What Are Dreams? And Why Do People Have Them?

Have you ever had a dream that was so vivid that you were convinced it was real, even after you woke up?

How about the one where your spouse does something unforgivable, and you’re mad at them all day?

And here’s an embarrassing one: maybe you had a conversation with someone in a dream, and you’re certain that the discussion happened in real life.

Dreaming is a mysterious phenomenon. It can be fun and entertaining or downright scary and disturbing. But does it serve a function?

Some people believe that they are completely random, while others insist that they have healing and restorative properties.

In this article, we’ll answer the question of what causes dreams and why we have them, as well as discuss some of the theories about it. We’ll also talk the different types people have and how what’s going in our everyday lives can affect how we experience them.

Facts About Dreaming

Dreaming is universal, meaning that it happens to everyone, and we’re not able to control the content or outcome of them. We may not remember what we’re dreaming about and some of us even claim we “don’t dream,” but it’s still happening, whether you know it or not.

A typical nightly screenplay can last anywhere from five to twenty minutes. Men and women tend to have similar visions, though women’s scenarios tend to happen indoors and involve family members, babies, and children, while men tend to have more aggressive scenes play out in their minds.

We tend to know the people we meet in our sleep, at least 48% of the time. In the rest of the instances, we see strangers or symbolic, cultural figures like teachers, florists, etc.

Ironically, even though dreaming can help us build long-term memories, it’s very rare that we’ll remember much of what we see. Sadly, about 95% of these visions are lost within minutes of waking up.

There’s an active debate in the scientific community about the purpose of dreaming. Some scientists stand firm that it serves no function; it’s just a collection of odd stories and images that our brain tells throughout the night. Other researchers believe that this is an adaptive mechanism that allows the brain to sort through all the information of the day, learn, create memories, and recover from trauma.

What we do know is that when people are deprived of sleep (meaning they’re woken up right before they enter the stage of sleep called REM), they experience anxiety, depression, weight gain, lack of coordination, difficulty concentrating, and even hallucinations.

While we all experience life differently, what’s interesting to note is the fact that almost all of our dreams fall into a limited number of shared themes. For example, people who see images of themselves being naked are often afraid of being exposed, or they’re worried about a secret. The way that this manifests what’s happening in our daily lives is surprisingly consistent among us as a species.

woman is sleeping and dreaming

What are Dreams?

Dreams are images, sounds, and sensations we experience while we’re asleep. They can occur at any time during our sleep cycle, but they are most common when we’re in REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement). On average, humans experience one of these visions around three to six times per night.

Often, what we see in these nightly visions is distorted and makes no sense, despite the fact that it seems incredibly real while it’s happening. When you dreamt that your dog was the size of a truck and you were a tiny human that got to ride him through an enchanted forest talking to all the other magical creatures and having existential debates, it seemed so real.

But then you wake up, and there’s your pup, normal-sized lying at the foot of your bed. And no, he’s not talking, and neither is the snail on your porch.

Dr. Sigmund Freud believed that dreaming is a window into your subconscious mind, and that whatever you see while you’re asleep is an extension of yourself. This frequently manifests itself after a stressful day, and you’ll find yourself re-enacting the day while you’re asleep, but often with symbolic imagery instead of a play-by-play rehashing.

For example, if you were running late all day long, you might have visions of being chased by a tiger.

Different Types

Daydreams

Staring off into space and letting your mind carry you off into another world is a classic example of daydreaming. We spend an average of 70 to 120 minutes each daydreaming. It could be fantasizing about something or playing out different scenarios in our head. We’re not technically asleep, but we’re usually not 100 percent alert of our actual surroundings, either.

Nightmares

Disturbing and frightful images characterize a nightmare. They can be in response to a real-life situation you’re dealing with, and they’re even triggered by watching something disturbing on television right before bed.

Often, they’re a hint from our subconscious mind that there’s a trauma or fear that we need to acknowledge or address. People are more likely to have nightmares when there’s a family history of psychiatric problems, they’ve done drugs and had negative experiences, or they’re going through real-life nightmares like a troubled relationship or stress at work.

scene from a nightmare

Lucid Dreams

Recurring Dreams

Having either the same vision over and over, or a vision that has a repeating theme, describes what it means to have a recurring dream. On rare occasions, these can be pleasant, but typically it’s a nightmare stemming from an unresolved problem or conflict. If you’re able to get to the root of the what the problem is, you will probably find that solving it causes the recurring image to vanish from sight.

