Dreaming is a natural and normal human experience which involves a series of images, thoughts, sensations, ideas, and feelings occurring automatically in our mind when we sleep.
What Are Dreams?
Dreams refer to mental images and stories created by our mind when we are in specific sleep stages. These typically lack any logical narrative and may be entertaining, scary or simply bizarre. One 2017 study 1 defines dreaming as “a mental state, an altered state of consciousness, which occurs during sleep.” It primarily includes fictional events that are formed and organized as a story with a narrative marked by “internally generated sensory, perceptual, and emotional experiences.” Research 2 shows that the process of dreaming commonly includes visual imagery along with the involvement of different senses. These can be vague or vivid and may often be confusing. Most of the time we tend to forget our dreams once we wake up or may feel confused upon awakening.
This phenomenon can be experienced in soft colors or in black and white and may also include elements such as smell, touch, sound and taste. In fact, studies 3 have found that even blind individuals tend to dream, but have fewer visual dream impressions and more sensory construction as blindness significantly changes the sensory composition. We can also experience lucid dreams 4 and nightmares 5 . During a lucid dream, we are aware of the dreaming process while nightmares refer to scary, disturbing or bad dreams that cause negative emotions even after waking up. It should be noted that we generally have limited control over the dream content, except in case of lucid 6 dreaming. Research 7 has observed that we have reduced control over “content, visual images and activation of the memory” when we are dreaming.
According to a 2015 study 8 , sleeping is regarded as an unconscious state where “the one may be aroused. This is why one dreams; we sometimes get the feeling of fear, shock, fatigue, and sorrow depending on what the brain was dreaming about.”
Dreaming And REM Sleep
According to a 2001 study 9 , “The dream is a unique psychodynamically informative instrument for evaluating the subjective correlates of brain activity during REM sleep.” It involves memories, percepts, emotions, impulses, fantasies, wishes, defenses, conflicts and images of self & others. “Dreams may serve as the initial indicators of transference, resistance, impending crisis, acting-out, conflict resolution, and decision-making,” adds the study. Although a dream may appear during any stage of sleep, vivid ones tend to occur during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when the brain is highly active. A dream can last from around 30 minutes to a few seconds. “REM sleep dreaming can be viewed as a virtual reality pattern generator used by the brain to instantiate and maintain its readiness for adaptive interaction with the world,” explains a 2009 study 10 .
It should be noted that during REM sleep, paralysis of voluntary muscles occurs to keep us from acting out our dreams in real life while we are sleeping. This is identified as muscle atonia of REM 11 (rapid eye movement) sleep.
Characteristics Of Dreams
According to a 2010 study 12 , “Dreams are a most remarkable experiment in psychology and neuroscience, conducted every night in every sleeping person. They show that our brain, disconnected from the environment, can generate by itself an entire world of conscious experiences.” Generally, dreaming includes the following common features –
- An involuntary experience
- First-person narrative
- Invokes intense emotions
- Content involves aspects of conscious or waking life
- Content may be confusing, irrational and non-linear
- Content may involve other characters or individuals & includes interpersonal interactions
However, as everyone experiences dreams differently, not all the features may be applicable to all types of dreaming. Even though our brains create a fictional world, often inspired by our real environment, during dreaming, we tend to possess protoconsciousness 13 as we are always our own selves in our dreams. Regardless, the content, purpose and interpretation of dreams are not yet fully understood by experts.
Sigmund Freud, neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, claimed that dreaming acts as “a royal road to the unconscious” or a portal into our subconsciousness. It can help us understand our subconscious thoughts, desires and motivations. According to Freud 14 , sources of dreams involve organic stimuli from our body, stimuli from our external environment, subjective experiences, and our mental activities while we sleep. He believed the phenomenon of dreaming allows individuals to live their fantasies and satisfy certain desires & urges that are not socially acceptable. However, different experts have different opinions about dream interpretations.
