams simply because your sleep quality is diminished and your body is signaling the brain to wake up.

Coping with nightmares

If you’re struggling with chronic or recurring nightmares, try working on your sleep hygiene. Carve out a simple, repeatable routine before bed that is comforting, soothing, and stress-reducing.

There are many ways to do this, but some simple examples are to enjoy a warm bath, drink a calming herbal tea such as chamomile, or diffuse lavender essential oil in the air in your bedroom.

Allow enough time to wind down and release the nagging stresses of work and your personal life before your head hits the pillow. Practices like meditation and yoga may also be helpful.

Avoid caffeine late in the day, as it can disturb your sleep patterns and cause more waking (which might make it feel like you’re having more bad dreams than usual).

Nightmares vs. night terrors

Unlike simple bad dreams, night terrors (also known as sleep terrors) are a more serious issue in which a person experiences intense fear while sleeping, often combined with some degree of sleepwalking.

During a nightmare, the sleeping person will awaken abruptly, but during a night terror, the person will instead remain asleep, but act out their dream. Night terrors are somewhat common in young children and most will eventually outgrow them.

Some examples of night terror symptoms include screaming, flailing, kicking, being inconsolable and very difficult to wake up. On the bright side, most people don’t remember these episodes the following morning. 

Some causes of night terrors include high stress, fever, and sleep deprivation. In adults, sleep apea and other sleep-disordered kinds of breathing can trigger night terrors.

The reason for this is that these episodes occur during the deepest stage of sleep (stage three), but due to the breathing problems that trigger signals to awaken, there’s a disconnect between brain and body.

Issues during deep, stage three sleep are the cause of both night terrors and sleepwalking (somnambulism) and well as other parasomnias.

Daydreams

While very different from the dreaming we do while sleeping, daydreaming is something we all do each day. Daydreams are immersive thoughts and fantasies that distract us from what’s happening around us. Incredibly, according to one study, we daydream for nearly 47% of our waking hours!

While daydreaming is often thought of in a negative light, it may not be the bad habit we characterize it as. It’s during these immersive streams of consciousness that we exercise our creative thinking muscles and do a lot of future thinking. This in turn can help us plan and prepare for the future.

False awakening and sleep paralysis

False awakening dreams are simply dreams in which you dream that you’ve woken up, sometimes several times before actually waking up in your bed.

Like lucid dreams, these kinds of dreams happen in that in-between space between sleeping and waking when our brain activity is heightened. False awakenings can feel neutral or negative, sometimes leading to or becoming part of nightmares.

Sleep paralysis on the other hand is a natural function that occurs when we first begin to drift off to sleep. Our body is effectively “paralyzed” to prevent us from acting out our dreams. Sometimes, something (like a noise or other disturbance) will wake us while our bodies are still immobilized.

As a result, we feel like we’re awake and unable to move, or that we’re being restrained. The fear that accompanies this sensation seems to lead to other symptoms, such as feeling like there’s a presence in the room or that something bad is about to happen.

People with high anxiety, depression, insomnia, and narcolepsy are at an increased risk for these episodes.

Recurring dreams

Two thirds of people have experienced a recurring dream at one time or another in their lives. These repeating dreams present a wide range of scenarios, but common themes are stressful experiences such as being chased, teeth falling out, suddenly finding yourself naked in public, or in my case, forgetting something really important and then spending the whole dream frantically trying to get to a destination.

Although I’ve been out of college for a decade, I still have dreams that I’m late for class or have somehow forgotten to attend class for months. These dreams seem to pop up during periods of high stress or uncertainty, which makes sense. The events in the dream appear to be symbolic of the anxiety I’m dealing with during waking hours.

However, not all recurring dreams are negative. Positive scenarios can play out on repeat as well. Some recurring dreams happen for a few days in a row, while others can last for years or come and go throughout a lifetime.

What seems common among recurring dreams is that there is an unresolved conflict or emotion that the dreamer is working through while asleep.

The mind returns to the symbolic event or situation over and over again until the waking mind is able to process the source of the issue.

Additionally, there appears to be a physiological link to recurring dreams. This could explain common themes such as losing teeth (clenching the jaw during sleep) and falling (sudden changes in the vestibular system).

Learn even more about your dreams:

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