Healing Dreams

These are common in those of us with health challenges. They’re usually a signal from our unconscious that something is wrong with our health and it needs to be addressed. Dreaming that you’re getting a cavity filled at the dentist? You may be overdue for a teeth cleaning!

Prophetic Dreams

As we muddle through life bombarded by stimuli, we’re only processing a fraction of the information we receive. However, when we go to sleep, our subconscious mind is piecing it all together. If we see an image of something that seemingly predicts the future, it’s often the result of our brain making sense of random facts and coming to a logical conclusion while we’re asleep.

This phenomenon is also referred to as a precognitive or psychic dream.

three girls on bed thinking

Why Do We Dream?

The scientific jury is still out on this one. Some scientists believe that there is no purpose for dreaming and that it’s completely random. Others argue that we need to do it in order to stay mentally, emotionally, and physically healthy.

Building on Freud’s belief that dreaming is a window into our subconscious, it makes sense to theorize that it helps us process the information from our daily lives and process all of the emotions we experienced throughout the day. Dreaming could be instrumental in solving problems.

Have you ever gone to bed worrying about a problem only to have the perfect solution when you wake up? Perhaps getting a night of sleep was all you needed to clear your mind, or maybe you had a dream that helped you sort through the issue.

Freud also believed that dreaming allowed you to play out unconscious motivations, thoughts, and desires that aren’t acceptable in everyday society.

Factors that Influence Dreams

Age

Even though we all experience dreaming, its vividness is most pronounced during childhood. Many of us probably recall some particularly vivid ones, especially nightmares, from when we were kids, but we don’t remember one that we had last year.

girl is falling asleep on couch

Gender

The results of individual studies differ, but most conclude that men and women dream similarly. Notable differences include that males visualize more aggression and outdoor scenes, while women see indoor settings and family members, babies, and children more frequently.

Sleep Disorders

People with insomnia tend to remember their dreams more often, and they’re often stressful. Most likely this is because they’re not sleeping as deeply so recalling a vision is easier when they’re roused from a more superficial stage of sleep.

Those with narcolepsy tend to have more disturbing and twisted images in their sleep with negative connotations.

Well-being

It’s no surprise that people who experience stress and insecurity on a daily basis are more likely to report remembering their dreams as well as recalling images associated with strong emotions. It’s as if our brains are trying to help us process our daily struggles as we sleep.

Read more: Learn What Your Work Dreams Mean to Turn Your Stress into Success

Common Contents and Interpretations

Characters

We’re not usually the only star in our nightly plays. Often other characters appear and play major roles. About half of the time, these appearances are made by people we know.

Symbolic characters also appear in our visions. It could be a doctor, a store clerk, or a friend, but we won’t necessarily know who they are or assign a name to them. And about 16% of the time, we’ll have no idea who the person is who’s making an appearance.

Memories

It’s fairly common to dream about what’s happened in our past, and scientists discovered three distinct timeframes that appear in our dreams as memories. In the short-term, we tend to see memories of what happened that day as well as what happened the week prior. It’s as if our brain cycles in 7-day series and there can be a lag between when we experience something and when it shows up in sleep.

Longer term memories can also crop up, though they’re usually incomplete and fragmented. Freud, as well as more modern scientists, have theorized that these function as a form of mental recovery from a traumatic experience.

man is remembering something

Themes

No matter our culture, gender or age, we often experience the same types of dreams, or themes. Top themes include:

  • Being chased
  • Sexual experiences
  • Being late
  • Falling
  • Flying
  • Be unprepared for an exam/failing a test

In all, there are 55 themes that occur again and again in our population. Each of these themes is tied to different parts of our subconscious, including sex drive, self-image, and internal conflict.

Pain

We can indeed feel pain while dreaming, so thankfully the instance of this types of dream in most individuals is low. However, if you’re injured or going through something that’s traumatic in your daily life, the probability of experiencing something similar while you sleep goes up.

