Why Do We Dream & How It Affects Sleep

lauren hall 1
written by sleep expert Lauren Hall

Why Do We Dream? Dreaming 101:

Dreams are one of the most fascinating and weird aspects of sleep. There is so much ambiguity as to why we dream, what causes dreams and why we can’t remember most of them. While we sleep, our body goes through stages of sleep, and the REM sleep stage is the one associated with dreaming.

But why do we dream? What causes dreams?

Even now, it is still up to debate. Freud was one of the first psychologists to draw attention to the importance of dreams in the late 19th century to unravel the neuroscience and psychology of dreams. Dreams and their effect on sleep vary from person to person, making it very difficult to pinpoint the exact reason for dreams.

Dreams are complex, and there is no simple explanation to explain why we dream, but understanding the basics of dreams and the cause of nightmares can help you achieve a good night’s sleep. The sleep cycle is a complex and dynamic concept that scientists are still getting to grips with.

But wait, let me tell you something.

When we are in the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) Sleep stage, our brain waves are very similar to the brain waves when we are awake, and the REM sleep stage is the stage that is associated with dreams. Our brain is very active while we dream, and dreaming offers brain and body restoration.

So let’s talk about why we dream and the importance of dreams in more detail.

why do we dream

What Are Dreams?

Dreams are images, ideas, thoughts, emotions, feelings, and sensations that occur involuntarily in our minds in certain stages of sleep. Our body goes through four stages of sleep multiple times throughout the night, and the third and fourth (deep and REM sleep) is often associated with dreams.

Visual imagery is common while we dream, but dreaming can involve all the senses; while some people dream in black and white, others dream in color. People who are blind often dream components related to sound, taste, and smell. Dreams are unique to everyone.

Dreams can last from anything as little as five minutes to twenty minutes; there are many different types of dreams, from normal dreams, lucid dreams, vivid dreams to nightmares, and they usually occur when in a deep sleep or during REM sleep.

All dreams are often in the first-person perspective, and they are involuntary. The content of dreams can be illogical or even incoherent, including interactions with people. Dreaming can even provoke strong emotions that are not often found when awake.

Although these features are not universal, they are found to at least some extent in most normal dreams across most adults.

What Causes Dreams?

As I mentioned earlier, we go through multiple sleep cycles throughout the night, which consists of four sleep stages. The sleep stage that is often associated with dreaming is the fourth sleep stage which is also known as REM sleep because our brain wave activity is similar to when we are awake.

One of the areas of the brain which is most active during dreaming is the amygdala, which is associated with the fight or flight response and survival instincts. Some scientists believe that your amygdala is the most active when you are asleep as it is our brand way of getting ready to deal with a threat.

While we are dreaming, our body also sends out nerve signals during the REM sleep stage to relax our muscles, so it explains why you feel paralyzed in your sleep and cannot run or punch in your sleep, especially when running away from something in your nightmares.

Why Do We Dream?

So why do we dream? What are the benefits of dreaming on our bodies? This debate has been ongoing among sleep experts for years; there are many different theories as to why we dream, but it is all very unclear. After all, the brain works in mysterious ways.

Building Memory:

One of the main purposes of dreaming is to help store important memories and things you have learned during the day. It also helps get rid of unimportant memories and sort through complicated thoughts and feelings– this is where the saying “sleep on it” comes from.

Your mind is often clearer after getting a good night’s sleep. Research actually shows that sleep stores memories. If you learn new information and sleep on it, you’ll be able to recall it better than you would if you were asked to recall it without sleeping.

How dreams affect memory storage and recall is quite an ambiguous topic, and it isn’t fully understood yet, but your brain is actually known to be more active when dreaming so you can efficiently store important information while blocking out the stimuli that could interfere with memory and learning.

Dreaming may well serve an important cognitive function of strengthening memory and informational recall.

Processing Emotion:

Your dreams may be ways of confronting emotional dramas in your life; while we are dreaming in the REM sleep stages, our brain is operating at much more of an emotional level than when we are awake. Your brain makes connections regarding your feelings that your conscious self may not make.

Dreaming gives you the ability to engage with and rehearse feelings in different imagined contexts and maybe a part of the brain’s method for managing emotions. As I said earlier, when making an important decision, it is best to sleep on it as your brain will make connections in the night.

Periods of dreaming even offer levels of mental housekeeping; it is your brain’s way of clearing away any partial, erroneous, or unnecessary information. Your brain gets rid of all of the “junk” in your brain throughout the night, almost as an emotional clean-up.

Instant Replay:

Just did something embarrassing that you want to forget and never want to bring up ever again? Well, your brain loves to bring up recent events to be reviewed and analyzed while you dream. So those embarrassing replays often occur when you are dreaming.

This is why when you start falling asleep, your start thinking of all the embarrassing moments in your life that you want to forget. Experts are not quite sure why this happens, but it is an interesting concept of having life events replayed.

