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Why do we dream when we sleep?

All of a sudden your tooth is loose. You stop the conversation that you’re having with your boss to press it with your tongue and sure enough it wiggles. You touch it with your fingers and it comes out clean, like a tomato plucked from the vine. You are overcome with the unsettling feeling they’re all loose and you awaken. 

Thankfully all your teeth are firmly rooted in your mouth. It was just a nightmare.

Sound familiar? That’s because it’s one of the most common dreams. In fact about 30 thousand Americans per month look to Google for answers as to why they’re having teeth falling out dreams.

And now you’re here looking for some answers. Luckily, we have a few. 

Why do we dream?

Sigmund Freud thought that dreams fulfilled our innermost wishes and unconscious desires.

But these days, experts have a more pragmatic view about the role of dreams. Today, sleep researchers see dreaming as a way of organizing our thoughts and interactions with the world and problem solving.

Harvard psychologist Dierdre Barretthat found that the illogical and fantastical aspects of dreams can help you solve real world problems. Dreams allow us to think outside of the box and find the solutions you wouldn’t normally find through our problem solving methods in waking life.

Scientists haven’t yet pinpointed exactly why humans and some other species dream. But they have a pretty good idea about how dreaming helps us to interact with the world. And it turns out that sleep researchers believe we spend most of our REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep time dreaming.

It’s easy to understand the restorative role of sleep on our bodies, but what purpose does dreaming actually serve?

According to Dr Robert Stickgold, Director of the Center for Sleep and Cognition at Harvard Medical School: “We dream most vividly and most intensely when we're in REM sleep. But NREM, which is just short for non-REM, also has very high rates of dreaming ranging from 50% to almost 80% of the time. When researchers have woken people up from non-REM sleep, they get some kind of dream report. 

Dr. Stickgold said, “Although they tend to be more mundane and more thought-like, as the night goes on, they start to look more and more like REM dreams. So, by the end of the night, if you collect non-REM dreams, it's really hard to tell from reading them [via EEG analysis], whether they're from REM or non-REM.” 

What do dreams mean?

After waking up from a crazy night of dreaming you might wonder: What do my dreams mean? There are many different resources that you can use to analyze the meaning of dreams. There are even online dream dictionaries where you can type in themes, colors, feelings, and other parts of your dream and it will give you some sort of reason why you might have dreamed those things.

Most people find that issues in their life are manifesting in their dreams. If you think about all the problem solving and emotional resets your brain does during sleep, it makes sense. 

According to Dr. Stickgold, throughout the day, as we come into contact with the world our brains tag our experiences, putting a figurative sticky note on thoughts and experiences to be processed in a dream state.

“We think it puts a physical, chemical tag onto some of the connections that make up a memory and identify it as something that is in need of further processing,” Dr. Stickgold said. “It's something for which the brain has calculated it doesn't have as much information as it wants. It's the things you sleep on.”

“It's certain types of problems that the brain seems to be really good at processing when you sleep on them,” he said.

“They usually are situations where you have an excess of information, rather than a deficit. You have too much information and you don't know quite how to put it all together.”

Interpreting dreams

When you want to know what your dreams mean, there are ways to make this process easier. First, you should write down everything you remember the minute you wake up. You can keep a dream diary by your bed and write down all the details while it is fresh in your memories. If you find it hard to write with all the sleep inertia present right after waking, a voice recorder can also work well.

Many sleepers get discouraged about writing down their dreams, because they can be odd or frightening. For example, if you dream about murdering someone, what does that really mean? We can assure you it doesn’t mean you’re harboring murder fantasies, since the content of dreams is largely symbolic rather than literal. Don’t get dissuaded by your dreams, just write down the details and see what your subconscious mind is trying to say. 

During the day you have an organized process to your thoughts. However, at night, our dreams rarely make sense. In fact, our dreams can be all over the place. So, some scientists believe that dreams are a way to emotionally reset our brains. Without regular dreaming, our mental health (and indeed, physical health) would be in jeopardy. 

