The science of sleep is fascinating to many of us. Learning about the different stages of sleep, what happens to our bodies while we sleep, and why sleep is crucial for our health can help us get a better understanding of ourselves and our bodies. A large part of sleep science is dreams and the psychology of dreaming. If you’ve ever wondered why do we dream, this article will help elucidate all the causes and reasons why we dream.
In addition to that, we’ve provided a section where we go over some of the most common dreams and interpretations, and shared some tips on how to deal with nightmares. At the end of our article, you’ll find a detailed FAQ section where we answer some questions like why do we dream about certain people.
With that out of the way, let’s start by defining dreaming.
What Are Dreams?
Put simply, dreams are visual stories that are created by our mind during sleep. More often than not, dreams cause an emotional reaction which depends on the type of dream we’re having.
Every time we sleep, we undergo different stages of sleep. Dreams occur during the so-called REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep, which is the deep stage of sleep where we experience many different physical changes, like increased blood pressure and faster breathing.
Why Do We Dream
The study of dreams includes many concepts we don’t have explanations for, like what exactly causes us to dream. There are several possible causes of dreams that we know of.
Preparing Us for Danger
Some scientists theorise that dreams occur to prepare us for real-life situations that might prove harmful to us. Dreaming is commonly seen as a defence mechanism that allows us to practice different scenarios without actually facing any dangerous or embarrassing situations. This explains why we sometimes dream of uncomfortable conversations or events that are yet to happen in the future, which causes fear or anxiety.
Other scientists think that dreams are a way for our brains to process all the information that they gather throughout the day and categorise that information to facilitate memory retention. This process of filtering information is crucial for detoxing the brain and problem-solving, so dreams also have a useful function.
Another possible cause of dreams could be the activation of the brainstem that occurs during the REM stage of sleep.
Interpreting Signals and Stimuli
It’s also possible that dreams are caused by our brain interpreting different signals or physical stimuli it gets while we sleep. All of us are exposed to some kind of physical stimuli while we sleep, such as the sound of cars passing on the street, the sound our household members or pets make, or being touched by an insect. All of these scenarios could potentially show up in your dreams, both in a similar and in a completely different and bizarre context.
Processing Traumatic Events
A common theory as to why we dream is to process certain traumatic events that occurred in the past. Events that caused us to feel anxiety, fear, or grief are common culprits of unpleasant dreams. This explains why we often dream about a loss of a loved one, especially during the first few years after the loss occurs.
Psychoanalysts believe that dreams serve as a way to unveil unconscious desires. Freud created the wish-fulfilment theory of dreaming which claims that we dream in order to fulfil our wishes, most of which remain buried in our unconscious.
There are many different answers to why we dream. The theories regarding dreaming and the causes of dreams are constantly evolving, so we might face new theories in the future. It’s safe to conclude that dreams have a protective and productive function, but they can sometimes occur for no apparent reason.
Types of Dreams
There are several different types of dreams you should be aware of.
Normal dreams need no introduction. We all have dreams, sometimes even multiple times a night. As opposed to other types of dreams, normal dreams cover pretty uneventful scenarios and don’t result in strong emotions on the part of the dreamer. The images that appear in normal dreams are usually connected to some of the experiences that occurred the previous day, or they might be tied to a certain emotion that was prevalent during the previous day.
All of us have had a nightmare at some point in our lives. Nightmares can be described as dreams which cause us to feel negative emotions such as distress, fear, and paranoia. Nightmares can occur for many different reasons, including trauma, fear and anxiety, and medication. One thing is certain: nobody likes the feeling of waking up after a nightmare when it’s hard to differentiate between the nightmare and reality.
Although they’re similar to nightmares, night terrors are a separate phenomenon because they occur during the non-REM stages of sleep. Night terrors occur mostly in children and some of the symptoms associated with night terrors are sweating, hard breathing, and an increased heart rate. If night terrors cause so much distress in your child that they’re scared of sleeping alone or they dread going to bed, then it might be a good idea to visit a doctor.
Although not as common, lucid dreams are a fascinating phenomenon.
