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Dream Guide: Benefits, Interpretations, and Types of Dreams

Written by Jocelyn Zakri MPH, RRT, RPSGT, RST

Did you know the average person spends about 6 years of their life dreaming? We have several dreams each night, even though we only remember about 5% of them.

There is still much mystery surrounding dreams, what they mean, and why we have them in the first place. However, researchers are beginning to come to a consensus on the benefits of dreams. Meanwhile, psychologists have decided on dream interpretations that explain the common types of dreams we all share.

Keep reading to learn more about dreams, how they’re good for you, and what your particular dreams reveal about you.

What Are Dreams?

Dreams are essentially just mini-movies your mind creates while you sleep, whether they follow a linear story or appear more abstract in nature.

Dreams come in many shapes and forms. They can be scary, depressing, calming, exciting, or just plain boring. They may make sense, or seem out of this world.

Whatever they look like, we all dream. In fact, we all dream on a nightly basis. Even people who are born blind dream – they just experience their other senses in their dreams, similar to their waking lives. Scientists estimate we dream at least 4 times per night, with each dream lasting between a few up to 20 minutes.

You can dream in any stage of sleep, but you’ll experience the most vivid and memorable dreams during REM sleep, which is why some call it dream sleep. During REM sleep, your brain is extremely active, much more so than during any other stage of sleep.

Throughout each stage of sleep, your brain waves change. You have theta waves during light sleep, and delta waves during deep sleep, but during REM your brain waves mimic the same alpha waves you experience when you are awake.

Researchers know that other animals experience REM sleep like us, but they don’t know whether they dream or not. While they can track brain waves using a polysomnogram in a sleep lab, there is no way to “see” dreams in a scientifically measurable way.

We only know they occur in humans because we talk about them. Even so, any dog owner will earnestly profess that their dog definitely dreams of chasing squirrels.

Why Do We Dream?

We still do not know why we dream. There are many theories out there, ranging from our dreams being completely nonsense with no meaning at all to their revealing deep truths about the meaning of the universe.  

  • The nonsense believers adhere to the activation-synthesis hypothesis, which states dreams are nothing but the results of electrical impulses in our brains.
  • Psychologist Sigmund Freud believed that dreams unlocked the key to unconsciously repressed conflicts from our lives.
  • The threat simulation theory suggests that dreams are a biological defense our mind uses to prepare us for life threatening events, by having us face our fears and other intense situations in a safe way.

Researchers also still do not know why we have so much trouble remembering our dreams. The popular theory is that certain parts of our brain go to sleep during REM, which is why we have a better job remembering the dreams we had right before we woke up, as the brain is starting to switch back on.

The below chart combines the results from 35 studies which tracked whether or not participants remembered their dreams. Clearly, people do a better job remembering their dreams after being woken from REM sleep.

easier to remember dreams after rem sleep

Health Benefits of Dreaming

Whether they’re meaningful or not, there is evidence that dreams are an important part of our overall well-being, particularly because they are concentrated in REM sleep.

Memory and Learning Benefits of Dreaming

Besides dreaming, REM is also the stage of sleep where we process learnings from the day and commit them to memory. You only spend about a quarter of your total sleep each night in REM, with more of it concentrated in the latter half of the night.

This is why it is critical to get at least 7 hours of sleep each night. Otherwise, you’re missing out on the REM sleep that you need to maintain focus, emotional stability, and overall cognitive performance during the day.

Research supports the connection between dreams and learning. A pair of studies followed students taking a French language course. The ones who made more progress during the course (i.e., learned more french) tended to have more dream activity than their peers. They also reported French playing a larger role in their dreams, with some of them even communicating in French.

A 2011 study sought out to determine why we remember dreams better directly after REM sleep. The researchers found that those who experienced more brainwave activity in their frontal lobes had an easier job recalling their dreams, further confirming the connection between dreams and memory. These same frontal lobes display similar activity when we’re recalling memories when we’re awake.

The same researchers also found that our most intense, bizarre, and vivid dreams are associated with the amygdala (the part of your brain responsible for processing emotions and emotional memories) and the hippocampus (the part that helps us commit short-term memories to long-term).

Charcot-Wilbrand Syndrome is an extremely rare neurological condition that causes people to lose their ability to dream. In the first instance of this syndrome, the patient suffered damage to her visual cortex. This is the same part of the brain where dreams occur, and it’s also responsible for helping us develop visual memories.

Emotional Benefits of Dreaming

REM sleep is also connected to our emotional health. One 2016 study found that people who experience more disturbed REM sleep also tend to have higher rates of insomnia and anxiety, leading them to conclude that REM sleep helps the brain resolve emotional issues while you sleep.

These 2016 results confirmed results from a 1960 study which gave us much of the foundational research regarding dreams. In that study, researchers monitored participants using polysomnography and woke them just as they entered REM sleep.

