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What are Dreams? – Definition, Cause, Duration, Types, and More

What are Dreams? – Definition, Cause, Duration, Types, and MoreUpdated on September 9, 2021 | Published on September 3, 2021
Reviewed by Dr. Johanna Lamm, PsyD, Licensed Psychologist

What are Dreams - Definition, Cause, Duration, Types, and More

Dreams: A bitter-sweet experience; sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet.

But let’s not lie, on the sweet days, we all look forward to those surreal images.

But what are dreams in reality? Why are some dreams good and some dreams bad? Why do some dreams frighten you and wake you up from the dream?

If you experience dreams often and believe in them, you surely have asked yourself at least a few of all these questions.  Don’t worry, We have answered them all in this think-piece. Just stick with me till the end, and you will surely find the answers.

Before we dive into dreams, you must first understand your sleep cycle. When you sleep, there are two phases of sleep. These phases are known as Rapid Eye Movement or REM sleep and Non-Rapid Eye Movement i.e., NREM sleep.

When we sleep, we go through both these phases at regular time intervals. It is advised that you must sleep for a minimum of 7-9 hours so that you can undergo both these phases.

Once you will have the NREM phase of sleep for a few minutes which will then transfer to REM for a while and back to NREM. This cycle continues multiple times during your entire sleep time.

To clear the basics, NREM is a phase when you are in deep sleep and your brain is less active. Hence, the dreams you see in this phase are easily forgotten. However, the dream game begins in REM sleep. 

Here, different parts of the brain are active and so the memory of the dreams seen in this period are vivid in nature. The time interval of both these phases keeps extending as the night passes.

Now that you have got an overall idea of your sleep cycle, let’s begin!

What are dreams?

SUMMARY
Dreams are visuals that we experience in sleep based on what we feel or do in the entire day. Our brain visualizes recent incidents and tries to derive some meaningful information from them.

Dreams are the visuals or emotions that we experience in sleep. They are totally a result of our imagination. While visual imagery is found in most dreams, it is also believed that dreams involve all our sensory organs. We can also smell, hear or taste in our dreams.

You mustn’t be shocked to know that blind people can dream too. Depending on the generation the dreamer belongs to, they experience dreams in different colors.

Like, young people are more prone towards getting colorful dreams whereas the older generation dreams in black and white.

The dream content certainly varies from person to person based on their psychology and imagination. But here are a few characteristics that are usually found in all dreams:

  1. It is difficult to achieve control over your dreams
  2. They aren’t voluntary
  3. The narrative of the dream is in first-person.
  4.  You wouldn’t always be able to find meanings out of it
  5. You’ll encounter people who you know or meet in your waking life
  6. At times, you’ll also see people whom you rarely know but have heard of them
  7. You’ll be able to feel the emotions in your dreams
  8. The incidents of regular life are found to be transferred in your dreams
  9. You’ll remember a few instances from your dreams

Few dreams are easily remembered while a few are easily forgotten. Why? The answer to this lies in the sleep stages we are dreaming in. We’ll read about it later in this think-piece.

What are Nightmares?

SUMMARY
Nightmares are distressing dreams that bring unpleasant emotions. Frequent nightmares can lead to loss of mental stability and mood during waking life.

Nightmares are also known as bad dreams. These dreams are so disturbing that they often cause us to wake up from sleep. 

There are so many disturbing emotions linked with such dreams that they put the dreamer into panic and anxiety, sometimes so worse, they are scared to go back to sleep.

Now you may wonder why such bad dreams occur to us?

Such nightmares are a result of constant stress and anxiety. If you’re disturbed in your real life, it is obvious that your dreams will also be disturbing. Additionally, it is not necessary that such nightmares occur to adults only.

They can also occur to the children if they are undergoing some fearful or traumatic situations in their life. Apart from these, emotional problems, sickness, and certain medications can also lead to nightmares.

We all see nightmares some or the other time. But if you are going through frequent nightmares, it is advisable to talk to a sleep consultant or expert and seek medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

What are Lucid Dreams?

SUMMARY
Lucid dreams are dreams that can be controlled by the dreamer. This is not easy and requires a lot of practice. 

Lucid dreams are the ones that allow the dreamer to have some control over the dreams. This means that the dreamer is aware of the fact that he is dreaming and what he is dreaming.

The study of dreams reveals that lucid dreaming boosts brain activity which is usually not found in normal dreams.

When you have lucid dreams, it means you are in between the REM stage of sleep and being awake. Lucid dreaming also allows the dreamer to take charge of their dreams.

Although, this requires some practice. Once lucidity is attained, then one can change the story or the emotions attached to it. This is very helpful when you experience a nightmare.

However, remember that it is not necessary that you’ll have lucidity since the beginning of the dream. You might experience it even in the middle of the dream or when your dream is about to end. It occurs only when a person realizes that he is dreaming.

Now, before we dig deep into the why, who, and whats, you need to first have a basic understanding of…

Phases of sleep

To understand dreams in detail, you must have a clear understanding of the functioning of your sleep cycle. Every sleep cycle goes through five stages.

