Dreams can be scary, mysterious or even entertaining. Some dreams we vividly remember the next day, almost as if we’re recounting the details of a movie we watched with friends the night before. Others fade away quickly, leaving just a vague memory and causing us to scratch our heads, wishing we could recall them in detail. Dreaming is part of the human experience, but why do we dream in the first place, and is it possible to improve dream recall?
Essentially, dreams are images and stories that the mind creates while the body sleeps. Dreams can be quite vivid, as if you’re right there, living it out, if just in your mind. Dreams can make you feel frightened, angry, sad, happy and all ranges of emotions in between. Some dreams seem absolutely normal and rational, while others may seem bizarre or confusing.
Dreams occur at any point in the sleep cycle, but scientists say that the most vivid dreams occur during periods of rapid eye movement sleep. During REM sleep, the brain is most active. Scientists studying dreams and dreaming say that the average person dreams about two hours during their nightly slumber.
Lucid dreaming is a type of dreaming in which you know that you are dreaming. Research indicates that this type of dreaming occurs during parts of the sleep cycle where the brain is normally restful but sees an activity boost. This sleep state lies somewhere in the realm between wakefulness and REM sleep.
Nightmares, or unpleasant dreams, are not uncommon among the general population. Everyone has had one, and many people have them frequently. Nightmares are more common during periods of conflict, fear, stress and after experiencing trauma. People dealing with illness, experiencing emotional problems or using drugs or taking certain medications may also experience bad dreams and nightmares.
There are quite a few theories about the reasons behind dreaming, but the truth is, no one really knows. Some scientists think that dreams have no real meaning or purpose at all, while others claim that we need dreams as an outlet for our emotional and mental health.
In one study, researchers looking to find a correlation between dreams and well-being found that waking people who are about to enter REM sleep, and thus denying them the opportunity to dream, caused them to experience more tension, depression and anxiety in their waking lives. Some participants deprived of dreaming gained weight, had difficulty concentrating and experienced a lack of coordination.
Some scientists say that dreams are meant to help the mind process emotions, incorporate memories and solve problems. Others think that dreams are helpful to the brain in processing the day’s events and the dreamer’s thoughts.
Many doctors think so. Most famous among them was Sigmund Freud. He believed that dreams served as a window into the dreamer’s subconscious. Freud claimed that dreams could reveal the dreamer’s thoughts, unconscious desires and motivations.
He also believed that people were able to satisfy desires and urges that weren’t necessarily acceptable in society through dreaming. Scientists who follow this theory may use dream analysis during therapy sessions.
Some dreams seem to be ingrained in the memory of the dreamer, but others are forgotten the moment the sleeper’s eyes open. Although science is unsure, some theories hold that the part of the brain that remembers things shuts down during REM sleep, enabling the dreamer to only remember dreams that occur right before waking. Others say if we could remember all dreams, human beings might lose the ability to separate dream and wake states.
People who wake up frequently at night generally have better dream recall than those who sleep soundly and don’t wake until morning. You may improve your dream recall potential by waking up naturally, minus any alarm, which is thought to capture the brain’s attention, causing memories of dreams to be lost. You can also keep a dream journal, forcing yourself to wake up to jot down what you remember of your dreams as they occur. Making a conscious effort to remember your dreams may help too. Remind yourself prior to bedtime that you want to remember your dreams.
Since the beginning of time, humans have attempted to assign purpose and meaning to dreams. We know more about dreams now than we have at any point in the past, but dreams continue to puzzle us as to their true origin and reason for existing.
© 2021 American Sleep Association.