Dreams are a vast world we go to while sleeping that can be friendly, scary, or just plain bizarre. Maybe you are a person who doesn’t remember your dreams, or maybe you have vivid dreams every night that feel like a form of virtual reality.
Dreams can be pleasant: you can be transported to a party or go on an exciting journey. Nightmares occur sometimes as well: you can dream of being chased by a criminal or being back in high school and taking a final without having studied. Sometimes, dreams can bring bittersweet sadness, like when a loved one who has passed visits in a dream, bringing both comfort and longing. Different cultures around the world uniquely interpret their dreams. Psychologists and sleep experts study the meaning of dreams as well, which we will explore further in this article.
A Dream: What Is It?
A dream is a succession of images, ideas, emotions, and sensations that occur for the most part involuntarily during certain stages of sleep. There are other definitions of the word “dream,” too. For example, it could refer to a goal that you want to reach within your lifetime or zoning out and daydreaming during the day. In this article, we will focus on the dreams that occur after you fall asleep.
Dreams are not necessarily based on real life. As anyone who has dreamed knows, in a dream you can walk through landscapes you have never visited, spend time with friends you haven’t seen in 20 years, or fly high above your hometown, all in just one dream. Dreams have been studied by science, religion, and philosophy throughout history, and yet they are still not fully understood.
We do know that most dreams occur during the rapid-eye-movement stage of sleep, which is also known as the REM cycle. During your REM cycle, the activity in your brain is high, much like when you are awake, which is why your brain concocts stories that can look and feel real. While we sometimes know we are in a dream state, and that what we are experiencing isn’t real – like how lucid dreaming can feel – dreams can feel very real while they are happening and sometimes even after we wake up, especially if they bring on negative emotions. Dreams can occur during other cycles of sleep, but when they do, they tend to be less vivid and memorable than REM dreams.
Some people remember their dreams and others don’t. Various theories exist regarding how dreams effect short term and long term memory. It may be that dreams assist the brain in removing redundant information and shifting short term memories into long term memories.
Studying Dreams: What Do They Mean?
When it comes to understanding the psychology of dreams, there is no single answer: it depends on whom you ask. You’ve probably heard theories about the meanings of common dreams such as flying or teeth falling out, but those theories aren’t universally agreed upon. Some people currently believe that dreams reflect the unconscious mind, as Freud did, representing buried memories and deepest desires. Others believe that dreams can help us solve problems and consolidate memories, or that the images symbolize things that are important to us. Those who take a more biologically based approach might say that dreams can occur simply as the result of random brain activity.
There may also be differences for lucid dreaming. Lucid dreaming occurs when the dreamer is aware that they are in a dream and that they are able to control events within that dream whereas regular dreaming often includes symbols and narratives that are generally outside of the dreamer’s control. Although there are many theories about inducing lucid dreaming and why it happens, not much is known for sure. But any dreaming, including lucid dreams, may include images and events that can be the source of creativity or inspiration that may change the dreamer’s life upon waking.
What Dreams Mean To You
Everyone dreams and our dreams can affect us strongly. Going through a process of dream interpreting can help you determine what aspect it represents in your life. If your dreams are disturbing you, if they’re contributing to another mental concern such as anxiety or post traumatic stress disorder, or if you are simply interested in deciphering the psychology of dreams, dream therapy may be a good option.
Dreams And Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) was an Austrian neurologist who is considered one of the founders of psychoanalysis. Along with many other elements of psychology, Freud is known for his work on dreams. Freud’s writings about dreams are considered groundbreaking because, for the most part, his contemporaries thought that dreams had no significance.
In his book The Interpretation of Dreams (Die Traumdeutung,1899), Freud explained his dream theories at length. Freud believed that dreams were a manifestation of our deepest and sometimes darkest anxieties, as well as our deepest (and again, sometimes darkest) desires. He tied dreams to repressed childhood fixations and memories. He believed that one function of dreams was the release of sexual tension, and his dream interpretations often held sexual meanings. Psychologists now know that sex dreams are normal and common.
Freud’s theory suggests that the actual meaning of dreams might be so unpleasant or taboo to the dreamer that their mind disguised them using less threatening images or symbols. Freud maintained that you could analyze the content of dreams to find their latent, or hidden, meanings. In other words, he believed that during a dream, an individual's thoughts, memories, and feelings were turned into objects and symbols that could be interpreted to discover what the dream meant to that person.
Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams included guidelines that could be used to interpret various dream images. Although many other books on interpreting dreams have been written since, Freud’s study remains a seminal one.
Other Theoretical Approaches To Dreams
Freud’s approach to dream theory was mainly psychoanalytic or psychodynamic because it was based on the idea that the underlying causes for many mental processes, such as dreaming, were essentially unconscious. Further, Freud believed that the purpose of therapy was to bring those unconscious ideas, feelings, or urges into the light of waking life.
Alternate theories of interpreting dreams come from other psychological approaches. In addition to psychodynamic theory, some major approaches to psychology (and dreams) are humanistic, behavioral, cognitive, and neuroscientific. Each orientation views dreams as serving a different purpose, although some theories overlap.
The humanistic perspective psychology asserts that humans are constantly trying to better themselves and reach their full potential. As a result, dreams are interpreted as being about the self of the person having the dream, and how that person deals with external environments and stimuli. Humanistic theorists view the purpose of dreams, in part, as the mind regaining a sense of balance.
The behavioral approach views dreams as a result of environmental stimulation experienced by the dreamer. Since behaviorists do not believe in mental processes that cannot be directly observed, they do not focus on the memories or desires represented by dreams.
The cognitive approach focuses on the internal mental processes that occur while people dream. Cognitive theory explores how individuals understand, think, and know about the world around them. Thus, the cognitive approach to dreaming holds that the purpose of dreams is to process information received throughout the day, and that dreaming is a way to remember, learn, and survive. Like the behavioral approach, the cognitive approach to dreaming does not view dreams as representing repressed memories or desires.
One study published by the journal Brain Science Advances relates dreaming to memory. This study’s evidence suggests the brain goes through a process while we sleep called sleep dependent memory consolidation, and that dreaming is a result of the sleeping brain’s information processing.
The threat simulation theory suggests that threatening concerns can be rehearsed subconsciously when the person is in REM sleep, thus helping them process the threat in their waking life, or real life.
Finally, the neuroscientific approach focuses on biology, or the brain itself. The brain is filled with neurons that fire to process information. The neuroscientific approach to dreaming maintains that REM sleep triggers and releases memories that are stored in the brain. Dreams are not unconscious wishes, therefore, but rather a collection of random memories activated by electrical impulses.
Online Therapy With BetterHelp
Some people may benefit from therapeutic techniques such as dream work, but in today’s busy world, it can be hard to make time for in-person therapy. Online therapy through a service such as BetterHelp is a solution that may be more convenient for you. There’s no need to sit in traffic or take time out of your busy workday to drive to your appointment; you can speak with your licensed therapist from wherever you have an internet connection.
The Effectiveness Of Online Therapy
Studies have shown that online therapy can be an effective treatment for a variety of mental health concerns. In one study, researchers even found that psychotherapy delivered via the internet was just as “good if not better than face-to-face consultations.” Licensed therapists have helped clients overcome different problems using a variety of techniques, including dream work.
Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp therapists from people experiencing similar issues.
“Jammie is an exceptional active listener. She takes what I say and repeats it back to me so I know that she understands what I am saying. That way she helps me interpret what I am feeling which helps me put my anxieties into perspective.”
“Carla is great. She is able to understand my issues and concerns and address them in a very thoughtful manner. She is very timely in her responses and always gives me some things to think about, which I think is important when you are trying to work through things. I very much recommend her.”
Dream interpretation may help people understand a particular dream, as well as the dreaming process.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can Dreams Really Mean Something?
The most recent study of dreams revealed quite a bit about how our brains function while we’re asleep. Research suggests we have different types of dreams based on our mental and emotional states. Therefore, a person’s general brain health can be brought into question based on the duration, frequency, and/or content of their dreams.
Aside from that, however, dreams can also uncover hidden mental illnesses, cognitive declines, or certain physical health problems. Take someone with sleep apnea, for example. Their nights will be constantly interrupted by inadequate breathing, so their dreams might seem ridiculous on account of REM sleep being cut short several times in one cycle. That’s why it’s important to use dream interpretation tools when considering brain function and mood.