  • Stage 1: This is the stage where you are in light sleep with less eye movements and your muscle activity is minimal. This stage occupies 4-5% of your entire sleep.
  • Stage 2: In this stage, your eye movements stop and the brain waves also get slower. You’ll experience occasional rapid brain waves. This is known as sleep spindles. This stage occupies the maximum amount of your sleep i.e., 45- 55%.
  • Stage 3: Here, the slowest brain waves called delta waves start to show up which are interrupted by the small, fast waves. You’ll observe this stage forming 4- 6% of your sleep.
  • Stage 4: The delta waves are produced by the brain exclusively. If you try waking someone while they are in stage 3 or 4, you might face some difficulty. These two stages together form the ‘deep sleep’ phase and you wouldn’t observe any sort of eye movement or muscle activity here. If people are woken up from this phase, they take time to adjust to their surroundings and can feel disoriented for a few minutes. This stage occupies 12- 15% of the entire sleep.
  • Stage 5: Now this is the stage of your Rapid Eye Movement which is also known as REM. In this phase, you’ll experience rapid breathing. Your eyes will jerk rapidly in different directions and you’ll feel paralyzed. You wouldn’t be able to move your body parts easily. It will feel like there’s nothing left inside you. There is an increase in heart rate and blood pressure. Males can also observe erections. When people are woken from this phase, they tell you bizarre stories. In reality, these are dreams which account for 20- 25% of your sleep.

Now, let’s understand…

What causes dreams?

SUMMARY
Our unconscious mind reflects our desires through our dreams and helps us to process the emotions and information collected throughout the day. To analyze this information, we experience dreams.

You’ll find different theories revolving around the causes of dreams. The most common ones explain that dreams express the desires and wants of our unconscious mind. These desires are reflected in our dreams to help us understand what we want.

Another theory of dreaming also suggests that dreams give out random signals from the brain during sleep. This helps us to decide what should be done in real life. It also helps to process all the information that you have received during the day. 

Dreams analyze this information and derive some meaning out of it. One theory also says that dreams work as a form of psychotherapy.

The new research methodologies have brought forward some evidence that:

  • Dreams prepare us for the upcoming possible threats (also called threat simulation theory).
  • It develops our cognitive thinking
  • It helps to process the emotions
  • It helps in memory consolidation
  • It reflects the unconscious mental functions

It is difficult to study dreams in laboratories and conduct experiments to bring forward its evidence. But the new research methodologies and technology are contributing to their maximum for its study.

Why do people dream (why do we dream)?

SUMMARY
We dream to process our emotions, strengthen our memory, and replay our past, or to remove the unnecessary information stored in the brain. The ones who don’t dream are facing difficulties in their real life.

Since Sigmund Freud has explained the importance of dreams, a lot of research has been done to help identify the function of dreams. Dream researchers have also tried to know why we dream.

There are many theories that have shown up as the answer to this question. Some of them include:

1. Memory consolidation

This theory of dreams says that it helps us to build our memory. It means dreams enhance our cognitive thinking and strengthen our memory. Due to this, we can easily recall the desired information.

2. Process emotions

As humans, we experience different emotions in our dreams also. So, when we get dreams, we are often placed in different situations, where our brain learns to process the emotions experienced then.

But what is the need to do so? This is done so that when you experience such a situation in your real life, you have already gone through these negative emotions once. This way you will be able to manage your emotions and sanity in waking life.

3. Mental cleaning

Some parts of our brain store too much information. This forms a clutter in the brain. As we clean our house when there’s too much mess, the brain needs cleaning too. Hence, dreams are a way to do that.

The data from the brain is processed in the dreams and the irrelevant data is then erased from your mind. You might wonder what irrelevant data means.

There are things in real life that have bothered us but we didn’t have time to express our feelings towards them. So, such feelings had been kept repressed for a while.

Unless and until you express those feelings, it is not removed from your brain. Such instances are brought forward in the dream and once you have expressed your feelings towards it in the dream, they become irrelevant and are then deleted from the brain.

4. Instant replay

Dreams replay the happenings that occurred to you throughout your day or in your recent past. This helps you to understand the situations better since you are in a relaxed state of mind.

5. Incidental brain activity

This theory suggests that dreams are only a result of our sleep and it doesn’t have any accountability or rationality.

Even though Dream research is ongoing, a few experts also believe that the people who don’t dream are going through a difficult time in their waking life.

It might be too much anxiety, tension, hallucination, depression, or anything similar that is giving them a hard time.

Now if you are looking for more details, we have a separate article for the function of dreaming. You will find it here.

When do we dream?

SUMMARY
We dream in both the NREM and REM stages of the sleep cycle. However, we remember the dreams from the REM sleep more vividly since our brain is active during that period.

To know when we dream, we need to understand the different stages of our sleep cycle. Particularly, there are two such stages- Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) sleep stages.

Our sleep cycle keeps fluctuating between both these stages throughout our sleep.

We dream during both these stages of sleep but the dreams seen in the REM stage are more vivid compared to the dreams of NREM sleep. This is because when we are in NREM sleep, we are in deep sleep and our brain is less active. So, we cannot remember our dreams.

But in REM sleep, the parts of our brain are active and hence, we can have imaginative and fantastical dreams. Because our brain is active during this phase, we can remember our dreams.

How long do dreams last?

SUMMARY
A single dream can last for as short as two minutes to even half an hour or an hour during the end of our sleep cycle.

Like mentioned before, our sleep cycle consists of both the NREM and REM phases and the stages of sleep keep fluctuating with time throughout the sleep. This means that once there is REM sleep, then NREM sleep, and then again REM sleep, and so on.

On average, you experience these sleep stages 5 times in a sleep time of 7-8 hours. The time period of REM sleep keeps increasing every time. Like, for the first time, if REM sleep is for five minutes, then it will increase to fifteen minutes the next time.

This means that the REM sleep during the end of your sleep cycle is longer. So, by the end of your sleep, you have longer dreams as compared to the beginning of your sleep.

Other than that, if you are looking for a detailed dig, you can explore more here.  

What are types of dreams?

SUMMARY
The different types of dreams are based on the content of dreams. The waking life emotions or incidents also differentiate dreams.

We deal with different types of emotions throughout the day. Similarly, we encounter different types of dreams like lucid dreams, vivid dreams, bad dreams, recurring dreams, normal dreams, etc.

