What Do Dreams Mean & Why Do We Have Them?

Dreams and what they mean have been a common fascination of all civilizations. For centuries people have racked their brains trying to uncover the mystery behind dreams. In very early civilizations, many believed that dreams were a medium between our earthly world and the world of the gods. It was the Greeks and Romans that were completely convinced that dreams had prophetic powers. In other words, they thought that dreams could help accurately predict the future.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung (who was an early student of Freud) theorised some of the most well-known explanations of dreaming. These theories centred around dreams being a part of repressed longing - meaning that dreaming allowed us to sift through unresolved and repressed wishes.

Since then, science has moved forward with many theories being explored. In this article, we take a look at why we dream, what happens when we dream and whether these dreams hold any significance.

Dreaming woman

Why Do We Dream?

Our dreaming activity mostly occurs during the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) cycle of sleep. During this period of sleep, our eyes will move quickly in different directions and this usually happens 90 minutes after you fall asleep.

The “chatter” that goes on in our heads throughout the day, our thoughts and feelings, continues as we drift off to sleep. Once we ever REM sleep, our “chatter” turns into dreams as we start to visualise this “chatter” into symbols and metaphors instead of words.

Parts of our brain become dormant as we sleep (such as the prefrontal cortex), which is responsible for rational thought. The amygdala part of our brain which controls emotions goes into hyper-drive as we descend into REM sleep.

Throughout the dreaming process, we continue our thoughts about the day - our achievements, our desires, our mistakes etc. This results in dream thoughts that are significantly more focused and profound since our dreams provide a metaphoric commentary on ourselves.

What Influences My Dreams?

What happens to us while we are awake can have an effect on our dreams when we eventually fall asleep.

Health Conditions

One major factor in the influence of our dreams is our overall health. Sleep deprivation (as little as one or two nights without sleep) can play a large role in how vivid our dreams will become. Sleep deprivation can make our brains much more active when we finally drift off into REM sleep. The likelihood of having vivid dreams will increase dramatically the longer you go without sleep. You’re also more likely to recall these dreams shortly after waking. The majority of dreams you will not remember. Some may be fuzzy while others, such as vivid dreams, you’ll closely remember due to how intense they felt.

Being pregnant is also a factor that may influence the likelihood of vivid dreams. The increased hormone production during pregnancy can affect the way your brain processes thoughts and emotions. This can often lead to intense and vivid dreams where you are likely to remember them upon awakening. Pregnancy may also cause insomnia, which as stated earlier, can cause vivid dreams due to the lack of sleep.

Mental health disorders can also play a major role in influencing your dreams. Depression, anxiety and other mood-related conditions can cause intense vivid dreams as well as sometimes disturbing or negative ones such as nightmares.

Foods

There’s a lot of contrasting information regarding foods and how they influence dreams. But what is clear is that some foods may be a pre-cursor for vivid dreams or increase the likelihood of remembering dreams.

Any food that affects your waking mood such as high-carb foods or high-sugar foods will more than likely affect your unconscious mood too. The crash from an overload of sugar can wreak havoc on your mood. Taking this mood into bed could carry over into your sleep.

A study from the International Journal of Psychophysiology concluded that ingesting Tabasco sauce while eating dinner noticeably disturbed the participant’s sleep. The food elevated the body’s temperature which caused a disturbance in the brain and caused nightmares.

Chocolate, cakes and biscuits also disturb sleep, but from the high sugar and caffeine content. A study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that 31% of people who were tested reported bizarre or disturbing dreams after eating cookies and cake. So before you tuck into a midnight snack, think about how it may affect your sleep and dreams.

Daily Activities

While to first two influences are the causation of increased dreaming or nightmares, daily exercise is found to cut down the amount of time you dream.

A good night’s sleep is often attributed to fewer nightmares and dreams overall. Gaining a peaceful sleep is aided by performing cardio exercises in the morning (such as running or swimming) which will help you fall asleep quicker at night than if you didn’t exercise at all.

Fitness enthusiasts generally spend less time in REM sleep (the lightest stage of sleep) and more time in deep sleep resulting in dreaming less and certainly remembering fewer dreams in the process.

With stress and anxiety playing a part in how often we dream or have nightmares, using exercise to reduce these levels should help reduce the number of nightmares you endure.

dreaming

What Do Dreams Mean?

Dreams are often fleeting. Many of the dreams we have cannot be recalled, but for the few that can, they tend to be very unpredictable as though a 5-year old is writing a screenplay.

You may find yourself taking a stroll through your childhood village, only to end up inside Wembley Stadium. Turn the corner to find Daniel Radcliffe selling Wizard hats and for you to then bump into an old friend you haven’t thought about for 20 years.

The storylines tend to not make sense, and trying to find meaning in these dreams is like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

But that hasn’t put people off trying to provide meaning. Many theories have been batted around over hundreds of years. The ancient Egyptians had seers who were trained in the art of dreaming. They saw it as another form of ‘seeing’, and seers helped nations plan battles and make stately decisions.

The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that dreams were predictions of the future as well as visitations by the dead.

But why do dreams play out the way they do? Why do we continue to dream about having not handed in our final dissertation at university? Why do we dream that we can suddenly fly? Why is it that we dream about being chased for seemingly hours on end?

While it’s more exciting to think that seers could predict the future through dreaming, new studies have begun to suggest that dreams are not as profound as others once thought.

A 2007 study saw that dreams were used as a sort of memory dump. Clearing the day’s useless memories and storing the perceived valuable ones. Working with anaesthetized mice, the researchers found that the neocortex fires during this. This in turn signals the hippocampus to upload whatever is stored in there to short-term memory so new information can be gathered the next day. Following this process, the neocortex decides what of that short term memory should be transferred over to long-term memory, with the rest being discarded. Much of this information is snatched up, seemingly at random, and pieced together to form our dreams.