Psychologically speaking, dream imagery is often translated to better understand someone’s underlying thoughts and emotions. Some psychologists even think that certain dream events are tied to specific mental health issues. However, studies are still being done with no conclusive evidence discovered yet. For now, there are only theories and most of those theories are founded on Freudian principles of dreams being little more than electrochemical impulses in the brain used for memory consolidation or to help reveal secret desires.
What Does Psychology Say About Dreams?
Psychology both says a lot and doesn’t say too much about dreams. In fact, most psychologists adopt the Freudian Theory of Dreams which assumes all dreams are merely the result of memory consolidation for optimal brain health. Seldom are night visions ever associated with mental health issues like bipolar disorder or a behavior disorder. Instead, they’re considered natural parts of biological cognitive function unless accompanied by other symptoms. In general, however, psychology experts say that dreams are used for problem solving and routine brain activation or maintenance rather than for personality development, mood tracing, or truth finding.
What Are The 3 Types Of Dreams?
There are actually more than 3 different types of dreams, it’s just that dreams are generally organized into three main categories: Passive Imaginations, Illusions, or Hallucinations. Within those categories are several subcategories, including lucid dreams, recurring dreams, fantasies, and nightmares. Here’s how each of the main categories breaks down:
Type 1: Passive Imagination
Another word for passive imagination is daydreaming. It is described as a visually active mind while the brain is fully awake. However, passive imagination dreaming can also occur during sleep. It is often experienced when a person is experiencing excessive daytime sleepiness or traumatic stress.
Type 2: Illusions
Illusionary dreams originate in the subconscious mind. During dreamtime, the brain misinterprets them as realistic images and/or events because of the depth of detail within. Therefore, this type is often associated with mysterious events such as lucid dreaming, perceived psychic abilities, and ESP.
Type 3: Hallucinations
Hallucinogenic dreams are caused by a central neurological stimulus or a captured thought, image, or emotion. They’re sometimes the result of obstructive sleep and/or injuries to the prefrontal cortex of the brain. However, this type of dream is also associated with the deepest stages of sleep wherein rapid eye movement occurs the most.
Do Dreams Reveal Who We Are As A Person?
Dream analysis has revealed that night visions and waking fantasies can reveal many things about a person’s innermost thoughts and feelings. However, those assumptions must be taken at face value because most psychologists still believe that dreams are the result of memory consolidation primarily. Especially during deep sleep, certain dreamtime images and events should not become associated with a person’s innate mood or with the presence of mental illnesses like manic depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder.
Do Dreams Show Your True Feelings?
Studies suggest that certain types of dreams can reveal non-specific details about a person’s true thoughts and emotions, except in rare cases wherein traumatic stress, REM behavior disorder, or obstructive sleep affect brain transmissions in unusual ways. Regardless, dreams are generally assumed to be obtuse representations of our personal perspectives, not necessarily an illustration of what’s really going on.
Moreover, certain dreams may reveal underlying physical, emotional, or mental health problems such as sleep apnea, behavior disorder, or anxiety. In fact, lucid dreaming is commonly associated with high levels of stress around bedtime. Either way, dreams are the brain’s way of consolidating memory, processing new information, dealing with stress, and integrating growth.
Can Dreams Be Warnings?
Although many dreams are quickly forgotten, they can still be perceived as warning signs of different problems in a person’s life. Lucid dreaming and different types of nightmares are especially alarming, as they’re common symptoms of stress disorder and/or sleep apnea. However, people with no other symptoms can also experience cautionary dreams because of the way the brain functions.
Dreams are generally assumed to be for memory consolidation primarily, but some studies suggest they could mean much more. Certain details of a person’s dreams each night may be their brain’s way of pushing them into a specific direction to avoid dangers or fears. Different details may also be encouraging, uplifting, or confidence-building.
Are Bad Dreams A Sign?
Bad dreams are often a sign of an underlying mental or physical health issue. In fact, nightmares and lucid dreams have been linked to conditions such as sleep apnea and bipolar disorder in some studies. During certain stages of REM, behavior disorder and/or breathing obstructions can affect what the sleeper experiences (and what they feel when they wake up).