  1. Lucid Dreams: Dreams that are in our control are called Lucid Dreams. It can be achieved only with daily practice and conscious efforts.  
  2. Vivid Dreams: Dreams that are so fresh in our memory that it feels like it happened in real life are called Vivid Dreams.
  3. Bad Dreams: Dreams involving disturbing content are called Bad dreams or Nightmares. These dreams bring along negative emotions, sometimes even sleep disorders.
  4. Recurring Dreams: When the same imagery is repeated in multiple dreams over a period of time – they are called recurring dreams.
  5. Normal or Standard Dreams: Dreams involving common themes like flying, falling, losing your teeth, dreams about water, dreams about infidelity, being naked in public, or being chased are called normal dreams.
  6. False Awakening Dreams: Dreams where you believe that you have woken up but you are actually dreaming are called false awakening dreams.

Apart from these, we also experience supernatural dreams, prophetic dreams, fantasy dreams, and so many more.

If you are excited to know more, go read it here.

How do dreams work?

SUMMARY
Dreams work on the basis of psychological factors. It helps us to express our repressed desires or solve the problems in our daily life. Dreams are the signals sent from the brain that creates the visuals in our mind as stated by the activation-synthesis hypothesis.

The National Sleep Foundation states that “Dreams are a pure mental activity that occurs in the mind while the body is at rest.”

There are many dream theories associated with how dreams work. By now, we all know that the dreams seen during the REM phases of sleep are more vivid than the NREM dreams. Let’s keep this in mind and look at the theories further.

The first theory of dreams is by Sigmund Freud. He believed that it was all psychological. He believed that dreams are a result of our repressed desires. 

These are the desires that we haven’t been able to express in society because we think they are unacceptable. For example, dreams related to sex.

Carl Jung, who was a student of Freud, also believed in the psychological connection of dreams. But his ideology was different from his guide. He believed that dreams are helpful to us and give us a reflection of ourselves.

The problems that have been stored in our minds since long can be solved or the issues can be thought through with the help of dreams. It gives us a better and vivid picture of our problems.  

Hence, dreams have the problem-solving and critical-thinking abilities that we otherwise don’t have in our waking life.

The recent theory of dream was brought into light by Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley in 1973. They rubbished the psychological connection of the dreams.

They did extensive research to know what gets into our brain while we are asleep. The results were shocking.

They discovered that dreams are caused only because of the random electrical brain impulses which brought the images from the experiences that have already been stored in our memory. 

They also said that these images aren’t in a proper narrative that we can remember as dreams. And so, when we wake up, we try to link these images and form our own narrative to make some sense of our dream.

We don’t realize that we are doing this. This theory is called the activation-synthesis hypothesis. This theory has stood apart from the other stories but is still among the prominent theories of dreams.

Who dreams?

All of us dream. The babies as well as the adults. In fact, the animals also dream. The only point of difference is that all of us experience dreams based on different themes.

This is because we all have different experiences and that’s why the content of the dreams differs. Let us see how dreams vary in different sections of people.

1. Children

The studies suggest that dreams are more common in babies. This means that babies have more dreams than adults. As babies sleep more and they haven’t properly seen life, they predict the future events in their dreams. As they grow up, the frequency of their dreams decreases.

When a study was conducted to research anxiety dreams within children of age group 9-11, it was found that the girls had more depressing dreams compared to the boys. Often, the girls did not even remember these dreams.

Another result that was derived was that the girls frequently dreamt of somebody’s death, falling from a cliff, social problems, aggressive and violent problems, etc. So, we can conclude that they mainly dreamt of all distressing situations.

2. Pregnancy

Research was also conducted on the dreams of pregnant and non-pregnant women and their dreams were compared. It was found that the non-pregnant women did not dream of childbirth, children, infants, or anything related to babies often. They have normal dreams.

On the contrary, when the dreams of pregnant women were studied, it was found that they dreamt of childbirth, fetuses, or anything related to pregnancy.

When the dream experts dug deeper, it was also found that such dreams were more frequent in the late third trimester as compared to the early third trimester.

Pregnant women also saw more morbid elements in their dreams than non-pregnant women.

3. Caregivers

Caregivers are the ones who provide care to family members or somebody who is undergoing a long-term illness. When a study was conducted on people working in the United States hospice centers, the results showed that the caregivers mostly dreamt about their patients. 

The dreams seemed to be very realistic to them and even disturbed them.

The caregivers could also interact with the patients in the dream like they do in real life. But it also annoyed them that they couldn’t help the patient as per the necessity.

4. Loss

There has been a popular belief that people who have recently undergone certain loss get depressing dreams. When a study was conducted to know the same, it was found that people dreamed of depressive content more often when the loss is very recent. 

This goes on for up to a year. Such people are prone to experiencing anxiety and stress.

When another study was conducted among 278 people, the results showed that 58% of people said that they dreamt of their lost loved ones. The frequency of these dreams however varied from person to person.

Most participants experienced pleasant dreams and few had a mixture of pleasant and depressing dreams. Few participants only reported distressing dreams. 

The dream content largely constituted past experiences with the lost people. Few also saw the deceased people talking to them.

5. Drug Withdrawal

A research was conducted among the people who consumed cocaine during the period of abstinence. The results declared that during the first month, 90% of them dreamt of using the drugs or had drug-related dreams.

However, this trend changed after a period of 6 months. Now almost 61% of them had drug-related dreams and they also largely dreamt of refusing the drug.

How can you interpret dreams?

You must know that whatever you think of before falling to sleep is likely to re-emerge in your dreams.

Like, if you have been on a date, you’ll see your partner in your dream. If you had a fight with somebody, you’ll witness violence. If you’re a student and you have an exam the next day, you’ll see your syllabus.