When compared to their peers who were allowed to sleep through the night, the ones who missed out on dreaming also experienced higher rates of tension, anxiety, depression, lack of focus and coordination, weight gain, and even hallucinations.

In 2010, researchers observed how less REM sleep, and less dreaming, specifically affects our emotions. Insufficient REM sleep makes us more emotionally reactive. We feel negative emotions more deeply,and positive ones less so.

affect of reduced dream sleep on positive and negative emotions

Dreams may be our brain’s way of solving problems, forming new creative connections, and processing the emotions of what happened to us during the day. Sleep is a perfect, uninterrupted time for our brain to process all the information we encountered during the day and decide what to file away for later, what to keep thinking about, and what to get rid of.

Dreams and Creativity

Many inventors, artists, and other people we consider great thinkers attribute their own best creative work to dreams. Elias Howe, inventor of the sewing machine, figured out how to make the needle work, while Mary Shelley got the idea for her novel Frankenstein from her dream. Even golfer Jack Nicklaus discovered a new way to hold his golf club during a dream.

Much research (including these studies from 2017 and 2018 ) supports that REM sleep helps our brain solve abstract problems. During dreams, our mind tosses out random images and ideas in ways that we wouldn’t necessarily connect during the day because they don’t seem logical. These abstract associations may help us think up creative ways of solving a problem.

Dream incubation is the process where people aim to encourage their mind to dream about a specific topic, or even work on a particular problem through a while they dream. In a landmark study, one Harvard researcher put this to the test.

She encouraged participants to focus on an especially challenging problem as they were falling asleep. When they woke up, half of the participants reported they had a dream that was relevant to their problem, and a third said the dream helped them come up with a solution.

People generally enjoy improved creativity when they get more REM sleep, further cementing the positive connection between dreams and creativity. The following graph shows how study participants scored higher on a creative problem-solving test after having had REM sleep:

creativity improvements after dream sleep

Common Dream Interpretations

Dreams are often mundane and closely related to our recent waking life experiences. Other dreams feel more significant, however, and more common types of dreams often share similar meaning. By talking with the individuals who experienced these specific types of dreams, psychologists have come up with some theories as to what they may mean.

However, it should be noted that like you, your dreams are unique, and so is their meaning and their cause.

If you’ve ever wondered what your dreams mean, find out from the interpretations below.

What Do Naked Dreams Mean?

The naked dream suggests that the dreamer is trying to hide something from others, or unprepared for something and afraid of being exposed.

How the dreamer and the other people in the dream feel about the nakedness is also telling. If other people don’t care, there’s probably nothing to worry about. If they are shocked or offended, it may be an indication that the anxiety is well-founded. On the other hand, if the dreamer doesn’t care about being naked, the nudity may be an expression of self-confidence.

What Do Falling Dreams Mean?

Falling dreams are another common type of anxiety dream. These dream express fear or insecurity over something the dreamer feels they have no control over, hence why they can’t stop falling.

Sometimes a sensation or dream of falling precedes a hypnic jerk in which the dreamer’s body jerks as they wake up while falling asleep. Hypnic jerks are completely normal once in a while. If they happen more frequently, it could be due to stress, illness, or the intake of caffeine or another drug.

What Do Running Dreams Mean?

Some people experiencing running dreams in which they can’t start running no matter how much they want to. The significance of running dreams is similar to falling dreams: both suggest a lack of confidence or a sense of powerlessness.

Running dreams may also occur during sleep paralysis, a transitional phase between sleep and waking. Sleep paralysis is a REM parasomnia,  or abnormal behavior that occurs during sleep. During sleep paralysis, the sleeper’s mind is awake, but their body is not, so they experience an  inability to move with conscious awareness.  

What Do Chase Dreams Mean?

Chase dreams are another common dream that stems from anxiety. Typically, they suggest the dreamer is avoiding a problem The person or thing chasing them generally represents the problem being avoided.

If the dreamer is  the person doing the chasing, the dream could represent a goal they are currently working toward, or something they want that feels out of reach. These types of dreams often result from anxiety, so a dream about chasing something or someone could represent a feeling of  falling behind on expectations in some part of life.

What Do Test Dreams Mean?

In test dreams, a person sees themselves taking an exam, or suddenly realizing that they’re wholly unprepared for an exam about to happen.

Either scenario suggests feeling unprepared for something significant, such as a test, a presentation at work, or even a social situation like meeting your partner’s parents. Alternately, test dreams could signify that  feeling over-scrutinized about something in real life.

What Do Teeth Dreams Mean?

Teeth dreams are another common dream. In a teeth dream, people either experience their teeth falling out, or suddenly realize they have no teeth.

Dream experts believe teeth are a symbol of personal power and communication skills, so without them, we feel powerless, embarrassed, and unable to communicate.

What Are Prophetic Dreams?

Some people believe they have prophetic dreams that predict the future. If a dream comes true, however, it is most likely due to coincidence, efforts to make it come true, or it being something the dreamer has been visualizing and working on rather than the dream being truly prophetic.

