Dreams

Written by Ashima Yadav

Last Updated June 13, 2024

Marwa Ismail Fact checked by Marwa Ismail

Have you ever woken up from a dream feeling like you just went on a wild adventure, or perhaps found yourself in a nightmare that felt all too real? As humans, we all experience dreams during our sleep, but what do they really mean? Are they just random images and tales our brains create while we sleep, or could they hold a deeper significance? Buckle up, because we're about to embark on a journey into the captivating world of dreams and unlock the secrets that lie within.

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Key Takeaways:

  • Dreams are experiences that one has while sleeping. These dreams can be visual, auditory, or in the form of sensations.
  • Dreams occur during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep.
  • There are many types of dreams; one particularly interesting one is the Lucid dream.
  • Lucid dreaming is a state of consciousness somewhere between sleep and wakefulness. In this state, the dreamer can identify that they are dreaming. Once they are aware of their dreams, they can also control them.

What are dreams?

an infographic of a person sleeping and a bubble over their head showing glimpse of a dream

Dreams are incredible creations in human life that can be referred to as experiences one has while sleeping. Most people have several dreams every night. Dreams may vary from person to person. Some people dream in colors, while others dream in black and white. Some people never dream of images at all; blind people, for example, sometimes dream of sounds and sensations.

The content of dreams also varies. It can range from being purely fictional to including events from your day to including people from your life. Dreams can be wild and magical; however, at the same time, they can be scary too. Further in the article, we will examine why we dream in detail.

When do dreams occur?

There are two types of sleep stages – non-REM and REM. The non-REM phase has 3 stages of sleep, wherein one progresses from light sleep to deep sleep. This study showed that, on average, adults spend around 20-25% of their sleep time in REM sleep. That means we spend around 2 hours dreaming every night. One dream lasts for about 5-10 minutes. If you don't remember your dreams, try keeping a dream journal. It makes dream recall easier.

Dreams may occur at any stage of sleep; however, most dreams occur in REM, or Rapid Eye Movement, sleep. Moreover, the dreams experienced during the REM stage are more vivid than other dreams.

Muscle atonia is a common feature of REM sleep. It helps keep you from enacting your dreams. However, sometimes people regain consciousness during this stage and can't move their arms or legs due to muscle atonia. This is known as sleep paralysis.

Dreams are complex and fascinating experiences unique to the individual experiencing them. Different sleep research or theories of dreams explain why we dream and what they reflect. For instance, according to psychoanalytic theory, dreams reflect unconscious, repressed desires and conflicts. In contrast, according to threat simulation theory, they reflect our brain's attempt at familiarizing us with potentially threatening situations and helping us deal better with them.

infographic of theories of dream

Theories of dreams

THE INFORMATION PROCESSING THEORY

The information processing theory is among the most widely accepted theories of dreams. This theory suggests that when we sleep, our brain sorts and arranges all the information and experiences that we had during the day. The brain integrates new information with pre-existing memories and knowledge. The brain also organizes long term memories during this period. According to the theory, dreams are a product of this process of memory consolidation.

There is evidence from research on memory processing and sleep that supports this theory. One study, for instance, indicates that sleep is crucial for memory consolidation. Another study suggests that memory processing takes place during the REM stage of sleep, which means dreams or the REM stage are vital for consolidating memory.

THE PSYCHOANALYTIC THEORY

The psychoanalytic theory of dreams was proposed by Sigmund Freud. This theory suggests that dreams are a window into the emotional content of the unconscious mind. According to Freud, the mind has three layers, conscious, subconscious, and unconscious. The unconscious consists of repressed wishes, desires, feelings, and conflicts that one is unaware of.

According to him, our unconscious expresses its desires through dreams. There are two layers of dream content: manifest content and latent content. Manifest content refers to the actual dream content, while latent content refers to the symbolic meaning of the dream.

Freud says dream analysis can be done to find their symbolic meaning. Freud also wrote a book called 'The Interpretation of Dreams.' This analysis can help with understanding conflicts and resolving them. Freud's theory is fascinating; however, there is very little empirical data to support his theory.

THE ACTIVATION-SYNTHESIS THEORY

According to the activation-synthesis theory, dreams are a byproduct of the brain's activities during sleep. This theory says that two processes - activation and synthesis - contribute to the creation of dreams. Activation refers to the generation of random neural activities in the brain which produce unusual imagery. Synthesis involves the brain's attempt to make sense of this activity, resulting in the creation of a narrative or storyline for the dream images.

The support for this theory comes from studies conducted through brain imaging categories, which show that certain regions of the brain are more active during REM sleep. However, it has been criticized for being too simplistic of an explanation for a concept as complex as dreams. Some researchers believe that while random neural activity plays a role in dreams, it cannot be the sole cause of dreams.

THE THREAT SIMULATION THEORY

The threat simulation theory states that the primary function of dreams is to simulate threatening situations to aid us in preparing for similar situations in reality. This theory also suggests that because dreams are unconstrained, the brain can simulate more intense situations than those that may occur in waking life. Such simulations help us to develop problem-solving skills and to prepare for potential challenges that we may face while awake.

Support for this theory comes from studies of dream reports showing that most dreams contain at least one threatening event. This study found that the amygdala is more active during REM sleep, and the amygdala is known to play a significant role in fear processing.

Threat simulation theory also argues that any other functions that dreams perform, like memory consolidation and information processing, are secondary functions.

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Types of dreams

Several types of dreams exist, and we've explained the most common ones below:

Infographic of types of dreams
  • Nightmares

Nightmares are scary or bad dreams that can induce anxiety and fear. Individuals often wake up suddenly from nightmares. While it is common for most people to experience nightmares, they can be highly disturbing and adversely impact sleep and overall well-being for some individuals.