From all such instances, we know that whatever we do before going to bed is all going to reappear again in our dreams. So, the elements are transferred from waking life to our dreams. Let us understand what different studies show us:

1. Characters

In the dream study, when the characters were studied, the 320 participants responded the following:

  •  48% identified a character with a name. This means the dreamer knew the person.
  • 35% identified the characters with the social role like a politician, thief, etc., or if they had some relation with the dreamer like a friend, cousin, etc.
  • 16% of characters were total strangers

Again, when the named characters were studied in detail, it was found that:

  • 32% of characters could be identified by their appearance
  •  21% of characters could be identified by their behavior
  • 45% of characters could be identified by their face
  • 44% of characters could be identified as “just know the person”

Another study was also conducted to find out the relation between the dream emotions and the characters in dreams. The results concluded that when dreamers saw known people in the dream, they usually had the feeling of affection and joy as they experienced in their waking state.

The reports also say that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex of the brain is responsible for short-term memory. This region is less active when we are dreaming as compared to our waking life.

2. Memories

The ‘repression’ theory is as old as Freud’s. He said that our unfulfilled desires are suppressed and stored in the back of our minds.

While we may be busy in our lives today, we definitely want to accomplish those suppressed desires too. When the suppression increases, you need to release it to avoid suffocation. And dreams are a way to do that.

A dream study brought forward the fact that sleep does not make a dreamer forget unwanted ideas or memories.

Instead, all these voluntary suppressed memories are countered and retrieved by REM sleep. So, the more you try to suppress the memories, the more you will find them in your dreams.

There are two types of temporal effects that keep bringing back the memories into the dreams.

  • The first one is the day-residue effect. This brings back the immediate events from the past or current day.
  • The second effect is the dream-lag effect. It brings the events delayed by around a week into the dreams.

3. Dream lag

The meaning of dream lag is simple. It is all the images, people, experiences that you have encountered the previous day or week that are reflected back in your dreams.

Some experiences may also take as long as a week to get stored in the long-term memory. You’ll also find some visuals from your memory consolidation in your dream.

65% of dreamers suggest that they witness the recent real-life incidents in their dreams. This dream lag effect is mainly found in the REM stage.

4. Memory Types & Dreaming

There are two types of memory that can result in dreams.

The first one is the autobiographical memory or the long-lasting memories. Another one is episodic memory. This means the different episodes and incidents that are stored in our memory.

A study was conducted among 32 dreamers to know the different types of memory and the content of the dreams. It was found that 0.5% had episodic memory whereas 80% had features of autobiographical memory.

Researchers also suggest that episodic memory brings in different episodes from time to time in some fragments in the dreams. Then these selected fragments have to be linked and stored into the long-lasting autobiographical memory.

When studies were conducted on psychiatric patients and the ones going through sleeping disorders, it was found that their daytime elements and troubles were reflected in their dreams.

Apart from these two types of dreams, Freud also discovered a third type of dream in 1900- ‘biographical dream’. In such dreams, the dreamer is taken back to his experiences as an infant. Few authors believe that traumatic dreams are a symbol of recovery.

Another paper puts forward that traumatic dreams try to communicate the healing process to the dreamer. There are things that the dreamer doesn’t understand in real life. 

So, when these experiences are brought into the dream, it helps an individual to overcome their trauma and understand the situations better.

5. Dream Themes

The dream themes depend on the feelings that you have suppressed. These suppressed emotions will keep recurring in your dreams.

An experiment was conducted and 15 good sleepers were asked to think of an unwanted thought before going to sleep.

The results highlighted that there were more distressing dreams and dreams relating to the thought they had been suppressing. This also means if you keep suppressing your dreams, it can result in mental disorders.

Further, research was also conducted to identify some common dream themes. The results indicated 55 dream themes with a specific rank order which is listed under.

  1. school, teachers, and studying
  2. being chased
  3. sex dreams
  4. falling
  5. arriving too late
  6. a living person being dead
  7. a person now dead being alive
  8. dreams about flying
  9. dreams about taking a test or failing dreams
  10. being on the verge of falling
  11. being frozen with fright
  12. being physically attacked
  13. Naked dreams
  14. eating delicious food
  15. swimming
  16. being locked up
  17. insects or spiders
  18. being killed
  19. losing teeth
  20. being tied up, restrained, or unable to move
  21. being inappropriately dressed
  22. being a child again
  23. trying to complete a task successfully
  24. being unable to find toilet or embarrassment about losing one
  25. discovering a new room at home
  26. having superior knowledge or mental ability
  27. losing control of a vehicle
  28. fire
  29. wild, violent beasts
  30. seeing a face very close to you
  31. snakes
  32. having magical powers
  33. vividly sensing, but not necessarily seeing or hearing, a presence in the room
  34. finding money
  35. floods or tidal waves
  36. killing someone
  37. seeing yourself as dead
  38. being half-awake and paralyzed in bed
  39. people behaving in a menacing way
  40. seeing yourself in a mirror
  41. being a member of the opposite sex
  42. being smothered, unable to breathe
  43. encountering God in some form
  44. seeing a flying object crash
  45. earthquakes
  46. seeing an angel
  47. part animal, part human creatures
  48. tornadoes or strong winds
  49. being at the movie
  50. seeing extra-terrestrials
  51. traveling to another planet
  52. being an animal
  53. seeing a UFO
  54. someone having an abortion
  55. being an object

Dream themes can also change with time and from generation to generation.

Why do we forget dreams? (Why are dreams hard to remember)

SUMMARY
There’s no single answer to this question. Some say that we don’t remember the dreams because our brain is shut at that point whereas others say that everything can be recalled if you provide the brain with the right trigger.