Experts in neuroscience and psychology continue to conduct experiments to research what happens in the brain while asleep, but after years of ongoing research, it may be impossible to completely provide any theory as to why we dream– it is very much ambiguous and uncertain.

When Do We Dream?

Every night we tend to dream between one to two hours per night. Dreaming can happen in any stage of sleep but most commonly occurs and tend to be most vivid during the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep stage. This is when the brain is most active, and delta waves are most common in this stage.

During the REM stage, brain activity is much higher in comparison to the Non REM sleep stages, which explains why we often dream during this stage. REM dreams tend to be more vivid, fantastical, and bizarre and may even involve elements of waking life, whereas Non-REM sleep dreams tend to be more coherent and involve thoughts or memories that are grounded to a specific time or place.

We spend more time in the REM stage on the second half of the night rather than when we first fall asleep. In the first sleep cycle, we spend as little as 10 minutes in the REM stage, and with each cycle, we spend more time in REM, with some cycles being up to 60 minutes.

How Long Do Dreams Last?

The length of dreams can vary from person to person; some may only last a few seconds, while others can last between 20-30 minutes. People are more likely to remember a dream when they awake during the REM phase, and dream recall is much better.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, experts say that we have roughly four to six dreams per night, but we only tend to remember one or two of them. We don’t remember all our dreams as they tend to occur in the subconscious of our mind, which cannot be recalled consciously– according to psychodynamic research by Freud.


What Do Dreams Mean?

Do dreams have meaning, or are they just random? This topic is very controversial and is often very controversial. Some psychologists believe that dreams provide insight into a person’s psyche and unconscious thoughts, while others find that content is too inconsistent with providing any sort of meaning.

All experts acknowledge that dreams can involve content that ties back to waking experiences, although content can be disjointed, changed, misinterpreted, and overall strange. Sleep architecture is a strange concept, and how dreams affect sleep is a topic that is still quite unknown.

For example, people can be found in dreams who you can recognize, but their appearance may be distorted.

The meaning of real-life details while dreaming can be explained by the “continuity hypothesis” in dream research. This explains that dreams and waking life are intertwined with one another and overlap with themes and content.

But dreams can also be explained by the “discontinuity hypothesis,” which sees thinking during dreams and wakefulness as structurally distinct.

Analysis of dreams can be a component of personal or psychological self-reflection, it is hard to state based on existing evidence, but there is a definitive method for interpreting and understanding the meaning of dreams in everyday life.

Types Of Dreams:

There are a few different types of dreams, and dreams can take on many different forms. So let’s talk about a few:

Lucid Dreams: Lucid dreams occur when a person is in a dream, but they are actively aware they are dreaming but cannot leave the dream state. They can even exercise control over their dreaming environment. Around 55% of adults experience lucid dreams at least once in their lifetime.

Lucid dreaming is often used as a treatment for sleep disorders such as frequent nightmares. However, lucid dreams can have negative impacts on mental health as they can distort reality and fantasy. It can also disturb sleep; it is not recommended.

Vivid Dreams: Vivid dreams tend to involve realistic or clear dream content. During a vivid dream, you can experience feelings of joy and comfort. You may even wake up wishing that you could return to the dream, as vivid dreams can be fantastical and leave your dream conjuring the dream scenario.

Vivid dreams can be joyful and pleasant dreams, but they can also be upsetting and disturbing and may even cause nightmares which can interfere with the quality of sleep. The other three dream types are bad dreams/nightmares, recurring dreams, and normal dreams.

Bad Dreams: Bad dreams are a type of dream that causes distress, anxiety, fear, or terror. Those who experience a bad dream or nightmare tend to wake up during or just after having the nightmare. As a result, those who have nightmares tend to remember all the details of that dream clearly.

Recurring Dreams: Those who have recurring dreams tend to experience the same area over and over again, with similar imagery repeating in multiple dreams over time. They can often have themes such as confrontations, being chased, or falling.

These are also known as recurring nightmares; those who experience nightmares may be suffering from an underlying mental health condition, sleep deprivation, substance abuse, or maybe using the wrong sleep medication. Those who experience recurring dreams may even be sleep deprived as their sleep becomes fragmented,

Normal dreams tend to have content that is unidentifiable; for example, they follow common themes like flying, falling, being chased, or being unable to find a bathroom. We often experience these normal dreams in the deep sleep stage.

REM dreaming

What Are Nightmares?

According to experts of sleep medicine, a nightmare is a bad dream which causes someone to wake up from their sleep. These dreams can vary from being threatening, scary to overall disturbing. Negative dreams are common and often benign; frequent nightmares may be an issue.

This is because frequent nightmares interfere with a person’s sleep quality, causing fragmented sleep and issues within the sleep stages, which causes impaired thinking and mood during the daytime. It can also cause someone to become chronically sleep-deprived as sleep quality is poor.

What Causes Nightmares?

Nightmares tend to be caused by stress, anxiety, or sometimes reactions to certain medications. However, for frequent negative dreams then this could be an indication of sleeping disorders, mental health disorders, or neurological disorders.