Lucid dreams are dreams in which the person is aware that they are dreaming and they might even have control over the actions that occur during the dream. Lucid dreams can interfere with regular dreams and you might become suddenly aware that you’re in control of what’s happening in your dream. Some people claim that the more they lucid dream, the easier it is to control the outcome of that dream. Regardless of the frequency of your lucid dreams, you can’t always predict when they occur and what happens during them.
Recurring dreams are dreams which are repeated on multiple occasions. Most of us have experienced a recurring dream where we dream the same images over and over again. Recurring dreams can be both pleasant and unpleasant, but the latter is more common since recurring dreams are often tied to a certain trauma we might have experienced or some scary event that happened in our lives.
Why Do Dreams Seem to Last So Long?
To many of us, some dreams seem to last for a couple of hours, especially if they’re eventful and cover multiple scenarios. We can’t measure out exactly how many dreams last, but what we do know is why they seem to us to last for so long.
There are a couple of reasons that could explain why we perceive dreams to be of long duration. For instance, some scientists theorise that during the REM stage of sleep, when dreams usually occur, our brain’s activity is slower, thus skewing our perception of time. Another reason why this occurs could do with the fact that our muscles remain paralysed during the REM stage. It’s important to mention that we dream more during the latter part of the night since that’s when the REM stages have the longest duration.
How Many Dreams Do We Have a Night?
It’s difficult to determine how many dreams we have per night because not all of us dream as frequently or have the ability to remember our dreams. However, on average, most people dream three to five dreams per night, which vary in terms of duration. Unfortunately, we forget most of our dreams, so the number could easily be higher than five.
Common Dreams and Their Interpretations
If you’re interested in the science of dreaming and dream interpretations, you might wonder what the most common dreams are and how they can be interpreted. Needless to say, everyone has their own style of dream interpretation, but here are some of the most common dreams that appear universally and what they might indicate about your emotional state.
Dreams of Falling
Dreams about falling can mean many different things. They’re among the most common dreams and they’re often tied to certain events in our lives, such as job promotions, relationships, and failing to fulfil certain goals.
Some interpret dreams about falling as a loss of control of certain situations in our lives. We might feel like things are slipping out of our hands and that feeling could easily manifest itself in our dreams. They can also be interpreted as a feeling of being behind your peers or colleagues or making a mistake regarding something important.
If you’re someone who dreams of falling often, identify some of the emotions you’re currently experiencing and see if they might be the reason why you’re dreaming about falling.
Dreams with Explicit Sexual Content
Many experience sex-related dreams on a regular basis. They might be connected to certain memories of our past partners or fantasies about future partners. Sex-related dreams are often straightforward and don’t require much interpretation, but they can be symbolic as well. Regardless of why you might be dreaming about sex, it could be useful to get in touch with your emotions, especially if the dreams are causing you to feel negative emotions.
Whether with the help of a vehicle or on your own, flying is an incredibly common dream motif. Flying is most commonly interpreted as a desire to escape certain problems and situations we might be facing in real life. It’s clear that flying represents some sort of freedom, so flying with the help of a vehicle can be interpreted as the dreamer having all the means to overcome the problems in their lives. Flying can also represent a desire for more stability in life.
Another common dream is running from someone or something. If you’re currently going through a turbulent period in your life and you’re facing some difficulties, running in your dream could represent your desire to run away from your problems in real life. If the distance you have to run in your dream is quite big, chances are you’re facing a big challenge in real life.
Teeth or Hair Falling Out
Many people are terrified of dreaming about their hair or teeth falling out because they associate it with death and illness. The truth is – dreaming about your or someone else’s teeth or hair falling out can have many different meanings. For instance, it could merely indicate health concerns on the part of the dreamer, especially related to dental health. Additionally, they could occur as a a result of you feeling like you have no control over your life and circumstances. Some think it indicates growth – you’re shedding old parts of yourself so that new, better parts are reborn.
Failing in School or Work
Negative dreams that indicate that we haven’t achieved our goals, such as failing in work or school, could mean that you’re scared of that outcome or that you lack the self-confidence that’s necessary to achieve that outcome. It could also indicate some kind of obstacle you need to get over to achieve your goals.
Regardless of what kind of dreams you’re experiencing, trying your hand at dream analysis could be fun, especially if it’s accompanied by introspection and working through your emotions. Dreams reveal a lot about our emotions and desires, so dream analysis is an innocuous activity that could lead to getting to know yourself better.