There’s no ultimate evidence to know why dreams are easily forgotten. Maybe forgetting dreams is the default feature for us because if we remembered all our dreams, we wouldn’t be able to distinguish between dreams and reality.

Another noteworthy point here is that during REM sleep, although our brain is active, the part of the brain that makes memories is shut. This can also be a possible reason why we aren’t able to remember our dreams.

You will notice that we will be able to recall the dreams that we had before we woke up because, at that time, the brain activities have resumed.

Another group of researchers also point out that we remember our dreams but we don’t know the techniques to recall them.

If all the dreams were forgotten then we wouldn’t be able to recall them in the latter part of the day. So, all these dreams are stored somewhere in our memory waiting for some trigger to be recalled.

Who remembers their dreams?

Numerous factors are responsible for remembering dreams. These factors decide how much of the dream is recalled. The factors that influence the remembrance power are:

1. Age

The sleeping schedule, structure, and electroencephalographic activity of a person change with time. The dream researchers conclude that the dream recall power declines with the advance of adulthood.

However, old age is an exception. The dreams then experienced are of less intensity. Such changes are more quickly observed in men than women because gender also influences dream content.

2. Gender

An experiment on 108 males and 110 females showed no differences in dream content relating to aggression, sex, weapons, violence, or clothes. But the females had more dream content relating to family, children, house settings, and kids as compared to the males.

3. Sleep Disorders

People suffering from insomnia have stressful dreams linked to their situation. If they have narcolepsy, they might undergo even a more negative tone in the dream. And it’s proved that negative dreams are remembered more than positive ones.

How can you remember dreams?

If you are a sound sleeper, you probably wouldn’t wake up in the middle of the night. Hence, you’ll hardly remember the dreams.

People who wake up in the middle of the night tend to remember more dreams. If you also want to remember your dreams, do the following:

1. Don’t wake up to an alarm

You’ll remember more dreams if you wake up without an alarm. This is because once you snooze your alarm; your mind is focused on turning off the alarm and not the dream. So, when your mind is not concentrating on the dream, how can you remember it?

2. Think about your dreams

When you think of something, you start remembering it. Similarly, when you think of remembering the dreams before going to bed every night, you’ll start remembering the dreams when you wake up in the morning.

Dreams can be forgotten in a blink of an eye. So, once you wake up, don’t waste your time greeting ‘Good morning’ to others. Just sit on your bed, close your eyes and try to replay your dreams.

3. Wake up with a peaceful mind

When we are under stress, we tend to forget many things in real life too. And when dreams are already so hard to remember, it becomes harder in a stressed mind.

But when you wake up with a peaceful mind and are open to thoughts, you’ll be able to remember your dreams if you think about them after waking up.

4. Keep a journal on your bedside

It is a good practice to maintain a bedside journal. So, whenever you wake up in the morning, you can write everything you remember from your dream. While you make the effort to write, you will start recalling more instances from your dream.

In case you are a tech-savvy person who feels lazy to write, you can use some smartphone apps that help you maintain your dream journal.

How to make sense of your dreams?

Dreams aren’t always straightforward. You might see yourself jumping between the fragments of dreams.

These fragments have no individualistic meaning. But if you join them, you’ll be able to make some sense from it. You’ll understand what message your subconscious mind is trying to give you.

So, if you want to analyze your dreams and know what message they’re trying to give you, consider the following steps.

1. Write it

It is important to record your dreams in order to understand their meaning. Practice a habit of keeping a notepad or a journal on your bedside. So, whenever you wake up, even if you remember bits of information, you can note it down.

This way you will be able to connect the dots and derive a meaning out of it. In case you see something similar happening in your life, you can go back to your writings for easy reference.

2. Journal without judgment

Dreams are often irrational and might not always stand according to the standards of society. This is because dreams are totally based on your imaginative power and hence, you must not judge yourself on the basis of dreams.

Not everyone has control over their dreams and not every dream has a meaning. If you still fear judgments, keep a journal that is meant only for you. Don’t allow anybody else to go through it.

3. Give them titles

Giving titles to each dream eases the process when you want to refer them back in the future.  The titles must match the dream content. Dreams including some people cannot be given a title based on music.

Maybe while assigning titles to the dreams, you get a better understanding of it and derive its hidden meaning. You could also possibly know why you had a particular dream and what message it is trying to give you.

How to dream about what you want?

SUMMARY
There are many techniques to dream about what you want like a relaxed sleep, thinking about the person or thing before bedtime, who you want to see in your dream, and many more.

Did you know you can actually decide what you want to dream about? This can be done through dream incubation. This is a technique where you already tell your brain that this is what you have to dream about.

This means you are already planting a seed of your dream content. Yes, you can call it a part of lucid dreaming and there are many ways to do so. Let’s see how.

1. Relax before bedtime

This is important. Your mind needs peace to understand what it wants. So, maintain a relaxing bedtime routine. Have some herbal tea or read some books so that you avoid nightmares. Keep away from any stressful thoughts before sleeping.

Don’t watch any violent movies or series that can disturb you. They can lead to bad dreams.

If you want a completely peaceful sleep, you must stay away from all sorts of visuals half an hour prior to your bedtime. This means staying away from phones, TV, laptop, tablet, etc.

2. Go to bed early

You need enough sleep cycles to dream about what you want. Thus, you must go to bed early so that you have sufficient sleep.

Another reason is that the stress hormone cortisol is released early in the morning which can affect your REM sleep.

3. Diet control

To avoid nightmares, you need to cut down on late-night snacks, alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine. It is advisable to avoid having sugar before sleep. Sugar keeps you awake.

