Why do we dream and what do they mean?
Updated: Jun 24
As humans, we like finding meaning in the experiences we have - such as dreams. Many of us believe our dreams represent our fears and desires. It was Sigmund Freud who most notably suggested that our dreams are the icons of our subconscious and show our hidden desires. While there is a discrepancy on whether dreams really hold that much true information about us, that hasn’t stopped us creating a barrage of dream iconography and dream dictionaries.
Oneirology is the name given to the study of dreams (the term comes from the Greek Oneiro which means dream). Most of our dreams occur during the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage of sleep which takes up approximately 2 of the 8 hour sleep cycle.
One thing that is generally agreed upon in the scientific community is that the recurrence of an issue within a dream, represents a worry, concern or desire that we strongly feel. “This is known as the “continuity hypothesis," and it highlights the deep consistency of waking and dreaming modes of thought. People’s dreams tend to reflect the people and things they most care about in the waking world. A great deal of dream content involves familiar people, places, and activities in the individual’s waking life. The dreaming imagination is fully capable of portraying normal, realistic scenarios. This means dreaming is clearly not a process characterized by total incoherence, irrationality, or bizarreness.” (https://www.psychologytoday.com)
It is a myth that dream recall is connected to your level of intelligence. It is variable between sleepers depending on their interest level; the more interested in dreaming you are, the more likely you are to remember your dreams. If you have little interest in dreams, you’re unlikely to try to recall them or cement them in your mind before they disappear. It’s likely that everyone has one or two dreams they remember; usually a very vivid or emotional dream.
There are two primary theories about why we dream. The first being evolutionary theory, which suggests that we dream to learn and experiment with how we would deal with certain stressors in real life. The second; memory consolidation theory, suggests that we are dreaming in order to reorganise the day’s memories, filing away what we learned that day.
Lucid dreaming is where you are conscious within a dream. For years this was considered impossible, but research has been carried out suggesting that 23% of people experience lucid dreaming once a month or more, and 55% of people have experienced it at least once in their lifetime. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1053810016301283)
Scientific research has been conducted to look at whether lucid dreaming could actually help reduce nightmares as the dreamer would feel more in control of their dream. On top of this, when a dreamer is aware that they’re dreaming, they will know their nightmare is not real.
Lucid dreaming is used in imagery rehearsal therapy (IRT). Your therapist helps you imagine a reoccurring nightmare with an alternative storyline. When used with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), IRT with lucid dreaming induction can help increase dream control. A 2017 study looked into this: 33 military veterans with PTSD and recurring nightmares received CBT with IRT or CBT alone. The group that received CBT with IRT experienced higher dream control, which reduced nightmare-induced stress. (https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fdrm0000059)
Here are some common dreams and what is generally regarded as their meaning***
1. Teeth falling out: This dream is all about insecurity and feeling unattractive or powerless. It’s very similar to dreams about your hair falling out or other aesthetic problems you could face in real life. This insecurity is linked to a worry about how others perceive you.
2. Being unprepared for an exam: This is a common dream that generally suggests we feel panicked about failing at something in our day to day life. It also shows a lack of confidence and self-belief.
3. Falling and Flying: If you’re falling and not enjoying the experience, it’s usually a sign of being out of control and anxious about a situation. If you are flying in your dream and you're enjoying it, you might be feeling particularly free of stress and worry; that's got to be the best kind of dream!
4. Being late: Dreaming about being late is a way of worrying about time; either you don’t have enough time to achieve something you want to do, or you’re worried you’re wasting or have wasted time.
5. Being naked in a public place: Being naked somewhere unexpected usually suggests feelings of shamefulness and/or vulnerability. It can also mean you’re fearful of being ridiculed.
***Dream analysis is highly subjective; if you have real concerns about a recurring dream, nightmare, lucid dreaming or sleep paralysis, you should speak to a counsellor. Anything which prevents a good night’s sleep is worth addressing, so please get in touch today if your dreams are causing any kind of distress.
The mystery of dreaming as well as the conflicting scientific arguments that exist around it, might be fuelling our desire to understand what happens when we sleep and if it can be the key to self-reflection and self-improvement.