Why We Dream

Dreams are the stories the brain tells during sleep—collections of clips, images, feelings, and memories that involuntarily occur during the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of slumber. Humans typically have multiple dreams per night that grow longer as sleep draws to a close.

It’s hypothesized that everyone dreams, but a small subsection of the population reports that they never remember experiencing dreams.

Dreams typically involve elements from waking lives—known people or familiar locations—but often take on a fantastical feel. Dreams are frequently interesting, and can allow people to act out certain scenarios that would never be possible in real life, but they aren’t always positive—negative dreams, referred to as "nightmares," can create feelings of terror, anxiety, or despair, and can lead to psychological distress or sleep problems like insomnia.

Why humans dream remains one of behavioral science's great unanswered questions. Researchers have offered many theories—including memory consolidation or emotional regulation—but a verifiable one remains elusive.

Do Dreams Really Mean Anything?

The ancient Egyptians believed that dreams were communications from the gods, or prophecies of what was to come. Dream interpretation as a field of psychological study took off in 1899, when Sigmund Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams, laying the foundation for many of his theories of the unconscious mind.

Today, most experts disagree with Freud’s conclusions—and some don’t believe that dreams signify anything at all—but most people still wake up after a particularly vivid dream and wonder what message it was trying to tell them. Because dreams can be extremely emotionally-laden--such as interacting with loved ones who have died---people continue to mine their nighttime reveries for clues to their inner lives, for creative insight, and even for premonitions.


Creativity, Fantasies, Sleep, Unconscious


Terrifying dreams that rouse people from sleep plague children more often than adults. But at least half of grownups have occasional nightmares, although fewer than 10 percent reporting frequent or recurring episodes.

Nightmares are often confused with night terrors, but they’re not the same: Night terrors represent a type of disorder that causes sleeping people to scream, bolt out of bed, or demonstrate symptoms similar to a panic attack. Unlike nightmares, which can leave unpleasant memories or lingering feelings of anxiety, night terrors are usually not remembered the next day, even though sufferers may appear to be awake during the experience.


Anxiety, Fear, Sleep, Unconscious

Lucid Dreams

Lucid dreaming is the phenomenon in which a dreamer is aware that they’re asleep, but is able to control events within a dream to some extent. It occurs most commonly during the late-stage phasic period of REM sleep, when the eye moves most rapidly and muscles can twitch.

Research suggests that the brain undergoes a physiological change when it makes the shift to lucid dreaming. An fMRI study showed that the prefrontal cortex and a cortical network including the frontal, parietal, and temporal zones activate when the brain begins lucid dreaming. This activation appears related to the "waking consciousness” that characterizes lucidity.

Dutch psychiatrist Frederick van Eeden coined the term in 1913, but he was far from the first to describe lucid dreaming. Aristotle, for example, wrote about it in 350 BCE, and English writer Sir Thomas Browne claimed to have composed theatrical comedies while lucid dreaming.

Lucid dreamers report willing themselves to fly, fight, or act out sexual fantasies. There exist communities dedicated to learning how to lucid dream at will, although evidence that this is possible remains inconclusive.

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