4. Meditate

To avoid distraction from the thoughts, you need to meditate. This will keep you away from disturbing thoughts and help you focus on your dream. It sends away all the negativity from you.

5. Visualize

Before going to bed, think of what you want to dream about. Generate a vivid picture of it in your mind. You can include sounds, sights, people, or whatever you want to include in your dream.

Make sure that you visualize yourself in the scene. Also, think of the setting you want to dream about. The locations and the surroundings must be pleasant.

5. Dream signs

Take something that you want to dream about and leave it by your bedside. This will act as a push towards your desirable dream. It can be a photo, a symbol, or a blank piece of anything.

Like, if you want to dream about someone, you can keep their picture beside you. If you are an artist and want an idea about your next creation, you can keep a blank canvas or paper near your head.

Apart from all these steps, you can also keep telling yourself “I will see ______” in my dream. This is your way of telling your mind what you want to dream about. If you keep practicing these steps, you’ll soon be able to dream about what you want to dream.

We also have a detailed article on this that explains all the processes – you can find it here.

Dreams in religion and other cultural contexts

Dreams have successfully received their special mention in the religious books as well. Apart from dream dictionaries, these religious texts are the ultimate source to understand what our dreams have to say.

Most of the cultural contexts say that dreams are the voice of God. Whatever we see in the dream is a message of God and must be taken seriously.

Let’s take a dig into a few:

1. Hindu

According to the Mandukya Upanishad of Indian Hinduism, the Veda scriptures say we have three states. The first state is the waking state. The second stage is the sleeping stage and the third state is the dreaming state.

The Upanishads before 300BCE suggest two meanings of dreams. The first meaning states that “dreams are merely expressions of inner desires.” The second meaning is that the soul leaves our body and we are guided until we get the true awakening.

2. Abrahamic

If we talk about Judaism, it is mentioned in the Talmud, Tractate Berachot 55-60 that dreams are for experiences. We have to interpret the experiences in the dreams and learn lessons from them.

The Hebrews believed that dreams are the voice of God. They also distinguished between good dreams and bad dreams. They believed that good dreams are from God whereas bad dreams are from evil spirits. Hebrews connected dreams to divine God.

The Christians shared similar beliefs as Hebrews and thought dreams are supernatural. This is because the Old Testament has many stories about dreams that are linked to divine inspiration. 

You might have heard about Jacob’s dream of a ladder that climbed from the Earth to Heaven. Many Christians believe that dreams are a way through which God communicates with the people.

When we talk about Islam, we realize that Iain R. Edgar studied the functions of dreams. He stated that dreams are very important to Islamic history as well as the lives of Muslims. 

The reason behind this is that dreams are the only way through which their God communicates with them after the loss of the last prophet, Muhammad.

He also said that Islam has three different types of dreams.

  • the true dream- this dream is caused by Islam’s hadith tradition
  •  the false dream- this dream is caused by the evil spirits or the shaytan
  • the everyday dream- this dream is caused by a person’s ego or experiences

3. Buddhist

The ideas about dreams are pretty similar in Buddhism and folk traditions in South Asia. It says that the same dream can be seen by multiple people just as it happened in the Buddha-to-be when he was about to leave his home.

The Mahavastu highlights the point that many of Buddha’s relatives had already gotten premonitory dreams before this. A few dreams also transcend with time. The Lalitavistara states that the Buddha-to-be had similar dreams to those of the previous Buddhas.

Buddhist literature considers dreams as signposts. This means that you have reached a certain stage in your life. You can read more about the Buddhist ideology on dreams in Pali Commentaries and Milinda Panha.

4. Other cultural context

Chinese history says that there are two important aspects of a soul. The first one is freed from our body to dream while we are asleep. The second one remains in the body itself. But this belief has been questioned by Wang Chong.

Like the Christians and Islams, the Babylonians and Assyrians also divided the dreams into types. They also believed that the good dreams were a voice of God whereas the bad dreams are sent by the devils. 

Iskar Zaqiqu has a record of different dreams and what happens to a person who has a particular dream. All this has been recorded on the basis of previous experiences of the dreamers.

The Greeks and the Egyptians shared similar ideologies. The Greek God of dreams didn’t let anybody sleep on shrines and temples. Warnings were sent to people on doing so.

The early beliefs stated that God personally visited the dreamers by entering through a keyhole. After passing the message to the dreamer, God exited through the same route.

Facts about Dreams

Despite several studies, there are so many myths surrounding dreams. There are many popular beliefs about dreams and not all of them are true. So, a study about the facts is very important to know the truth behind everything.

Below listed are some facts about dreams that might be unknown to you.

1. You, me, everyone dreams

Even if we sleep, our brain is active. In fact, during REM sleep, our forebrain and midbrain show intense brain activity. And this is the phase when we dream.

Adults also dream. Babies also dream. Studies indicate that we dream for approximately two hours every night. Even if you don’t remember these dreams on waking up, experts say you still dream.

Researchers also believe that we get several dreams every night. However, dreaming occurs in each REM phase and hence, lasts for around 5-20 minutes.

2. Men and women dream differently

If we analyze the dream content of both genders, then men usually dream of weapons and violence. On the other hand, such dreams are less common among women. Dreams relating to clothing and fashion are majorly found in women more than men.

Another result also showcased that men get aggressive dreams and dreams related to intense physical activity. In the case of women, there are more dreams related to rejection and exclusion. They dream of communicating more than other tedious activities.

It is also reported that women get longer dreams and dreams with more characters than men. When the dream characters were analyzed, men dreamt of other men more whereas the women dreamt of both genders equally.

3. Animals also dream

When you see a dog wagging its tail or a cat twitching while they are asleep, it means that they are dreaming. Now we cannot go and ask the animal if that’s true. 