That’s because nightmares and lucid dreaming are also connected to an interrupted sleep cycle. When a person’s stages of sleep are cut short, their brain begins to react accordingly. Just think of someone who has been woken up prematurely. They’re usually cranky and confused when they open their eyes. The reason is because they were mid-dream, so their minds grapple with conscious and subconscious stimuli until the correct reality is established.
Bad dreams that occur during deep sleep are a little different, however. Those are often considered more important and telling because they involve memory consolidation, subconscious motivation, and even messages from God. Therefore, it’s generally recommended that people try to remember their good and bad dreams, and then use interpretation tools to understand the true meanings behind them.
What Does It Mean When You Dream About Someone Sexually?
Sexual dreams are quite common. In fact, they generally occur during the deepest stages of sleep, especially when REM, behavior disorder, and/or sleep apnea collide. Since dreams are often viewed as the brain’s primary memory consolidation tool, most sexual dreams mean very little about a person’s true desires. Dreams about sex may instead be a sign of underlying stress, anxiety, or even the result of excessive daytime sleepiness or lucid dreaming.
NOTE: A person’s interpretation of the meaning behind a sexual dream typically hinges on their views of sex. For example, if the dreamer sees sexuality as empowering, then their sexual dreams most likely communicate strength and stability.
Why Do I Have Crazy Dreams?
People have unusual dreams for many different reasons. In some cases, it’s the result of latent fears, stress, and anxiety at bedtime. Strange dreams can also be the result of underlying physical or mental health problem such as sleep apnea and bipolar disorder. So, if the dreamer isn’t suffering through interrupted REM, behavior disorder may be the primary diagnosis.
With the right treatment, sleep can become a relaxing experience again. However, those who have frequent nightmares should seek medical attention as soon as possible because that could be a sign of something more troubling.
What Do Dreams Signify?
According to the Freudian Theory of Dreams (FTD), which is the foundation upon which most experts draw their opinions, dreams are imaginary visual escapades caused by our brain’s overactive nighttime activities. Theoretically, dreaming people experience different things while they sleep because of their subconscious thoughts and feelings. Thus, while the brain consolidates memory overnight, it also discharges some of its secrets, especially in the deepest sleep stages.
How Do You Have A Lucid Dream?
It’s not easy to experience lucid dreams. In fact, some might even say that lucid dreaming is rare. That’s because it requires lots of patience and skill, plus none of the suggested methods are guaranteed to work. However, one of the most effective techniques involves a tactic called “dream incubation.”
Dream incubation is the practice of focusing one’s thoughts on a specific image or emotion prior to falling asleep. It’s much like planting a subconscious seed to motivate certain neurophysiological reactions, and it works for a lot of people. To activate more successful dream incubation and experience more frequent lucidity, calm the mind before bed with some mindful meditation techniques.
Is Lucid Dreaming Rare?
A few studies suggest that dream lucidity is merely the result of interrupted REM, behavior disorder, or physical health problems such as sleep apnea or chronic fatigue. Others think it signifies something subconscious and emotional - an untapped well of personal knowledge. Either way, these types of dreams can be extremely alarming but they’re not as uncommon as once believed. In fact, research shows that nearly 55% of the population has experienced a lucid dream at least once. However, experiencing repetitive lucid dreams is what’s the rarest of all. Only about 23% of people report memorable dream lucidity more than once a month.
Can You Lucid Dream Every Night?
Nearly 55% of the population experiences dream lucidity at least one time while they’re alive. However, only about a quarter of people report having lucid dreams more than once a month. Therefore, this type of dream is relatively rare. That means most people don’t have them every night.
If someone has lucid dreams too frequently, then they’re probably not getting into deep REM often enough. That, in turn, can be extremely detrimental to their physical and mental health. Sleep, dreams - they’re supposed to go hand-in-hand. So, see a doctor if lucid dreaming happens more than once or twice per month.
Can You Die In A Lucid Dream?
People cannot die while having a lucid dream. However, their reactions to the dream may have serious consequences. For example, a person can experience a heart attack or go into shock because of their extremely realistic dreamtime visuals. This is especially concerning for people with sleep apnea, bipolar disorder, or nervous system sensitivity. In fact, some studies show a link between dream lucidity and an inability to reach REM. With the right treatment, sleep can become more relaxing and less terrifying over time.
Are dreams based on real feelings?
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