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Why Do We Dream?

23rd January 2020

Slumber Centre

The human brain is a mysterious thing; it has for generations and will continue to do so leave many questions unanswered. The truth is many researchers are still unsure as why and how the brain operates like it does. One function of the brain that continues to leave many baffled is dreaming, although we now have an abundance of studies on sleep we can’t be 100% sure how and why we sleep.

Visualisation of dreaming

One of the most talked about/documented theories since the turn of the last century was from Sigmund Freud, published in his book ‘The interpretation of Dreams’. Freud believed dreams were like a window to our unconscious minds, essentially wishes we held while we were awake, but expressed while we were asleep.

Most wishes are relatively innocent, therefore the dreams picture the wish just as it is, however some wishes are unacceptable therefore our dreams have to censor them. As a result the wishes are suppressed by our conscious waking mind and turned into a dream that is often bizarre or unrecognisable.

Since Freud’s famous theory scientists have discovered how to study dreams and as a result many new theories now exist, although there are still many unanswered questions about what dreams symbolise, if they provide insight into our lives and most importantly why we have them in the first place.

What are dreams?

Dreams are hallucinations, essentially stories and images our mind creates during certain stages of our sleep. Our most vivid dreams occur during the REM (rapid eye movement) sleep cycle, as this is when the brain is at its most active, although dreams can occur anytime during sleep. It’s commonly accepted that we all dream, with many experts believing we dream at least four – six times a night, although the frequency in which dreams are remembered varies from person to person.

Why do we dream?

Although many theories exist about why we dream, no one can be 100% sure. Some believe dreams are necessary for mental, physical and emotional health, while others believe they serve no purpose. Despite this many studies have shown the importance of dreams on our health, one particular study found those who were not allowed to dream experienced health side effects such as anxiety, tension, weight gain and depression.

Some common theories on why we sleep are as follows:

  • Restoration - A common theory is dreams help you store important memories and things you have learnt. Researchers believe dreams will process the memories and remove any deemed as unimportant by sorting through complicated thoughts and feelings. Studies have shown that sleep helps store memories, although how much affect dreams have on memory storage is unknown, it’s possible dreams help the brain store information more efficiently while blocking out stimuli that could interfere with learning and memory processing.
  • Are you your own therapist? - Researchers believe it might be possible your dreams are a way of tackling emotional dramas in your life. The reason for this is your brain operates at more of an emotional level when you are awake; therefore it is possible your brain might make connections on your emotions that your conscious self wouldn’t necessarily make.
  • Threat training - You might have heard of the fight or flight reflex known as amygdala. Amygdala fires at more of a rapid pace during REM sleep, than it does when you are aware – it basically fires in the same way that replicates what would happen if you were threatened. Based on this some researchers believe it is possible we might use our dreams to practise the fight or flight response.
  • Creative inspiration - Have you ever woken up with a great idea or feeling inspired? Some researchers believe dreaming can help facilitate our creative tendencies. Many artists have accredited dreams as a main inspiration for their most creative work. During the waking hours we use a logic filter which can limit our creativity, whereas in our sleep our ideas have no restrictions.

What can influence our dreams?

  • Food - You may be aware of the old wives’ tale of eating cheese before bedtime will give you nightmares, but is there any truth in this? There is no concrete evidence to suggest that eating cheese before bedtime will give you nightmares, however some research shows that what we eat can influence our dreams. Certain foods can affect your mood such as high-carb foods which can give you a quick energy boost; however after a while they can make you feel down. The general rule of thumb is any food that can affect you while you are awake can affect you while you are asleep. Certain foods might also cause digestion issues which could make you wake up in the night, therefore having an impact on your dreams.
  • General health - Mental health disorders and other mood related disorders can have a significant impact on our sleep. Research has shown these type of disorders can trigger disturbing and negative dreams, it is also suggested certain medicines used to treat such conditions are associated with a higher risk of having nightmares.
  • Pregnancy - Experts believe being pregnant can also be a catalyst for vivid dreams due to increased hormone levels that influences the way the brain processes emotions and thoughts.
  • Sleep - This might seem obvious but the biggest influence on our dreams is the amount of sleep you are getting. If you are sleep deprived this can make your brain more active when you finally go into REM sleep. This means you are more likely to have more vivid dreams which you might recall when you wake.
  • Sensory stimulation - Real-life sounds while we sleep can influence our dream story lines, for instance a dog barking outside could create a dream about a family pet. It is even possible to use artificial sounds to help create the type of dream you want to have. Some people use specialist apps or sound clips to help inspire a certain type of dream they want to achieve. There was also a study to see if smell could influence dreams by introducing either a positive or negative smell while participants entered into REM sleep. The results found that participants who had positive smells achieved positive dreams, while those who had negative smells introduced resulted in negative dreams.

Why can’t I remember my dreams?