But most researchers believe that mammals, fishes, reptiles, and birds also undergo the different REM and NREM stages of sleep. This only concludes that animals also dream.

Yes, it is possible that animals may not have similar dreams as humans. The visuals can be different and they might not be able to associate a storyline with it.

4. It’s possible to control your dreams

We have already discussed the concept of lucid dreaming above. There, we learned that we can control our dreams. It is the phase between consciousness and REM sleep where you are able to control your dreams.

However, achieving control over your dreams is not easy. You have to train your mind to do so. There are various techniques available for the same like MILD, SSILD, etc. 

You can also keep repeating the phrase “I will remember my dreams” or focus on your sensory organs to attain control over your dreams.

You can come out of the lucidity even with the slightest distraction. So, ensure that you have strong command over your brain. Only then you will be able to experience lucid dreams frequently.

5. Negative dreams are more common than positive ones

Researcher Calvin S. Hall collected over 50000 dream reports in a period of 40 years from college-going students. These reports revealed that there are many pleasant and unpleasant emotions experienced in dreams.

There are different factors that influence the dream content like stress, depression, medication, etc. A study also said that external stimuli like smell also affects the dream. A bad smell can lead to negative dreams whereas a good smell can lead to positive dreams.

The studies found that the most common emotion behind any dream was anxiety and hence, we can conclude that negative dreams are more common than positive dreams.

6. Blind People dream visually

A study was conducted on people who have been blind since birth to know if they dreamt. It came out that they also experienced imaginative visuals in their dreams. Like normal people, they also showed eye movements that were linked to the dream recall.

However, the eye movements were less than the normal people but they reported the same sensations and visual imagery.

7. There are few “Universal” Dreams

We already know that dreams are based on personal and psychological experiences. These experiences are different for everybody and so, the dreams must also be different for all.

But the dream experts have found some common dream themes that are popular across different cultures. They call it universal dreams.

For instance, people from all over the world have dreamt about falling down, flying in the air, being chased, being killed, being nude in public, being late in a meeting, and so on. All these are universal dream themes.

8. You’re paralyzed while dreaming

REM sleep paralyzes your voluntary muscles. This prevents you from acting your dreams out in your real life. This process is known as REM atonia. So, since motor neurons are not triggered, your body is unable to move.

There have been occasions when the body has been paralyzed in the waking state for about 10 minutes. This is known as sleep paralysis. 

You might be scared to find this, but experts say this is a normal condition and your body will take a few minutes to regain muscle control. After that, everything is normal.

FAQs about Dreams

All of us have different questions in our minds regarding dreams. At times it even feels weird because you don’t know whom to ask the question.

You might think that somebody will mock you for asking such questions. So, you keep your thoughts to yourself and then suffocate.

But we have researched the most frequently asked questions and have also listed the answers in detail for your better understanding.

1. Do dreams have meaning?

Sigmund Freud expressed that dreams reveal inner desires, ideologies, and motivation hidden in our subconscious mind. Freud also mentioned that dreams also reveal the desires that are unacceptable to society and there’s nothing wrong with them.

There are many views on this question. Some experts believe that dreams have no relation to our real-life or emotions. They are just imaginative stories that end up with the dream and have nothing to do with us.

The other set of experts say that dreams are a reflection of our own feelings, anxieties, fears, and desires. These dreams keep repeating until our desires are fulfilled.

Dream interpretation can only help you to get rid of such recurring dreams. Once you learn to interpret your dreams, you enhance your problem-solving and creative abilities. Many people have reported that they get the best of their ideas while dreaming.

You might have heard people relating to the same dream themes like falling off from a mountain, being chased by somebody, or murdering someone. These dreams symbolize your stress. While dreams are common to all, the meaning is unique for every individual.

Hence, the experts say not to believe in dream books or dream dictionaries but to find out the underlying meaning of your dream that is unique to you.

The ‘continuity hypothesis’ of dreams states that real-life and dreams are interlinked with one another and thus you will witness similar themes in both of them. On the contrary, the ‘discontinuity hypothesis’ states that dreams and real-life are totally distinct from one another.

Since dreams are a result of individual reflections, it is difficult to generalize their meanings. A few experts also say that we must not believe everything that’s written in the dream dictionaries as it differs from every individual’s psychological and personal reflections.

2. Are dreams real?

You dream every night and it is not necessary that whatever you see in your dream state will turn out to be true.

For example, if you see somebody dying in your dream, the person is really not going to die in your waking life. In fact, dream symbols say that when you see somebody dying in your dream, it indicates that a huge problem is soon going to be out of their life.

Now if you say that whatever you had dreamt about had taken place in real life, then it can be a result of mere coincidence. It can also be because of something that your unconscious already knew about but didn’t get time to process the information.

3. Can dreams predict the future?

At times what we see in a dream is what happens the next day. This makes you feel that your dream came true or you could predict the future. When you get such dreams that take place in waking life, this is because of coincidence or poor memory.

Dream experts also reason this out as an unconscious attachment to some known information. This means you already knew something was about to happen but you didn’t pay much attention to it.

However, at times, dreams can act as a motivating source to change your future.

4. Do dreams affect sleep?

If we talk about normal dreams, the short answer is ‘NO’. Dreams do not affect sleep. In fact, dreams show that you are having a healthy sleep and they have no negative impact on your sleeping cycle.

However, if we talk about nightmares or bad dreams, then the situation is different. These dreams obviously affect your sleep because they wake you up in the middle of your sleep.

If you get frequent nightmares, they can create problems. Such dreams can result in sleep deprivation and the weakening of the sleep foundation. A person tries to avoid sleep in order to escape from the nightmare. This can lead to insufficient sleep.

