How dreams work

Dreaming has remained a fascinating, but not fully understood subject for thousands of years, throughout this time many experts have developed their own dream theories. And although we aren’t exactly sure why we dream and if there’s any real meaning behind them, new research is helping to provide clarity and a greater understanding.

Oneriology is the term to describe the scientific study of dreams, according to their research most dreaming occurs during REM (rapid eye movement) stages of our sleep, especially when experiencing more vivid and bizarre dreams.

During this stage of sleep our brain activity is high and resembles that of being awake — meaning our entire brain: from the brainstem to the cortex is active when we are dreaming. REM sleep typically occurs after 90 minutes of being asleep, however, achieving this stage of deep, restful sleep can be a common problem for many of us due to multiple external factors such as: stress, stimulants, or blue light exposure before bed.

Some experts believe that dreams exist to help solve problems in our lives, incorporate memories and process emotions. Therefore, going to bed with an unsolved thought may result in finding a solution, or simply waking up feeling better about the situation because some dreams may help our brains process thoughts and the events of the day.

Furthermore, problem solving with our dreams or finding greater meaning in them can be achieved through defining the symbols presented in our dreams— symbols are the language of dreams, and these symbols can invoke feelings or ideas often having a profound, deeper meaning than words can describe.

Dream dictionary is one tool that was designed to help people interpret their dreams. Next time you have a vivid dream, try using this as a guide to see if your dream(s) had any significance to your life.

Have you ever realized you were in a dream while it was happening? Better yet, have you ever taken control of your dream and changed the plot? This is known as lucid dreaming, and research has shown that it can occur when there is increased activity in parts of the brain that are usually not active during sleep. This often happens spontaneously, however you can train yourself to become better at it.

What about nightmares? I’m sure we have all experienced one of those, especially traumatizing childhood nightmares with memories of waking up in a panic running to our parents room. Experts believe the cause of nightmares can actually come from multiple sources:

  • Fear
  • Conflict
  • Stress
  • Drug abuse
  • Trauma
  • Emotional problems
  • Medication/drug use

"If you have a certain nightmare over and over again,

your subconscious may be trying to tell you something. Listen to it."

Many correlative studies have researched dream content, however in most cases correlation doesn’t always equal causation. For example, environment, daily life and stressful situations can induce parts of a dream. That goes without saying external factors may be affecting our dreams, but what about internal factors?

Looking inward: take Sigmund Freud’s theory, an infamous neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis who developed a logical theory in the 1900’s on the interpretation of dreams, known as “Freudian theory.”

Freudian theory describes dreaming as “a window into our subconscious” hence, a way to understand the unconscious mind. He hypothesized that our dreams represented manifestations of one’s deepest desires and anxieties, often relating to repressed childhood memories or obsessions. Furthermore, he believed that virtually every dream topic, regardless of its content, represented the release of sexual tension.

As stated in Wikipedia: “opinions about the meaning of dreams have varied and shifted through time and culture. Many endorse the Freudian theory of dreams — that dreams reveal insight into hidden desires and emotions. Other prominent theories include those suggesting that dreams assist in memory formation, problem solving, or simply are a product of random brain activation.”

This theory revolutionized the understanding of dreams, however in more recent years, it has been challenged by many modern theories, such as the “New Neurocognitive Theory” — dream expert G. William Domhoff says, “dreaming isn’t tied to any one brain state”, after more than 50 years of dream research and study, Domhoff concluded “dreaming likely serves no adaptive function in evolutionary sense.

According to Domhoff, dreams originate in the same parts of the brain now known to be most active during mind wandering aka daydreaming — the transition to dreaming occurs in stages as we stop paying attention to the external world. Humans spend 20 to 30 percent of their waking hours in this mind-drifting state. Neurophysiologically, it’s the same process that occurs during sleep, when sleep-inducing neurochemicals provide an additional boost.

His theory compares dreaming to daydreaming, concluding that dreams are an “accidental byproduct of our waking cognitive abilities”, that probably don’t have much meaning behind them, as goes for the same with daydreaming.

Do you believe in Domhoff’s theory, or do you think there is a deeper significance to dreaming?

Well the truth is.. dreams are not fully understood and we don’t have enough evidence to support whether they have a purpose or not. We are slowly just understanding how they work, but are far from understanding why. Therefore, it’s up to your interpretation.

People develop their own belief system based on experience, this is why some think dreams serve no purpose, whereas others believe dreams have meaning. What type of dreaming experiences have you had? Are you someone that remembers your dreams, or someone who doesn’t dream at all — these factors are what build your beliefs.

Overall, dreams can play an important role in your life depending on how you look at them. Based on some of this research, dreaming may be a look into the unconscious mind. The brain is a complex organ, it’s critical to life, but still vastly unexplored. Just like the depths of the ocean, there is so much more to be discovered.

You can start exploring your dreams by educating yourself. Try researching symbols from a vivid dream using the dream dictionary or a similar reliable resource to learn more about the significance of your dreams, and what they might be trying to tell you.

The consensus is: we may not know everything, but what we do know for sure is that dreams are a natural part of life, existing within the sleep cycle and just like every other function in the body, it probably serves a huge purpose with significant meaning — in my opinion, we just haven’t fully discovered it yet.


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