Self-awareness

Being self-aware in a dream state refers to lucid dreaming. In this state, you can control your actions and the outcomes rather than being a helpless observer. Some scientists caution against trying to control these outcomes, but we think it’s pretty cool.

Senses

Though we can experience senses like smell, taste, and sound, it’s not all that common. Studies have shown that people with migraines report tasting and smelling more frequently, which suggests that the part of our brain that triggers migraines may also be connected to dreaming.

When it comes to hearing music, musicians are more likely to experience it, which is not terribly surprising. What is interesting, however, is that close to half of the music they heard in their sleep was original music, meaning that they’re composing in their sleep!

Relationships

Like other life themes, dreaming about relationships is more common when you’re in one. There’s also evidence suggesting that the feelings you have in your waking relationship will carry over to your sleep. So, if you’re having conflict or insecurity with your partner, it may be something you experience while you’re asleep, too.

Flying

Over the past 50 years, the instances of people reporting flying dreams have gone up. While some scientists believe this is because the frequency of air travel has increased, we think it has more to do with the desire to have freedom. Now, more than ever, we’re chained to electronic devices and overcommitted schedules. If you’re having visions of flying at night, ask yourself if you feel trapped in your daily life and wish you were freer.

Death

It can be freaky to see death in your sleep, especially your own. However, this is almost never a symbol of actual death. Usually, it’s your subconscious way of telling you that a significant change is on the horizon, and you’re about to leave the past behind.

Falling

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, insecure or unstable, you may have visions of falling. A dream about falling usually means your life or an aspect of it is out of your control. It doesn’t mean you’ll die if you hit the ground in your sleep, contrary to popular belief.

man is falling in sleep

Frequently Asked Questions

Can dreams predict the future?

Experts say no, but we beg to differ. For example, scientists believe that it’s either a coincidence or a false memory if a vision you see in your sleep seemingly predicts a future event. However, they also admit that it’s possible that your subconscious was piecing together bits of information to complete a puzzle that coincides with a future event.

Based on that logic, we think that it’s entirely possible to predict the future.

Why are they hard to remember?

People who try to hold on to memories of their dreams often keep a journal. This is because half of us will forget it within five minutes of waking up, and a whopping 90% will have completely forgotten it five minutes after that.

The likely reason is that not all parts of our brain are active while we’re asleep. So, while our dreaming brains are working to solidify memories from our daily lives, they’re not actively creating memories of the ones we’re having.

Does everyone dream in color?

Most of us do, but not everyone. It’s estimated that 80% of people under 30 dream in color, and it’s the opposite for people over 60, with only about 20% of them having colorful night visions. Studies have shown that older individuals tend to see their visions in black and white, but is that a function of age or the advent of color television? It’s impossible to say for sure!

Can blind people experience it, too?

Yes, blind people are dreamers too, it’s just a bit different. Most of their dreams utilize other sense like sound, feel, taste, and smell. For those who were born completely blind, they won’t see anything while dreaming. But, if someone became blind later in life, they may still see images and colors while they sleep.

Why do we have bad dreams?

The reasons we have nightmares vary widely, but most of the time it’s due to stress. Whether it’s a scary movie, life experience or general anxiety, all of these can lead to nightmares. In addition, there are some prescription medications that can also affect dreaming negatively.

Conclusion


Even though we’re not 100% sure of what causes dreams and the function that dreaming serves, we do know that it’s important for our health and well-being. In terms of predicting the future, we’re still waiting for a vision of winning lottery numbers!

Sources:

  1. New insights into what really goes on when we drift into sleep – psychologytoday.com
  2. Facts About Dreaming – webmd.com

More Reading:

Author: Sleep Advisor

Our team covers as many areas of expertise as we do time zones, but none of us started here as a so-called expert on sleep. What we do share is a willingness to ask questions (lots of them), seek experts, and dig deep into conventional wisdom to see if maybe there might be a better path towards healthy living. We apply what we learn not only to our company culture, but also how we deliver information to our over 12.7M readers.

Sleep research is changing all the time, and we are 100% dedicated to keeping up with breakthroughs and innovations. You live better if you sleep better. Whatever has brought you here, we wish you luck on your journey towards better rest.

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