One factor of dreaming that has baffled many is why dreams are easily forgotten. One philosophy some believe is if we remembered all of our dreams, it’s possible we could struggle to distinguish between dreams and reality for our memories. Others believe we don’t forget our dreams, they are simply stored in our memory waiting to be recalled, which could explain why we sometimes remember a dream later in the day.

A reason with more scientific founding is our body may shut down systems in our brain that are responsible for creating memories during REM sleep. This could be the reason why we are more likely to remember the dreams just before we wake as more brain activity starts to be turned on.

Is there a way I can remember more dreams?

The process for remembering your dreams if often referred to as dream recall. Many believe if you are a sound sleeper you are less likely to recall your dreams, which leaves many feeling like they haven’t dreamt in the night which most likely is not the case, you simply can’t remember them. There are however some tips you can try to help improve your dream recall:

  • Set a reminder - This might seem a little far-fetched, however it is believed if you want to remember your dreams you need to go to bed and make the conscious decision that you will remember your dream. It is definitely worth a try, so tonight before you go to bed remind yourself that you want to remember your dream and hopefully in the morning you will.
  • Don’t set an alarm - Worth saving this technique for the weekend as we don’t want you to sleep in for work. One way to remember your dream is to wake up naturally without an alarm; your brain will start to focus on the sound of the alarm rather than your dream.
  • Pen at the ready - You are more likely to remember your dream when you start to wake up, therefore it’s a great idea to have a pad and pen ready next to your bed to write down some pointers to remember the dream. This can also be very interesting to look back on in the future to see if you have any patterns with your dreams.

What are lucid dreams?

Many of us will have had the experience of dreaming and realising you are dreaming, this is known as a lucid dream. It is believed lucid dreams are caused by increased activation of parts of the brain which are normally suppressed during sleep. Lucid dreaming occurs between REM sleep and being awake.

Although many experts believe it is better to let your dreams occur naturally, some lucid dreamers may have the ability to influence the direction of their dreams by changing the story, which does sound a little like the plot from a science fiction novel.

Why do we have nightmares?

Although you are more likely to have nightmares as a child, it is also very common for adults to experience nightmares, but why do we have them?

Nightmares are more likely to occur during the REM sleep cycle; they are disturbing dreams, vividly realistic and can cause you to wake suddenly with your heart pounding from fear. Although there are common themes for nightmares such as the feeling of not being able to run away from danger, the themes/experiences we have vary from person to person.

Although usually spontaneous, nightmares can be triggered by a number of other factors such as medication, food, mental health issues and sleep deprivation. If you suffer from regular nightmares it’s advised to consult a medical professional as there are treatments available.

What do my dreams mean?

A man falling in a dream

The meaning of dreams is one of the most discussed and widely debated topics, meaning there are a number of theories on what our dreams mean. The difficulty is that dreams and their meanings are subjective; for instance if two people had an identical dream they could both take a different meaning from it. One of the biggest debates is whether our dreams are connected to our real emotions and thoughts, or are they simply unusual stories that don’t relate to our normal lives.

Many do believe however that our dreams reflect our own underlying feelings and thoughts such as fears, desires and concerns. Based on this it could be possible to analyse our dreams, with the aim to shine some light on our inner feelings and life in general.

One of the strangest things about dreams is the possibility of common dreams that many of us have experienced in one form or another. This could simply be due to us having similar experiences in life, or possibly a more complex connection that we could all share. Some of the most common dreams and their believed meanings can be found below:


Experiencing the sensation of flying in some form or another is a common dream many of us have experienced, which usually occurs as a result of lucid dreaming. The dream could suggest that you are on top of things ‘flying high’ so to speak, or maybe you have gained a new perspective on things. It could also mean you are a strong willed person in general, on the other hand if you experience difficulty maintaining your flight, something or someone could be in your way.

Running to nowhere

This is the feeling of running but you don’t appear to be going anywhere or your legs won’t move but you want to run. This dream means you are possibly stressed and are juggling too many plates at once; you simply can’t ever get ahead.


A common dream experience many of us all share is the sensation of free falling and then waking up. This dream is believed to go hand in hand with anxiety and insecurities. You might feel like something in your life is out of control or you feel like you are failing at something.

Teeth dropping out

This dream can happen in many different ways but essentially you would experience in some form or another missing teeth or them falling out. Many believe our teeth are related to our sense of power and ability to communicate. The sensation of losing teeth means our communication is hampered, our appearance is affected and therefore our sense of power is reduced as you may not be able to speak your mind.

Naked in public

Whether you are at work or in front of an audience the idea of being naked is a terrifying prospect, to then experience this in a dream makes it all too real for our comfort! Experts believe this dream means you are either trying to hide something or you aren’t prepared for something. If however you are naked in your dream in public and no on notices this could suggest you are comfortable with who you are.