Why Do We Forget Some Dreams?
Some of us have dreams every night, while others have them once in a blue moon. Regardless of where you fall, it’s clear that we forget most dreams a couple of seconds after waking up. This forgetfulness occurs as a result of the processes in our brain that occur during REM sleep; in other words, the brain controls what we remember about our dreams, and the aspects we forget.
If you’re someone who forgets their dreams often and you’d like to remember them, starting a dream journal could be useful. Simply put your journal right next to your bed and write down your dreams as soon as you wake up.
Dreaming in Colour vs Dreaming in Black and White
If you’ve never experienced a black and white dream, you might be surprised to know that we don’t always dream in colour. There isn’t a clear indicator of why some people are more prone to dreaming in colour vs dreaming in black and white, but some studies have revealed that it might be connected to the kind of media we’re exposed to before our sleep. Those who are exposed to black and white media before sleep are more prone to experiencing greyscale dreams than those who were exposed to media in colour.
How to Deal with Nightmares
Nightmares are never fun to deal with, even as adults. They inspire heavy feelings such as anxiety and fear, and can have a significant impact on the quality of our morning. If you’re someone who experiences nightmares on a regular basis, here are some strategies you could use.
If your nightmares are a result of some medication you’re using, you should talk to your doctor immediately. They might be able to change your prescription and give you something that won’t have the same side effects.
A commonly overlooked way to deal with nightmares is therapy. Seeing a therapist regularly will help you process past trauma and difficult emotions, both of which are common culprits of nightmares.
Another thing that could help is having a consistent sleeping schedule. Pay attention to your sleep hygiene and try your best to wake up and go to bed at the same time, assuming your work schedule allows for it.
Additionally, find a healthy way to cope with stress such as meditation, working out, journaling, or reading.
Can We Move Our Bodies While We Dream?
We already determined that most of our dreams occur during the REM stage of sleep, and during this particular stage, our muscles are completely paralysed. Therefore, when we dream, the muscles in our body (apart from the muscles responsible for eye movement) remain still, making us unable to move our bodies.
Why Do We Dream About Certain People?
Dreaming about certain people is quite common. When characters appear in our dreams, they’re most likely someone we know in real life or have come across at some point. When someone appears in your dreams, it’s usually an indicator that you have strong feelings associated with that person, or that you’ve been thinking about them a lot recently.
Why Do We Have Nightmares?
Nightmares can occur for various different reasons, such as a messy sleeping schedule, a traumatic event, chronic stress, anxiety, and certain types of medications and sleep disorders.
What Are the Most Common Types of Dreams?
All of us have experienced at least two types of dreams in our lives. The most common types of dreams are normal dreams, nightmares, lucid dreams, night terrors, and recurring dreams.
Why Am I Dreaming So Much All of a Sudden?
There are many reasons why the frequency of your dreams could be increased all of a sudden. The most common causes of frequent dreaming include narcolepsy, going through a stressful period in your life, and an irregular sleeping schedule.
A Word of Farewell
We hope you enjoyed our exploration of why we dream and all the intricacies connected to the psychology of dreaming.
Dreams can be defined as stories we create in our minds while we sleep, usually connected to some events or emotions we processed on the previous day. There are various different theories as to why we dream. Some scientists think that it’s connected to the fact that during the REM stage of sleep, when dreams usually occur, our brains sort out information and facilitate memory retention. Others theorize that it’s our brain’s way of preparing us for dangerous situations, usually ones we fear. Psychoanalysts believe that dreams reveal the suppressed emotions and desires of the dreamer.
There are a few different types of dreams: normal dreams, nightmares, night terrors, lucid dreams, and recurring dreams. We usually dream three to five dreams a night, although it’s hard to determine the exact number since most of us forget the majority of our dreams. Some of the most common dreams we experience include falling, running, failing at work or school, our hair or teeth falling out, and sex-related dreams.
Murzyn E. Do we only dream in colour? A comparison of reported dream colour in younger and older adults with different experiences of black and white media. Conscious Cogn. 2008 Dec;17(4):1228-37. doi: 10.1016/j.concog.2008.09.002. Epub 2008 Oct 8. PMID: 18845457.