Dreaming is one of those mysterious parts of life that science doesn’t entirely understand yet. Everyone dreams, and sometimes we share our dream experiences with others or listen to friends and family tell us about their dreams. But why do we live these complex, confusing, disorienting stories at night? What causes them, and why do we need them?
There’s a lot we don’t know about the language of dreams, though scientists, psychologists, and metaphysicians have been trying for centuries. Let’s explore what dreams are, some different types of dreams that people have, and how we can make the most of them in the healthiest way possible.
Dreams are the narrative sensations we experience while we’re asleep. These can involve any of our senses, but we most commonly experience our dreams through our visual, auditory, and tactile senses. Your dream might tell a story, or it might just be a confusing jumble of interconnected snapshots.
Dreams can be enjoyable or they can be scary. Sometimes it feels like they have something to teach us, and other times they’ll feel disconnected from our waking life. Everyone dreams at night, although some people remember their dreams more clearly than others. Most dreams happen during our REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep. If we wake up suddenly during this deeper sleep stage, we’re more likely to remember pieces of our dreams than if we woke from a lighter sleep.
Dreams are believed to help process questions and anxieties we face in our subconscious mind that aren’t easy to process while we’re awake. They help us consolidate important memories from information we’ve absorbed during the day as well as examine things we’re feeling on a conscious or unconscious level.
The renowned psychologist Sigmund Freud believed that dreams were a window into our unconscious desires — the things we can’t openly admit in the daytime, even to ourselves. While Freud’s theory has been both engaging and controversial, the scientific community has never fully agreed on the root cause of our dreaming. We know that they often reflect our deep-seated traumas and the issues we face during the day. Sometimes working through these issues in our dreams at night can bring us some clarity and perspective as we face them the next day.
Studies have also been done on the way dreams help us turn the events of our waking life into a cohesive narrative to retain in our long-term memory. The activation-synthesis model of dreaming suggests that certain areas of the brain, such as the amygdala and the hippocampus, become activated during our dream states. This causes us to make mindful connections between seemingly unrelated images or ideas — in short, they become a story. When we wake up, these connections help us see our problems in a new way, deepen our understanding of those around us, and inspire new creative solutions and ideas.
The way in which we dream is affected by a range of factors, including:
Bad dreams have been linked to underlying health conditions such as depression. This may be because our brains continue processing the negative feelings of grief, anger, or trauma even after we go to sleep; being fixated on these feelings in a long-term capacity makes it more difficult to set them aside once the day is finished. People who are happier overall are more likely to have more positive dream experiences, and they may not remember them as intensely as people who suffer from poor mental health.
If you suffer from a physical illness, this can impact your dreaming as well. Long-term illnesses can affect the way your brain processes information, and even shorter illnesses, such as the common cold, can create more intense dreams (we’ll look a little more at fever dreams below). In addition, some medications prescribed for illnesses can cause more vibrant dreams. Hormonal shifts such as those that happen during pregnancy can also be a catalyst for vivid dreaming.
Certain foods and dietary lifestyles have been associated with negative or intense dreams. In 2018, Burger King launched a menu item specifically designed to give the person eating it bad dreams (a marketing strategy that sounds like it may have come from a bad dream itself). Food sensitivities, such as lactose intolerance, have been linked to bad dreams, as have high intakes of sugar and fat before bed.
Now that we know about what dreams are and why they happen, let’s look at the different types of dreams we can experience.
Daydreams (which can happen during the day or the night), begin while we’re awake. This is when our minds wander and begin creating a story around the things we’re dealing with. A daydream can be positive or negative. Although we begin daydreaming while we’re awake, if we’re particularly relaxed we can slip into an early sleep stage and lose awareness of our physical body. Coming out of these daydreams can be a little bit disorienting, and we may find the daydream slipping away the same way it would as if it were a nighttime dream.
Dream analysis has been a popular pastime since Freud’s time in the 1950s. Symbolic dreams happen when we process our underlying concerns through symbolism and metaphor. For example, if you’re nervous about the first day of school, you might dream about starting a new job without any training. Or if you’ve been constantly running behind all day, you might dream about being chased by a predator who’s constantly at your heels. Your mind can come up with a whole range of indirect symbols to help understand your waking life.
Thematic dreams are often recurring, and usually more literal than symbolic dreams. They may, however, combine both literal and symbolic imagery. They’re how your brain works to process larger underlying issues. For instance, if you’re having problems with your partner, you may dream about them and the things they’ve done to upset you, or the things you fear for your future. If you’re having problems at your job, you may have a dream that takes place there that highlights some of the struggles you’ve been facing. These dreams will have a broad, relevant message that can teach you something about your day-to-day challenges.
Nightmares can be symbolic, or they can be more literal like thematic dreams, but they always focus on fear and other negative emotions. Your brain might be using nightmares as a way to process particularly difficult elements of your waking life, or nightmares might happen because you weren’t able to disengage from those feelings when you went to sleep. This is particularly common for those with PTSD and for trauma survivors. They can also happen while you’re ill.
Lucid dreaming is when you’re able to consciously take control of your dreams. When we dream, we usually aren’t aware that we’re dreaming, even if the dream world doesn’t make sense to us. With lucid dreams, you understand that you’re asleep and experiencing a different world through your subconscious. With practice, lucid dreaming can become a skill that you can use to manipulate nightmares and other difficult dream scenarios.
Fever dreams are intense, chaotic dreams that happen when your body is sick. Usually they take place while we’re asleep and fighting against our illness, but they can appear as hallucinations while we’re awake, too. They happen because when our brains get too hot, they lose some of their ability to maintain control of our thoughts and impressions and images can start appearing seemingly at random. Fever dreams may manifest as intense nightmares or just as confusing narrative scapes, but they’re always uncomfortable. Fortunately, they only last as long as the illness stays in our body.
People have long been fascinated by the potential for prophecy in dreaming. Some people believe that prophetic dreams happen because while we’re asleep, our brains work to make sense of events and ideas that are related to each other, but appear to be disconnected. When we wake up, we have a new understanding of what will inevitably come out of those events that we weren’t able to see before. Others, however, have conducted in-depth research and studies into the potential behind human intuition and perception in their dreams. Can the dreaming world really give us snapshots into the future?
Our dreams clearly have a lot to teach us, but it can be difficult picking them apart to find the lessons hidden inside of them. To get the most out of your dreams, try keeping a daily dream journal. This involves writing down your thoughts and impressions each morning after you wake up, before the secrets of your dreams are burnt away by your waking life.
Writing down your dreams in a dream journal will not only help you improve your dream recollection, but it will show you recurring patterns and messages in your dreams that your mind is trying to show you. Things that don’t make sense immediately will begin to come together into a cohesive story. This way our dreams can become a helpful aid to a better, healthier waking life, instead of a hindrance.
Dreams are an integral part of every one of us, and science is still working to understand exactly how they form and what they have to teach us. But by taking control of your dreaming life and the way it affects us when we’re awake, you’re one step closer to a happier sleep and healthier well-being.