The other day, one of my friends messaged me at 8 a.m. and said she had had a vivid dream about me and that we were both sobbing together. Understandably, she was concerned and disturbed, so she messaged me to check if I was okay. I replied saying that I was okay and reassured her everything was fine. It got me thinking, though, about dreams – more specifically, why do we dream, and do they have meaning?
In the late 19th century, Sigmund Freud attempted to use dreams to explain the psychological reasons behind human behaviours. Since then, there has been considerable research into the neuroscience of dreams and the purpose of sleep, but there are still no definitive answers.
We all dream (whether you remember them or not), but all our dreams are different. Dreams are defined as a mixture of images, thoughts, and feelings that occur during sleep. There are different types of dreams: lucid dreams are where the person is aware that they are dreaming and can sometimes control the dream scenario. Vivid dreams appear realistic, often involving real people and locations and actual events. Similarly, there are bad dreams or nightmares, which can seem very real and have upsetting content which can disturb sleep.
We usually remember little about our dreams when we wake, except maybe jumbled images and thoughts that likely fade as you go about your day. However, some people can be deeply affected by their dreams, which can positively or negatively affect them.
Typical characteristics of dreams include a first-person perspective, involuntary, illogical, or incoherent content – content that can consist of people you know and interactions with them, which can provoke strong emotions and often includes events from our daily lives.
There are also many common themes reported by dreamers, such as flying, falling, being chased, being late, being naked in a public place, being lost, and being unable to find a toilet.
Typically dreams do not affect our sleep, except nightmares. These can often be frightening and lead to disturbed sleep, fear of falling asleep, and insomnia. Nightmares can be related to traumatic experiences in someone’s life and may be a symptom of a psychological disorder such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
Most people dream about two hours a night, and usually, dreaming occurs in the REM sleep stage but can occur anytime in the sleep process. Brain activity is highest during REM sleep, and dreams in this stage are usually the most expressive. The second half of the night is when REM sleep occurs and our most memorable dreams occur a few hours before waking.
There is no scientific basis for interpreting dreams. Some experts believe they can help provide insight into someone’s personality and thinking, while others believe dreams’ random and bizarre nature suggests they are meaningless.
Brain scans performed on sleeping people show that the frontal lobes involved in memory formation are inactive during REM sleep. This may explain why we struggle to remember our dreams. They have also found differences between men’s and women’s dreams. Men are more likely to dream about weapons, and women tend to focus on details such as clothing.
I often dream of family members and friends who have passed away or who I have lost contact with, and I find this comforting and sometimes sad. I believe dreams are a form of ‘mental housekeeping’ which involves processing recent emotions, thoughts, and experiences so that the brain can keep itself from getting cluttered. No matter how vivid or even distressing dreams are, we should not attach significant meaning to them or allow them to overshadow our waking lives.