What Do Dreams Mean? Learn the Meaning Behind Your Dreams

Dream Guide: Benefits, Interpretations and Types of Dreams

Amelia Willson

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 2002 and 2013) 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 brain to work on a particular problem through a specific dream while they sleep. 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!

Whether they’re problem solving or not, people generally enjoy improved creativity when they get more REM sleep, further cementing the positive connection between dreams and creativity:

creativity improvements after dream sleep

What do dreams mean? Common dreams and their interpretations

Some dreams are meaningless, but there is some similarity among more common types of dreams. 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 we are trying to hide something from others, or that we’re not prepared for something and we’re afraid of being found out.

How we and the other people in the dream feel about our nakedness is also telling. If other people don’t care that we’re naked, we probably have nothing to worry about. If they are shocked or offended, it may be an indication that our anxiety is well-founded. On the other hand, if we don’t care about being naked, it 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 we feel we have no control over, hence why we can’t stop falling.

What do running dreams mean?

Like the opposite of falling dreams, people experiencing running dreams can’t start running no matter how hard they want to. Although, their significance is similar to falling dreams: running dreams also suggest a lack of confidence and a sense of powerlessness.

However, running dreams may also occur during sleep paralysis, a transitional phase between sleep and waking. Sleep paralysis is a REM parasomnia (a fancy word for abnormal behavior during sleep) where parts of the brain have woken up, but not the body, resulting in an inability to move but a conscious awareness.  

What do chase dreams mean?

Chase dreams are another common dream that stems from anxiety. Typically, they suggest we’re avoiding a problem, and the person or thing chasing us probably reveals precisely the problem we’re avoiding.

If, on the other hand, you are the person doing the chasing, it could represent a goal you are currently working toward. However, since these types of dreams often result from anxiety, it’s more likely that you feel like you are falling behind on expectations in some part of your life.

What do test dreams mean?

In test dreams, we see ourselves taking an exam, or suddenly realizing that we have an exam we’re wholly unprepared for that’s about to happen.

Either scenario suggests that we feel unprepared for something, such as a test, an important presentation at work, or even a social situation like meeting your partner’s parents. Alternately, test dreams could signify that we feel over-scrutinized about something in real life, and it’s typically something we already feel inadequate about.

What do teeth dreams mean?

Teeth dreams are another common dream. In a teeth dream, people feel a weird sensation in their mouth, and when they spit to find relief, they come to realize they’ve lost all of their teeth.

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

What do omen dreams mean?

Some people believe dreams are predictors of the future. However, if one of your dreams comes true, it is more likely due to coincidence, you taking efforts to make it come true, or it being something that you’ve been visualizing and working on making come true independently of your dream.

What do complex dreams mean?

Some dreams seem to go on for hours, following characters through a complex, epic-like storyline. Because these vary so widely from person to person, there is no consensus on what they 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, they are typically recurring nightmares and related to unresolved conflict from your 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 your daily life.

If your nightmares become regular, they are often a sign of something in your life that’s causing you 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. In a night terror, the person looks awake. They may be screaming, moving violently, or have their eyes open – 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 like autism.

What do flying dreams mean?

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.

Outside of lucid dreaming, 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.

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? Good idea – 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 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 over time to notice patterns in your dreams. Many smartphone apps provide this functionality in digital form.

3. Turn off your alarm.

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

4. Make sure you get enough sleep.

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

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