A dream is a sequence of images created by the mind when we’re asleep. Dreams can be rational or not, uplifting or disturbing, vivid or vague, perplexing or prophetic. But any psychologist will tell you that attributing spiritual meaning to a figment of your imagination is poppycock. And as fascinating as they are, we simply don’t know where exactly dreams come from, or why it is that we dream. However, there are some things about dreams that we simply can't deny.
When people dream, they’re usually not aware of it. Even if a dream makes no sense at all or it’s very disturbing, people will be unable to tell the difference between reality and their imagination. The most plausible explanation for this is that the region of the brain that’s responsible for logical thinking, the prefrontal cortex, is slacking off. This has two consequences. The first is that the dreamer can interact with the dream realm more freely and with less mental effort. The second is that the sequence of events and the scenery itself can be surreal.
Dreams occur in episodes from the moment we shut our eyes and right up until waking up. We dream in 5 to 20-minute episodes and at 60 to 90-minute intervals. In total, we dream about a quarter of the time we’re asleep. So, why is it that it doesn’t feel like that? We all wake up thinking we dreamed for only a few minutes, when in fact we could have been dreaming throughout the night. People wrongly refer to this as ‘time dilation,’ a concept borrowed from space physics. Whereas time can indeed dilate in space, it doesn’t in our dreams. The feeling that time stands still or moves quicker or slower in our sleep is simply an illusion.
Generally, people wake up with a limited recollection of their dreams. To make matters worse, the story we’re able to recall only becomes shorter and less specific as time goes by. So, why is it that we can remember little or nothing at all from our dreams? We usually remember only the most vivid parts of our dreams, which happen during the REM (rapid eye movement) phase. Of the five stages in the sleep cycle, REM is the one that resembles wakefulness the most. We also remember dreams in other sleep stages, but they tend to be more mundane. So, it’s probably just a combination of experiencing more interesting things and being more alert in REM sleep that makes people remember parts of dreams selectively.
The jury’s still out on this one, but some neuroscientists and psychologists believe dreams are not only necessary but purposefully triggered by our minds for specific reasons. The list includes: to help us process emotions, recycle memories, and solve real-life problems in ways we wouldn’t be able to while we’re awake. Freud, on the other hand, viewed dreams solely as a way to satisfy desires we wouldn’t be able to show in the real world. A more positive hypothesis claims dreams are there to nurture our creativity. But seeing as people and their dreams are so different, it's probably a combination of all these things.
Dreams are shrouded in mystery, and people try very hard to decipher their meaning. They sometimes resort to dream interpretation, which is when someone attributes meaning to a dream. Dream dictionaries and apps claim to reveal their hidden meaning, and they base this claim on the fact that people sometimes dream similar themes and activities. There’s no denying dreams can reflect inner thoughts and feelings. However, because dreams are conjured up by your brain, they should be interpreted through our perspective of the world, without resorting to generalized symbolism.
People are very quick to attribute meaning to bad dreams, especially vivid or recurring ones. Oddly, some of the most frightening nightmares happen when you have REM while being awake. Called sleep paralysis, this situation involves seeing images from your dream transposed into reality, while also being unable to move. But the reasons for having nightmares aren’t all that morbid. Besides reasons like emotional problems, illness, or medication, nightmares can also be triggered by nutrition. Spicy foods and certain sauces can shorten, delay, or disturb your sleep, sometimes causing nightmares. This happens because they raise your body temperature and disrupt your brain activity. Some studies link sweet dreams to steering clear of sweets and caffeine. Alcohol is also a trigger for nightmares, despite helping people doze off.
Nightmares can seem disturbing upon recollection, but you don’t necessarily react within the dream. When it comes to recurring dreams and universal themes, though, people tend to have a very powerful reaction, gradually or suddenly waking up. Falling, being late, flying, being involved in an accident, being chased, and performing naked; these are just some of the most common themes people mention when they’re shaken up by their dream. Recurring dreams tend to be a bit more personal and specific. Recurrent and universal themes can conjure up a whole array of positive or negative feelings: embarrassment, fear, shame, sadness or happiness. Either way, people have a strong desire to either fulfill or prevent the dream from coming true.
There’s no shortage of people who claim they can affect their dreams whenever they please through the power of thought. To what end? Presumably to gain more control over life. But trying to improve reality by manipulating dreams with a sleeping brain is a longshot. There are much simpler and more straightforward ways to influence your dreams. This includes wearing a sleep mask, listening to specific sounds, and evocative scents in your room. Thinking intensely about something just before you fall asleep will make it more likely to dream about that topic. Also, bear in mind that awareness and control during a dream don’t necessarily go together. Lucid dreaming on demand involves having both control and awareness, while a false awakening gives the illusion of awareness and control.
Anyone who owns a pet will tell you that their behavior during sleep is very similar to humans. If they experience REM-like us - and studies show they do -, and the increased electrical activity in their brain during REM is also due to dreaming, then there’s every reason to think that they can dream too. Animals whimpering, paddling and twitching as they sleep could also indicate vivid dreams and their topics. But this doesn’t mean their dreams are similar to ours. The way an animal perceives reality and communicates information is different from one species to the next, and this may reflect in how they build their dreams.
Babies spend a lot of time sleeping, and nearly half that in REM state. But they have few memories and little or no imagination. So, some scientists believe all that time is spent building pathways to communicate. Some go as far as to say babies and toddlers don’t dream at all because you need to have a sense of self to dream. Others beg to differ and say dreaming can start as far back as the womb. After all, quivering fingers, smiles, and twitching eyelids are a common sight for parents who watch their babies sleep. And it would be wrong to dismiss memories dating all the way back to the womb simply because their perception and memory are limited. A baby that sleeps every 2 hours could still be dreaming about things seen in that short interval, even if it's in very basic form.