Although some researchers 15 claim that “dreams can be a source of personal insight,” some other experts believe that dreams are nothing but fictional stories made by our mind which are not related to our reality, thoughts or emotions. According to a 2019 study 16 , “Dream experience (DE) represents a fascinating condition linked to emotional processes and the human inner world.” Hence, dreams may be a reflection of our innermost thoughts, emotions, concerns, fears, needs and desires. This can be especially true if we keep having dreams with similar themes repeatedly. Trying to interpret them can often help us gain deeper personal insight about our own selves and our lives. “Dreams could represent a sort of simulation of reality, providing the possibility to create a new scenario with emotional mastery elements to cope with dysphoric items included in nightmares,” adds the study.
Several individuals seem to have similar themes, especially in nightmares. These include falling from a great height, being chased by something evil, failure in an important task, an examination, inability to find a restroom or experiencing public embarrassment. Studies 17 show that underlying stress and anxiety can cause nightmares and sleep disorders like insomnia. But it should be noted that even though dreams may involve similar themes, the meaning and interpretations can vary greatly depending on the individual as every dream is unique. It is also believed that dreaming can also foretell the future 18 and some dreams/nightmares can come true in real waking life. However, researchers 19 believe that dreams do not play out in reality as we tend to falsely associate details from our own dreams and mistake them for reality.
Dreaming In Animals
Dreams are an universal phenomenon and not limited to just humans. It has been observed that different types of animals, like fish, reptiles, birds and mammals tend to experience both non-REM and REM sleep and dreams. “Evidence that dream mentation occurs during both non-REM and REM sleep, indicates that all mammals have the potential to experience dream mentation,” explains a recent 2020 study 20 . However, the way humans and animals dream may be very different. Research 21 has found that brain patterns of rats during REM sleep are similar to their brain patterns while running a maze. Hence, the researchers concluded that rats tend to dream about running mazes. Studies 22 have also found the presence of muscle atonia during REM sleep in cats which may indicate 23 that even cats may dream.
One 2005 study 24 reveals that although humans experience dreaming in REM sleep, it can also happen during other stages of sleep, such as non-REM or NREM sleep. “Thus, REM is taken as a marker for dreaming and as REM is distributed ubiquitously throughout the mammalian class, it is suggested that other mammals also dream,” adds the study.
Why We Dream
The reason and purpose of dreaming is still a great mystery. Although most of us tend to believe that our dreams are meant to give us certain insight or messages about ourselves, our future or provide us solutions to some real problems, it may not necessarily be so. Research shows that dreaming helps to manage mood regulation 16 and memory consolidation 25 . According to the activation-synthesis model 26 , dreaming is influenced by certain physiological brain processes. It is not a passive process as a range of neural activity occurs while we are asleep. Sleeping facilitates certain brain functions like memory consolidation. One 2019 study 27 explains, “Overall, our brain seems to be on duty during sleep throughout the night for ‘cleaning’ and ‘refreshing’ itself. Hemodynamic changes from the beginning to end of sleep might be the indicator of this work. Thus, accordingly the REM stage seems to be at a central point for this work.” The activation-synthesis hypothesis explains that the dream process occurs due to these physiological processes during sleep.
1. Developing memories
As mentioned earlier, consolidation of memory is one of the most crucial functions of dreaming as it helps in improving memory and recollection of information. According to a 2017 research paper 30 , neuroimaging and brain lesion studies suggest that brain networks involved in memory, emotional and reward processes may be implicated in dream generation. “Converging evidence suggests that dreaming is influenced by the consolidation of memory during sleep,” states a 2014 study 31 .
2. Emotion and mood regulation
Emotional processing is another important aspect of this phenomenon. As dreams allow us to experience certain emotions in imagined settings, it is believed that these promote emotional regulation in the brain. “REM sleep, with its peculiar neurophysiology and patterns of neuroanatomical activation, is proposed to play a particularly relevant role in emotional processing,” states a recent 2020 study 32.
Read More About Mood Disorders Here
3. Cleaning the mind
Dreams and nightmares may also play a role in maintaining mental functions by clearing out unnecessary, wrong or incorrect information.
4. Analyzing information
Studies 33 show that life experiences are often replayed during dreaming. The content of our dreams may be an unique way of evaluating and reviewing recent experiences and events through a variation of instant replay.