  • Recurring dreams

Recurring dreams are those that repeat themselves and often have a common theme, such as involving the same setting, characters, or situations. Some researchers suggest that these dreams may signify unresolved issues or conflicts. By interpreting recurring dreams, individuals may gain insights into these issues and potentially find ways to resolve them. For example, a recurring dream about losing teeth might be associated with feelings of loss or significant life changes.

  • Prophetic dreams

Prophetic dreams, also known as precognitive dreams, are said to predict future events or situations. Some individuals connect this ability to psychic powers, while others believe that it arises from combining information processing with intuitive insights. However, there is no credible scientific evidence to support the claim that these dreams can accurately predict the future.

  • Epic dreams

Epic dreams are vivid and complex dreams. These dreams involve elaborate storylines and complex characters. Epic dreams are so detailed that one may confuse them with reality. They can be a fascinating experience for some, while they can also be a disturbing experience for others.

  • Lucid dreams

Lucid dreaming is a state wherein the dreamer is aware that he is dreaming. In some cases, individuals can even exercise some control over the content of the dream. It is believed that the ability to achieve lucidity in dreams can be learned.

  • Healing dreams

Dreams that have a healing or therapeutic effect on the dreamer's emotional well-being are called healing dreams. Experiencing these dreams may provide comfort in various forms. For instance, it could be through guidance, insight into some conflict, a solution to a problem, or emotional release, among others. Healing dreams may include interactions with deceased loved ones, providing the dreamer with a sense of closure. While healing dreams can provide comfort and healing, they cannot substitute for professional therapy. So, if you are struggling with your emotional health, seeking professional help is advised.

Lucid dreaming - What is it?

Lucid dreaming has been a matter of interest in scientific research for a long time. It is one of the most fascinating things to be able to exert control over your dreams and use them to your benefit. Therefore, scientists have been conducting studies to learn about the potential benefits of lucid dreaming.

lucid dreaming

Lucid dreaming is a state of consciousness somewhere between sleep and wakefulness. In this state, the dreamer can identify that they are dreaming. This is closely related to the concept of metacognition.

Metacognition is the ability to reflect upon one's thinking process. Studies show that metacognition and lucid dreaming share the same neural systems. Therefore, people with higher metacognitive abilities are also better at achieving lucidity in their dreams.

When one becomes aware that they are dreaming, they can begin to control the content of their dream. For example, one can manipulate the environment of the dream, interact with characters and objects, and do things that are otherwise impossible in a waking state.

Some researchers believe these dreams can help deal with certain issues like anxiety, PTSD, and phobias. They can also be a valuable tool for self-discovery, practicing skills, or rehearsing real-life scenarios. However, as exciting as it might be, lucid dreams can also cause sleep disruptions and confusion between dreams and reality for some people.

How do you induce lucid dreams?

Some people can achieve lucidity in their dreams naturally. Studies show that around 50% of people have experienced at least one lucid dream in their life. However, if you haven't had a lucid dream yet, don't worry; you can train yourself to achieve lucidity in dreams. Several techniques can be used to induce these dreams. These techniques train your mind to be more aware of its state of consciousness. Some of the techniques to achieve lucidity have been discussed below:

  • Reality Testing

Reality testing, or reality checking, is a way to train yourself to be more aware of your consciousness. The idea is to increase the awareness of your consciousness while you're awake. This will eventually lead to increased awareness while you're asleep.

A reality test is nothing but asking yourself if you're awake multiple times a day. One can use different types of reality checks. For example, checking your reflection in the mirror, pushing your palm against the wall, reading a clock, looking at your hands, or pinching yourself.

It is advised to pick one reality check and do the same thing multiple times a day.

  • Wake-Initiated Lucid Dreaming (WILD)

This technique involves transitioning directly from the state of wakefulness into the state of lucid dreaming. This is usually done by lying down and focusing on breathing or visualization. This technique works because your body goes to sleep, but your mind stays conscious.

WILD is a very complex technique; it takes time and practice to stay conscious during the transition. However, once your mind is trained to stay conscious, you can experience these dreams.

  • Wake Back to Bed (WBTB)

In this technique, you fall asleep and wake up after 4-5 hours. After waking up, do something conducive to alertness, like reading a book, meditation, etc.; do this for 20-30 minutes and go back to sleep with the intention of having a lucid dream.

The basic idea behind the WBTB technique is that by waking up and staying awake for a short period of time, one can increase their awareness levels. This makes it easier to recognize if you're dreaming.

  • Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreaming (MILD)

This is a very simple, intention-based technique. All you need to do is choose a phrase that you would like to repeat. It could be anything like "I will recognize if I am dreaming" or "I will lucid dream tonight."

Once you choose a phrase, repeat it to yourself before bed. If you wake up during the night, repeat the phrase to yourself again while going to sleep. To make it more efficient, you can also try visualizing that you're in a lucid dream and can control it.

All these techniques can help achieve lucidity. However, they all require practice and consistency. Practicing WBTB, reality checks, and MILD together can speed up the process of achieving lucidity.

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Conclusion

Dreams have been a topic of fascination and interest to researchers for a long time. Many interesting facts have been established, but a lot is still left to explore in the field. We have many theories speculating the reasoning behind dreams, but we are still not sure which one is true. Regardless, we know that dreams play a vital role in our lives. And gaining knowledge about something so vital is even more important. Hopefully, this article provides you with new information about dreams. Happy Dreaming!

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Disclaimer: What is said in this article has been referenced from multiple sources and is intended only for educational and informational purposes. Please note that no content in this article is a substitute for professional advice from a qualified doctor or healthcare provider. Always consult an experienced doctor with any concerns you may have regarding a health condition or treatment, and never disregard any medical suggestions or delay in seeking treatment because of something you read here.

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