Our World of Dreams

The dream world represents an amalgamation of present experiences, ideas, and people, smushed into a bizarre lump that somehow makes sense in the moment you live it (or rather, dream it). Perhaps, your dreams encompass topics you’ve never consciously thought about, resulting in a host of strange scenarios, the details of which are blurred the following day. This particular logic that appears so justified in the 1-2 hours of REM cycle quickly dissipates upon waking- leaving you to ruminate about how such things got there to begin with. The universal peculiarity of dreams begs the following questions: why are dreams so darn strange, and why do we have them in the first place? Do they serve a purpose? And if they do, why do we have so much trouble remembering them (some folks, more than others)? Throughout this blog post, I plan to discuss these points, and while I may not be able to provide precise answers, I will certainly give you something to think about. 

Dreams have been a fascinating topic for centuries, but their purpose still remains somewhat distorted-despite the fact that nearly everyone dreams. Yes, that’s right– it is extremely unlikely that you do not dream, although you may not be able to readily recall those dreams. In fact, studies show that even animals may experience dreaming. Most of our dreaming occurs during REM sleep (Restless Eye Movement). When we are in REM, our brain stem works to put us in a state of temporary paralysis called REM atonia, which stops us from acting out our dreams as we sleep. In an experiment done on cats, researchers removed the signal which initiates sleep paralysis and observed moving and complex behaviors during REM sleep. Supposedly, the cats were acting out whatever cats dream about (fish?). As Rafael Pelayo says, we are not alone in our world of dreams.


Why do we forget dreams so easily?

Most people have trouble recalling dreams unless they are actively thinking about those dreams upon waking (or shortly after). For some, keeping a journal or talking about their dreams can increase the likelihood of remembering. It turns out that if you wake people in the middle of REM sleep, there is about an 80% chance they will be able to report a dream- even those of you who are absolutely positive that you *never* dream. One theory is that we are not meant to remember dreams. REM takes up about 1-2 hours of our total sleep time, so if we remembered everything our brains came up with in that amount of time, there'd be no room for anything else! Forgetting dreams might give us some insight into understanding the consolidation of memory and even the nature of certain neurological conditions like dementia. 


What is the purpose of dreams?


 Dr. Matthew Walker, a neuroscientist at UC Berkeley, hypothesizes that dreaming may help us process emotionally painful experiences to gradually reduce associated pain over time. Evidence for this theory points to the lack of noradrenaline (a chemical related to stress) released during REM sleep paired with activation from certain brain areas relating to emotional processing and memory. In other words, dreaming may help us relive negative events without having to endure the otherwise unrelenting emotional baggage. 

In a study investigating this theory, participants were shown emotional imagery and then went to sleep. Upon waking, participants viewed the imagery again. The results from this study indicated a decreased emotional response in participants who were shown the emotional imagery after waking compared to subjects who did not sleep. What’s more, the sleep group’s response post slumber correlated with the amount of time spent in REM sleep! Perhaps this is why traumatic events, anxieties, and day-time ruminations pop up so often in our dreams; our body is literally trying to save us from our own emotional discomfort. 

Dr. Robert Stickgold, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, claims that dreaming is a mechanism used to modify memory and emotions from earlier experiences. This theory may explain why we commingle new and old memories in most of our dreams. In other words, dreams help us adapt to our shifting relationship with the world around us as time passes. 


Dreams help with memory function

When we are asleep, there is a large-scale restructuring of memories including interconnection between memories (new and old) and forgetting unimportant memories. This process results in memory consolidation, which helps us function better after a night of sleep. The connection of sleep and memory also accounts for difficulty thinking and functioning after little sleep. Memory functions are also reflected in dream content. Studies using positron emission tomography highlight that certain brain regions activated upon learning a certain task are then reactivated during sleep the following night. 


Dreams & Creativity 

Dreams have been the source of inspiration for many artists and creative thinkers. Countless song lyrics, dances, and novels have been inspired by the very images we unconsciously create during REM. New ideas may arise due to the often surreal composition of scenarios present in dreams. Dreams may also provide insight into things we ruminate over during waking periods through a very special kind of deconstruction and analysis. 




Many of us struggle with nightmares, which can be particularly disturbing if they are recurring. Your first instinct may be to avoid thinking about the bad dreams, and you may even dread going to sleep at night. Here are some tips to decrease nightmares and improve your relationship with sleep. 

  1. The first thing you should do when nightmares become an issue is to combat any external factors that may be contributing to sleep disturbance. For example: loud snoring (sometimes earplugs or a fan can help if you sleep in the same room as a snorer), outside noises (negotiate quiet hours, close windows, etc.), and general discomfort (uncomfortable  mattress, bright lighting, itchy sheets). These factors may not seem related to dreaming, but they are more likely to wake you up in the middle of a dreamsleep, which makes it more likely that you will remember the disturbing content. There are theories that dreaming may also be a sign of physical ailment: for example dreams of drowning may indicate obstructive sleep apnea. 

Additionally, you can be more likely to have nightmares if you go to bed with an overfull stomach and experience heartburn. 

  1. If the above tips do not provide any relief, some scientists believe that you can gradually shift the content of your dreams by attempting the following:
    1. Dream Rehearsal: Involves thinking about your recurring nightmares while awake and imagining how the dreams might turn out differently. Specifically, you might think about what part of a dream could change to make it less distressing. Just before bed, remind yourself of those alternate dream scenarios. The idea is if you rethink your dreams enough, they might start to alter themselves. After all, you are the creator of your dreams. 
    2. Lucid Dreaming: Occurs when you become aware that you are dreaming while remaining in a dream state. 
      1. Some believe that lucid dreaming can be learned via reality testing. This is the practice of looking at an object in detail multiple times throughout the day (e.g your leg). The goal is that when you are in that dream state, you might notice the difference. Once you recognize that you are dreaming, you can shift the narrative of dreams through lucid dreaming.
    3. Take psychological measures: recurring dreams usually come from thoughts that are recurring. The more we think about dreams and their content, the more likely we are to see those dreams again. Understanding that dreams may be representations of emotional issues may be helpful. Speak to a therapist about what might be at the root of your dreams.


Ending Note:

Try it. Get a dream Journal. Keep it by your bed. Put little stickers on it or whatever might make it fun. When you wake up, hang on to the lingering thread of your dream before you lose it. See what your mind can come up with when you aren’t paying conscious attention.