Some other elements that can cause the occurrence of dreams may include –
- Cognitive and intellectual simulation of various experiences from real life
- Enhancement of cognitive abilities 34
- Reflection of unconscious or subconscious cognitive functions 35
- Mental preparation for threats 36 that may arise in future
- Analysis of complex and contradictory ideas 37 that may be too challenging during awakened state
However, certain researchers tend to believe that dreams are nothing more than a consequence of sleep with no specific function, purpose or meaning. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that dreams do not have any meaning at all. Dreaming is a conscious and creative cognitive state that can lead to fanciful and sometimes useful new ideas.
Factors Influencing Dreams
Certain factors during our wakeful state can affect our sleep and dream. Here are some of the most influencing factors that can have an effect on our dreams:
Studies 38 have found that the quality and quantity of sleep can greatly affect our dreams and nightmares. Sleep deprivation can lead to vivid dreams as it makes the brain highly active. So when REM sleep is experienced, dreams can become very vivid and your recollection can improve too.
Read More About Insomnia Here
Research 39 shows that our health is associated with dreaming. Studies 40 show that when someone is suffering from a fever, they are more likely to have bizarre dreams with negatively themed content on “health and temperature perception.” Moreover, pregnancy 41 s phenomenon and facilitate vivid dreams. According to a 2013 study 42 , dreams during pregnancy tend to be more dysphoric and have more maternal mental representations (MMR) of the unborn baby and the self. This is perhaps due to higher levels of hormone production which impact thoughts and feelings.
3. Mental illness
“Waking mental well-being is assumed to be tightly linked to sleep and the affective content of dreams,” states a 2018 study 43 . Hence, certain psychiatric disorders 44 , like stress, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive symptoms, post-traumatic stress disorder, psychopathology 45 & other mood disorders can cause nightmares or negative & disturbing dreams. One 2018 study 46 found that higher levels of anxiety and depression are related to dreams and nightmares 47 with negative & harmful emotional load.
Further reports 48 reveal that nightmares are commonly experienced by people with psychiatric disorders and around 70% of patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or personality disorders have nightmares. Moreover, certain types of medications for mental illnesses, like antipsychotics and antidepressants 49 can also increase the likelihood of having nightmares.
Although there is no clear evidence, our diet can have an impact on our dreams. One 2015 study 50 found that a healthier diet and fasting (longer gaps between meals) are associated with vivid dreams, while unhealthy diets can lead to disturbing and bizarre dreams. For instance, sugary foods or high-carb foods can affect our mood during wakefulness which can translate later into our sleep.
Having a physically active lifestyle and engaging in regular exercise 51 can reduce your chances of having poor quality sleep and nightmares. Regular exercise leads to better and deeper sleep which in turn causes better, more vivid dreams. Exercising 52 can result in better sleep quality and more REM sleep 53 .
Tips To Remember Dreams
Most of us often tend to forget 54 the content of our dreaming experiences when we wake up. However, researchers are not exactly sure about why this may occur. According to an experiment 55 conducted in 2009, forgetting of dream material may occur due to repression. Another probable reason may be to enable us to distinguish between our real memories and memories from our dreams. Otherwise remembering dream content all the time can easily lead to false memories. But we do tend to remember dreams that occur right before we awaken as certain brain systems may get turned off during REM sleep and are activated again when we are about to wake up.
Some experts believe that we may not necessarily forget our dreams rather we are unaware of how we may access them. It is believed these may be stored as memories in the brain and can be recalled. According to a 2011 study 56 , women experience a higher frequency of dream recall as compared to men. Moreover, different factors, like increased sleep quality, good mood, creativity and increased awakening can influence dream recall positively. Recalling a dream after awakening from rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep may also be related to brain oscillations as well, as per research 57 . Moreover, the development of neural systems 58 also tends to play a crucial role in dream generation and dream recall.
If you are keen on remembering your dreams clearly after you wake up, then the following tips may help you –
1. Wake up naturally
Waking up with an alarm reduces your chances of remembering your dreams when you wake up. This is because as the alarm goes off, our mind focuses more on turning it off rather than recalling the dream content. Abrupt or sudden awakening can make the process harder while peaceful awakening can be helpful.