When they sleep the next time, the previous sleep deprivation triggers the REM sleep rebound and the nightmares can even worsen for the dreamer.

If all of this happens frequently, then it can result in chronic sleep problems like insomnia.

So, if you get nightmares more than once a week, then you must seek medical advice. Undergoing diagnosis and medical treatment is important to help yourself from fragmented sleep and other sleeping problems.

5. Does everyone dream in color?

When researchers conducted a study to know if everyone dreamt in color, it was found that 80% of participants below the age of 30 years dreamt in color. When the same study was conducted in the age group of 60 years and above, then only 20% of them reported dreaming in color.

It was noticed that the number of people in the age group below 40 who dreamt in color increased during 1993-2009. Researchers think this is because the respective age group was exposed to color television and that’s why they imagined their dreams in color. 

The older generation dreamt more in black and white than color because they had seen the black and white television.

The older generation also mentioned that the color, as well as black and white dreams, were vividly remembered by them. But the younger generation reported the black and white dreams to be of poor quality.

6. How many dreams do you have a night?

It is impossible to keep a count of dreams in a night as we dream in both our REM sleep and NREM sleep. The dreams can last from a few minutes to an hour also. And since we do not remember our dreams, we can have no count of them.

Old researches say that there’s a relation between the time we spend in REM sleep and the time we spend dreaming.

7. Why do we dream about people?

We dream about people to reflect our inner selves. Suppose, you dream about a person you know, then you are not dreaming about that particular person. But you are trying to link your traits with them. 

So, hypothetically, if you dreamt about a friend of yours who is humble, this is your brain’s way of telling you that you have been humble.

If you dreamt about someone you used to know, it might not have anything related to you. Such dreams are not so deep. It can be something that has been running in your mind before you fell asleep or you might have seen their picture somewhere recently.

It can also be because you saw something that was associated with them and that reminded you of them. Interpretation of dreams is tricky but if you know it, you’ll get it right.

When you see your ex-partner in your dream, it can be because you were habituated to them or they represent some traits that are similar to you. Another reason can be because there are some unsolved conflicts between you two that you want to bring a conclusion to.

8. Why do we dream differently at different stages of night?

We all have experienced different types of dreams. Some dreams make more sense while some are completely irrational. 

Some dreams clearly jump from one point to another while some keep flowing in a narrative. Some dreams are well structured while some are completely bizarre. Some dreams are good while some are bad.

The research suggests that this is because of the physiology of the brain. A possible reason is that the hippo cortex and the neocortex are in communication while we undergo different phases of sleep.

We have already seen that we dream in all stages of the night i.e., REM sleep and NREM sleep. We have also seen that the dreams are the fragments of the places we have visited, faces we have known and the experiences we have been through. 

These fragments can either appear randomly in a disjointed manner that can look like a mess and you might have to join it to understand the dream. Alternatively, it can be more structured too and show you a realistic picture.

The dreams in the NREM sleep are shorter but more structured. They show incidents of the recent past. When we look at REM dreams, they are more fragmented and reflect recent waking life experiences. 

Such dreams usually occur early in the night. The dreams of REM sleep that occur late at night are more messy and unstructured.

The fragments of an incidence are stored in the neocortex but not in a structured manner that can give you a comprehensive picture.

For example, if you have gone for a picnic, you might have heard various sounds, traveled through different mediums, did specific things, known specific faces. 

All these elements are your memories that are stored in different areas of the neocortex and there’s no relation between them. Therefore, you see them as fragments in your dreams.

The connection between these fragments is done by the hippocampus. But while we are asleep, there’s hardly any connection between the hippocampus and the neocortex. That’s why the dreams seem so bizarre.

So, you might get the same sounds that you have heard at your picnic but not with the same people or things you encountered. This is why you can only see fragments of a complete picture.

Another reason deduced for this is the increasing level of stress hormone cortisol at night. High levels of this cortisol block the communication between the neocortex and the hippocampus.

We still don’t know how it happens but one thing is certain. Dreams not only replay the fragments from the memory but also create creative mixtures of our memories and skills. Because of this, we have got some amazing works in the field of literature, art, music, and science.

The molecular formula of benzene by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a result of this. Other examples also include the invention of light bulbs and some famous music and paintings.

9. How do people with different abilities dream?

We already got to know how blind people dream too. But what about the ones who cannot hear or are suffering from paraplegia?

A study was conducted to understand this and the results declared that 80% of deaf people showed no sign of impairment in their dreams. Many participants even reported speaking and hearing their language in their dreams.

The dream reports of people suffering from paraplegia highlighted that the participants did various activities like walking, running, swimming, or jumping in their dreams. However, the dreamers had not done these in their real lives.

10. What do dreams look like?

The world of dreams is a wonder to behold… all different for different people based on gender, age, and personal experiences.

For instance, a survey of dreams revealed that men dreaming include more about sex than women and women dream more about love than women.

The shades of color also differ as women dream more in shades of red and blues and reds while men dream more in green.

Further, if you wish to dig deep, we have a separate think piece for it – you can find it here.

Over to you…

While dreams might sound bizarre and illogical, they still occupy a large part of our lives. Imagine a life without dreams? There would be nothing to look forward to.

We want some dreams to come true and some dreams scare the hell out of us. All these dreams have a hidden meaning. It can be either related to your waking life or is provoking you to do something.

Take time out of your busy schedule to analyze your dreams so that you can take the correct way ahead. It is necessary to feel an emotion in order to get rid of it. Dreams give you the space and time to feel those suppressed emotions.

If you’re encountering frequent nightmares, without wasting time or engaging in sleep medicine, consult a doctor for more healing dreams. Avoid stress and depression to have pleasant dreams. Happy dreaming!