What Do Complex Dreams Mean?

Some complex dreams seem to go on for hours, following characters through a complex, epic-like story-line. Because these vary so widely from person to person, there is no consensus on what these dreams mean. Regardless, you can consider them a source of creativity.

What Do Recurring Dreams Mean?

Recurring dreams are dreams that, like Groundhog Day, repeat themselves. While not always negative, there are also  recurring nightmares.  Both recurring dreams and nightmares often related to unresolved conflict from  waking life. Solve this issue, and the dream will likely go away.

What Do Nightmares Mean?

Nightmares are a common parasomnia for both children and adults, although they are more common during childhood. Nightmares can stem from anxiety, stress, and conflict in daily life.

If nightmares become regular, they are often a sign of something in your life that’s causing fear or anxiety that you need to address. They can also be an unfortunate side effect of some medications or drugs, and they’re a present symptom of many trauma disorders like PTSD.

Nightmares are distinct from night terrors. Unlike nightmares, which occur during REM sleep, night terrors typically take place during deep sleep in the earlier half of the night. A person experiencing a night terror looks awake. They may  scream, moving ve violently, and open their eyes even though they are still asleep. Once woken, the person usually has no recollection of the night terrors.

Like nightmares, night terrors are also more common in childhood. For the most part, people tend to grow out of them, although they do accompany certain disorders such as autism.

What Do Flying Dreams Mean?

Flying dreams may reflect a new outlook on life, or a general feeling of security and happiness. Unless, of course, your flight runs into trouble. In that case, a flying dream may symbolize you feeling that there is an obstacle blocking you in your life. If your dream flight is accompanied by fear, that obstacle may represent a challenge that you feel insecure about.

Also, flying dreams are a common lucid dream (more on this below), as many lucid dreamers focus on making themselves fly as part of the MILD technique.

How Do You Lucid Dream?

Lucid dreams are dreams where the dreamer realizes they’re dreaming. Many people wake up from lucid dreams.

However, there are some who like to explore lucid dreams. Just like visualization, proponents of lucid dreaming believe they have real world applications. Lucid dreams are an opportunity to explore problems from their waking life, such as learning to be confident or getting better at an athletic skill.

Lucid dreaming is a challenging technique to learn. Fewer than 100,000 Americans have actually mastered it. The reflection technique was the first lucid dreaming technique to enjoy widespread popularity. It involves training your mind to constantly check in during the day, asking yourself if you’re awake or asleep.

The MILD technique (Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams) is the most successful lucid dreaming technique to date. It leverages the reflection technique and expands on it.

Before you go to sleep, you tell yourself to remember your dream, and then start focusing on a recent dream. You begin to explore the dreamscape and practice taking actions during that dream, such as choosing where to walk around or fly. Over time, practicing the MILD technique can lead one to consistently experience lucid dreams while you are asleep.

What Are Daydreams?

Unlike the rest of the REM dreams on this list, daydreams occur while we’re awake, but at a different level of consciousness where our imaginations take over. On average, people may spend up to 2 hours of their day daydreaming.

Dream Recall Tips

Do you want to recall your dreams better? Studies show that people who recall their dreams tend to be more creative. If you want to better remember your dreams, whether for psychological dissection, a creativity boost, or just for fun, try the following tips.

1. Train Yourself to Remember.

Before you go to sleep each night, remind yourself that you want to remember your dream. That intention will be the last thing your brain focuses on before you drift off to sleep.

2. Keep a Dream Diary.

As soon as you wake up, immediately mentally playback your dream and write down the details in a dream diary. Even if you only remember fleeting images and not the entire dream, write it down. You can review this diary over time to notice patterns in your dreams. You can write these notes in a notebook, or use one of many dream diary smartphone apps.

3. Turn Off Your Alarm.

When you use an alarm, the sound jolts you awake and absorbs your mind’s focus as you rush to turn it off. If you allow yourself to wake up naturally instead, your mind has nothing to focus on but your dream. This may make it easier to remember your dreams.

4. Get Enough Sleep.

You experience the bulk of your REM sleep in the latter half of the night. If you want to become better at recalling your dreams, then you need to get sufficient REM. Set aside enough time for at least 7 hours of sleep per night, and follow a regular sleep schedule.

5. Limit Alcohol and Caffeine.

Most dreaming occurs during REM sleep, and both alcohol and caffeine can limit the amount of REM sleep a person experiences. If you reduce or eliminate your intake of these substances, your REM sleep will increase. When you experience more REM sleep, you will have more dreams overall.

6. Sleep at a Comfortable Temperature.

The human body’s normal temperature regulation system turns off during REM sleep, making it easier for a person to become too hot or cold. If the temperature wakes you up and interrupts your sleep, you might experience, and remember, fewer dreams.

Sleep comfortably by adjusting your home thermostat to suit your nighttime needs, and selecting bedding that is as warm or cool as you require to feel comfortable all night.

Additional Resources

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