On Dreams and Dream Interpretation

We all dream. Of castles and battles, of flower fields and love, of marriage and family, of adventures and of the mundane, the everyday, of wolves and of forest huts. Dreams are as diverse and varied as the people who dream them. Sometimes they are quiet and peaceful, sometimes bold and daring. Sometimes we are quietly reading a book in the enchanting vastness of an abandoned castle, sometimes we are traversing a snake-infested island, battling wild boars, or crash landing a plane. Sometimes we remember what we have dreamt of, sometimes we don’t, and when we do remember, it is often just bits and pieces of a vast, never-to-be-fully-grasped puzzle.

We wake up in that half-asleep, half-awake state of mind, where we have been riding camels and trading gems and salt. Lost in a labyrinth of questions. A haze of bemusement before our eyes. What did just happen? Where are we? Did this really just happen? Or was it just a dream?

Dreams can be as engrossing as they are confusing. What do they mean? Do they reveal the hidden secrets of our psyche? Do they offer glimpses into our innermost thoughts and feelings? Are they a door to an unknown part of our mind and soul? Or are they something altogether different?

For centuries, people have been trying to define dreams, categorise them, understand them and harness their power and potential. In Ancient Egypt, people experiencing vivid dreams were thought to be special and extremely gifted individuals, close in nature to oracles and sages. The Ancient Greeks too thought that the future is revealed in dreams. For them, dreams were revelations of divine truths, presaging great victories in war, plentiful harvests, or imminent doom.

People all over the world have always been fascinated by the mystery of dreams and dreaming. Philosophy, theology, and the natural sciences have all tried to understand and explain what dreams are. Literature and the arts have all drawn and continue to draw on dreams’ creative potential. Volume after volume has been written on dreams and dreaming.

And considering that dreams are such an integral part of sleep and the sleeping experience, in this content package we explore the when, the what, the why, and the how of dreams, dreaming, and dream interpretation.

Four important questions on dreams

What are dreams?

Dreams are a mental activity that takes place during sleep, with an involuntary and unintentional nature. Dreams are expressed mainly through visual images, often of very vivid nature. Specifically, they are characterised by a narrative structure – in which the sleeper is generally the main character of it. In addition, dreams are often featured by emotional reactions that can influence our mood even after waking up.

Fun Fact: Did you know that those born blind experience dreams consisting of emotional, auditory, and olfactory stimuli rather than visual ones?

When do we dream?

When we sleep, we go through different sleep phases. In particular, they are characterised by the presence or absence of specific eye motions known as Rapid Eye Movement, from which the REM phase takes its name. For this reason, sleep phases are divided into N-REM and REM. N-REM consists of 3 sub-phases called N1, N2 and N3. Before we are entering REM sleep, we first go through the 3 N-REM sub-phases. While N1 only lasts for 1 to 5 minutes, N2 takes around 25 minutes in the initial cycle and lengthens with each successive cycle, and N3 is the longest phase between 20 to 40 minutes.

Consequently, after on average 90 minutes of sleeping, we enter REM sleep, which lasts about 10 minutes. After the first cycle, each REM stage that follows becomes longer and longer. This process is known as the REM–NREM cycle, and it goes on throughout the night, where a typical night’s sleep might contain 4 to 6 cycles.

Today, we know that dreams occur during all sleep phases (both REM and N-REM), as demonstrated by Mark Solms, but the most vivid and bizarre dreams happen during the REM sleep phase, in which your body is paralysed but your brain is highly active. The EEG, or electrical impulses that provide a restricted view of brain activity, resembles the waking brain during this stage. Still, the only muscles, which are active during this phase are those that enable us to breathe and those that move our eyes.

The sleep scientists Eugene Aserinsky and Nathaniel Kleitmann from the University of Chicago discovered that we start making quick horizontal movements with our eyeballs during a specific part of sleep, which is the REM sleep stage.9 They also discovered that people often have vivid memories of their dreams if woken up during this sleep phase. Henceforth, REM sleep is predominantly known as ‘dream sleep’.

How do we dream?

The brain’s primary purpose is now thought to be consciousness. If that’s the case, consciousness is just the brain’s interpretation and integration of all the data it has access to at any given moment. In this sense, dreams rely on all the sensory data we have experienced. During normal wakefulness, the brain overlooks internally produced activity in favour of sensory input from the outside. Dreaming happens when we are asleep because the brain is focused on internally evoked activity.

Why do we dream?

The scientific community was not able to give a comprehensive response to this question yet.