Regularly occurring nightmares can be labeled as a sleeping disorder if they:

  • Cause you to feel anxious about falling asleep
  • Lead to frequent disruptions within your sleep, causing you to feel sleep-deprived during the day
  • These frequent nightmares bring up other sleeping or psychological problems.

Nightmares are completely normal, and according to the National Sleep Foundation, it is estimated only five percent of the population experience these persistent nightmares as a sleep disorder.

How To Stop Nightmares:

An occasional nightmare is entirely normal and healthy; it is your body’s response to stress and creating connections across your body; however, if you suffer from persistent nightmares, then your doctor might suggest talk therapy and other methods to stop nightmares.

Treatments for nightmare disorder tend to most commonly include talk therapy to help counteract negative thinking, stress, and anxiety. This is because stress, anxiety, and negative thinking can worsen nightmares as your brain will attempt to repair these connections in the night, causing nightmares.

Talk therapy tends to consist of reducing worries and fears, including those that arise in nightmares; this can help many patients reframe their emotional reaction to negative imagery instead of trying to suppress these thoughts into your subconscious.

There are a few other ways that you can reduce nightmares, and that is through improving sleep hygiene; if you’re not sure what sleep hygiene is, it is not what you may originally think. Sleep hygiene includes improving sleep-related habits and the bedroom environment to help promote the natural cycle of circadian rhythms.

Having healthy sleep hygiene can help make your nightly rest more predictable, so instead of getting a fragmented night’s rest, you can sleep soundly through the night; this also prevents having bad dreams.

Setting a consistent sleep schedule will actually make a world of difference for improving your quality of sleep, for example, falling asleep and waking up at a similar time both on weekdays and weekends, and setting half a sleep routine before bed can improve sleep quality massively.

Try to limit alcohol before bedtime, and eliminating noise and light disruptions can allow you to achieve an uninterrupted sleep and promote the natural cycle of your circadian rhythm and ultradian rhythms (sleep cycle).

If you struggle to fall asleep on day to day basis and think you might suffer from a sleep disorder like sleep apnea, it is important to talk to a sleep specialist or doctor who can recommend a treatment plan such as sleep medicine to help promote your natural sleep cycle.

Just creating a sleep routine and understanding sleep can help promote a healthy sleep cycle, allowing you to sleep deeply and achieve the most nourishing and rejuvenating night’s rest.


Do Dreams Affect Sleep?

Dreaming does not tend to have a negative impact on sleep, but nightmares can. this is because nightmares affect your sleep quality as it can make it more difficult to fall back asleep, making it difficult to progress through the sleep stages and reach those deep sleep stages again.

This can have a knock-on effect the next day, making the sleeper feel drowsier during the day and can even lead to sleep deprivation if these bad dreams are frequent over a period of time. Good dreams, however, are a normal part of healthy sleep.

Dreams most commonly occur in the REM stage, which is the most restorative part of your sleep.

REM sleep is essential to cognitive functions like memory, learning, and creativity. It is known for the most vivid dreams because of the increase in brain activity. So this stage is highly correlated with dreaming.

How To Remember Dreams:

When we wake up after having a dream, our dream recall is much better; we can often recall certain details of the dream but not all. But is it possible to remember dreams? Well, for some people who want to document or interpret dreams, then remembering them is a key first step.

There is no guaranteed way you can improve dream recall, but experts have given some tips so you can remember the dreams you are experiencing. So here are a few pointers to help you remember the dreams you are experienced at night time:

  • Think about the dreams you just experienced as soon as you wake up; dreams can be forgotten in a blink of an eye, so by recalling the dream as soon as you wake up, you can help keep them in your short term memory until you manage to write it down or tell your partner.
  • Have a journal or app on hand to keep track of your dream content; writing your dream content down as soon as you experience it can help you to remember the whole dream and not forget a few minutes later. Most people who document dreams tend to leave a piece of paper by their bed.
  • Waking up naturally rather abruptly from an alarm can help you remember the dreams you just experienced; this is because when you wake up from an alarm, you are often snapped out of a dream, so you cannot remember the details.

You can even get into the practice of reminding yourself to recall your dreams before you go to bed; telling yourself that you will remember your dreams and repeating this before you go to sleep can help with dream recalling as it encourages you to remember and wake time to reflect.

back sleeper

Final Thoughts:

So there you have it, everything you need to know about dreams. Dreaming is such an ambiguous topic with so many theories that are hard to be proven right or wrong it is a philosophy that is still being researched today; maybe one day, scientists will have a breakthrough on the concept of dreaming.

Good dreams are good, but recurring bad dreams may be an issue. But practicing good sleep hygiene and seeking advice from a doctor is recommended as they can give you advice, diagnosis, or treatment to help with this kind of sleep disorder.

Dreams are strange, random, and wonderful, the concept of them is mind-boggling, but they’re crucial for a good night’s rest.

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