2. Remember dreams immediately after waking up
Dreaming is a complicated process and an individual can forget their dreams almost instantly upon awakening. Hence, make sure to recall your dreams right after you wake up. Before doing anything else, simply try to replay the dreams and visualize them mentally before doing anything else. Dream playback can be highly effective when done right after waking up.
3. Make it a priority
Prioritize dream recall and remind yourself about remembering it before you go to sleep. Being deliberate and intentional about recalling your dreams and repeating it to yourself frequently can improve your chances of remembering in the morning upon waking up. Although this may not be a proven strategy, it can motivate you to invest some time on reflecting and remembering dreams.
4. Maintain a dream journal
Track your dreams by keeping a journal as it can help you to note down and record them easily and quickly before they become inaccessible. This is an essential step that you need to follow immediately after waking up, especially if you awaken in the middle of the night. So make sure to keep a pen and a notepad beside your bed. Alternatively, you can also use a dream journal app on your phone.
How To Prevent Bad Dreams
Dreaming can be an unpleasant experience for some as we tend to experience bad dreams or nightmares at times. According to research 59 , “About one in 20 of the general population experiences nightmares every week.” Caused primarily due to stress, anxiety and specific medications, nightmares can lead to severe distress, disturb restorative sleep and are associated with various mental health issues. This is why it may be important to learn how we can prevent nightmares and have better quality sleep. Here are some coping strategies that can be helpful –
1. Consult a doctor
If you are experiencing frequent nightmares, then talking with a doctor or mental health professional is highly recommended as there can be some underlying causes. A doctor may suggest some form of therapy or medications to help you cope with the stress and anxiety. Psychotherapy approaches like exposure therapy or desensitization therapy can help to manage 60 intrusive thoughts on dream content and dream distress.
2. Practice better sleep hygiene
Studies 61 have found that “Improper sleep hygiene behaviors might be a reason for poor quality,” which can lead to the occurence of nightmares. Improving sleep hygiene is also an excellent way to stop having nightmares 62 . So make sure to improve your sleep-related habits and have a pleasing and relaxing environment in your bedroom.
Here are some ways you can improve your sleeping habits –
- Go to bed at the same time every night and follow a consistent sleep schedule
- Keep your bedroom relaxing, dark, noiseless and maintain a comfortable temperature
- Avoid having large meals before bedtime
- Avoid working or using devices such as smartphones, computers or TVs in the bedroom
- Avoid watching disturbing, scary or overly stimulating content before bedtime
- Exercise regularly at least 4 hours before bedtime
- Restrict consumption of caffeine, alcohol or recreational drugs before bedtime
- Practice relaxation techniques like deep breathing and meditation before going to bed
These strategies will help you to get better quality sleep, prevent irregular sleep patterns and keep you from having nightmares.
Dreaming refers to experiences that take place while we are asleep and are disconnected 63 from our environment. These are associated with certain brain activity patterns. Moreover, it is also believed that our psychological need-based experiences 64 , whether frustration or satisfaction, can be manifested in our dream content & themes and their emotional interpretation. However, some dreams tend to have particular common themes 65 across gender and culture despite these being mainly influenced by individual experiences.
As we are still learning more about dreaming and their meaning & purpose, it is important that we practice good sleep hygiene, take steps to prevent nightmares and try to recall our dreams as it can be the key to our overall well-being and personal growth.
Dreaming At A Glance
- Dreams are mental images and stories created by our mind when we are in specific sleep stages. These may lack a logical narrative or any meaning.
- When dreaming during REM sleep, paralysis of voluntary muscles occurs to keep us from acting out our dreams in real life
- Dreams tend to have particular common themes, such as falling, being chased, an examination, public embarrassment, across gender and culture despite being influenced by individual experiences.
- Research shows that dreaming helps to manage mood regulation and memory consolidation.
- Most of us often tend to forget the content of our dreaming experiences when we wake up which may occur due to repression.
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