The most prevalent theory is that dreams symbolically reflect upsetting life experiences and covertly examine self-protective reactions. Another long-held hypothesis is that dreaming reorganises memory for newly acquired activities and improves recall of relevant information and abilities. Another school of thought holds that dreaming directly modulates attention, elicits feelings, and improves post-dream thinking flexibility and emotional reactions.

Thus, the purpose of dreaming is not entirely understood, although they are important for especially two areas of our daily lives: memory processing and mood control.

Memory processing: According to neuroscience, dreaming combines visual, perceptual, and emotional memories, as advocated by American sleep researcher Robert Stickgold (1946) and other researchers. NREM dreaming may involve processes implicating the hippocampus (a small, deep area of the brain), such as strengthening declarative information and moving through spatial dimensions. Moreover, NREM dreams are influenced by the previous day’s events. In contrast, REM dreams are influenced by memories and learning from the past. For this reason, it is possible to claim that dreaming is a conscious representation of memory and emotional processing that occurs “offline” while we sleep.

Mood regulation: Neuroscience also claims that dreams absorb and deal with the emotional experiences of the day by relating them to past experiences and integrating them into one’s self-image. Dreams may have such terrifying content that they wake us up, accompanied by solid memories of the emotional experience. Indeed, visualising brain activity during sleep shows that dreaming supports mood regulation, showing significant amygdala activation, another important brain area involved in emotion control. Consequently, we can assume that REM sleep is associated with mood regulation, while NREM sleep is linked to memory processing.

Quote of Dr. Verena Senn, Neurobiologist and Head of Sleep Research at Emma – The Sleep Company

“Dreaming is important to process emotions that you had during the day and contributes to the consolidation of memories with a great emotional load like a problem-solving mechanism that stimulates the real-world when we sleep. It is important for us to get the right amount of good sleep, to be able to have a good dream experience that starts when we enter light sleep to deep sleep until we reach the pivotal REM sleep stage when our brains become more active in processing unresolved emotional waking-life experiences that strongly contributes to emotional memory consolidation.”

The different types of dreams

From a neuroscientific perspective, we can differentiate between types of dreams during the NREM and REM phases.

Researchers compare a non-REM sleep dream to a photograph. During non-REM sleep, dreams are typically shorter, less structured, weaker, and less emotionally involving. On the other hand, REM dreams are compared to a movie in which the dreamer is the main character. In other words, REM sleep is believed to include the complicated activation and interplay of many brain regions, resulting in a more sophisticated dream experience These multimodal mental images arise spontaneously during sleep and are typically structured as a narration.

In this part of the article, we discuss the two types of dreams, which both take place during REM sleep: nightmares and lucid dreaming.

Nightmares

Nightmares are intense and frightening nocturnal experiences in which the dreamer is jolted awake from their rest. Nightmares are a common experience. Indeed, according to a two-week prospective study of college students, 47 per cent experienced at least one nightmare, and are more prevalent in children and people with mental difficulties, such as PTSD.

There is a significant link between REM sleep and nightmares. The most terrifying dreams happen during REM sleep, and most REM-altering illnesses and medicines, which impact sleep, affect REM sleep and hence impact dreaming. As such, dreaming may be affected by several REM-related parasomnias (disruptive sleep-related disorders).

Lucid Dreaming

Put simply, a lucid dream is a dream during which dreamers are aware they are dreaming. These usually occur during REM sleep. Although it isn’t entirely clear how many people experience lucid dreaming, recent research suggests that it is not a rare phenomenon. It is important to note that a consensus exists that every person is capable, with practice, of lucid dreaming.

Recommendations on how to sleep and feel better

Dr. Verena Senn, Neuroscientist and Head of Sleep Research at Emma – The Sleep Company, recommends the following to help you sleep and feel better:

  • Get enough REM sleep as dreaming in REM sleep can help people process difficult, and even traumatic episodes experienced during the day. The best way to do that is to simply get enough sleep overall.
  • For better sleep overall, Emma’s recommends that you sleep in a cool, dark room and practise good sleep hygiene (e.g., limiting your exposure to blue light from electronic devices before sleep, listening to music and avoiding consuming stimulants like coffee).
  • Try to work on your parasympathetic nervous system, which inhibits fight-or-flight responses and increases feelings of relaxation. Scientific research has shown that breathing and meditative exercises before sleeping time can significantly help achieve this goal. Furthermore, you can try using products that have been scientifically proven to increase the feeling of relaxation, such as gravity blankets or meditation apps available on various digital stores.