Recent research about sleep and dreams to support these theories.  Scientists see that our brains use dreams as a way to emotionally destress the events of the day. These emotional parts of the brain are thought to trigger dreams versus logical areas. 

Why are REM dreams more whimsical?

You sleep in stages throughout the night, and after the final stage, you find yourself in REM sleep. During this state, your body self imposes a state of paralysis, so that you don’t move or physically act out your dreams. 

REM sleep produces the most abstract, fantastical, and vivid dreams. Almost 25% of your nightly sleep is spent in REM. Your brain is also the most active during this sleep stage. So, since dreaming is one of the largest side effects of REM sleep, it makes sense that most of your whimsical dreaming is done in this sleep stage. 

Why are SWS dreams more mundane?

It is not just possible, but common to dream in NREM sleep. Throughout the night the stages of NREM sleep get shorter and shorter, allowing for even less time to dream. 

There is also substantially less brain activity through this stage of sleep. So, you have shorter NREM stages overnight with minimal activity. These shortened sleep stages coupled with lowered activity is why NREM dreams aren’t as extravagant and in-depth. 

What is the association between dreaming and sleep deprivation?

Every person needs an adequate amount of sleep to make it through their day. Sleep is a critical process to recharge your body mentally, physically, and emotionally. So, what happens when you’re sleep-deprived? 

If your body is suffering from the effects of sleep deprivation, there’s a good chance that you’re suffering from REM sleep deprivation as well. During REM, your brain makes memories, resets the emotions of the day, and balances our overall mood. In fact, if you don’t get adequate REM sleep, you could find yourself suffering from migraines. 

Sleep apnea and dreams can also lead to a similar experience. When you stop breathing in the middle of your sleep, you wake yourself up in your sleep cycle. If you don’t complete your sleep cycle, you might not get to the REM sleep stage.

How does dreaming help with traumatic events and problem solving?

Sometimes, our dreams are seen as a way for us to work through difficult events in our lives. There are even some therapists who use dream interpretation in psychotherapy. When you’re asleep, your brain functions at a higher emotional level. You’re not able to temper feelings or change thought processes. So, your brain can fully experience situations you’d never allow in an awakened state. 

The amygdala of the brain is also the most active when you are dreaming. This is your body’s fight-or-flight response system. There are theories that the amygdala is more active while you’re sleeping than while you are awake. 

Problem solving is another area where dreams are useful. There are times when we get stuck on problems in our daily lives, and we just can’t find a clear solutions. Dreaming allows our minds to brainstorm in a deconstructive way and come up with solutions in ways you wouldn’t otherwise try. There’s a reason that so many great pieces of music, art, inventions, and movies came from ideas in dreams.

Why do we dream about certain people?

There are several reasons that you could be dreaming about someone. The most common is that this person is in your life in some way. So, if you see someone or talk to them before you go to bed, they can show up in your dreams. Dreaming about someone is more about the relationship that you share with them, versus the actual person. 

You could also dream about someone because you like the qualities they possess. You could admire them and want to take on some of their traits. Alternatively, you might dream about someone because they are, or were, a source of stress for you.

You could have had a tumultuous relationship with this person in the past, and new stresses in your life draw out feelings associated with the stress you felt with them. On the other hand, if you dream about someone that is a source of peace for you, that shows you that you’re in a serene time in your life. 

Why don’t I dream?

You do dream, but you might not be able to remember them. There have been studies that show some sleepers have a very low percent recall of their dreams throughout the night. However, just because you can’t recall your dreams doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. Having a lack of dream recall doesn’t seem to have any negative effects on your body. So, as long as you are getting the proper amount of sleep, your body is getting what it needs. 

Sleep positions and dreams can have something to do with your lack of recall. However, as long as you are comfortable while you sleep, you successfully go through your sleep states. So, you will dream.

Why do I dream every night?

Everyone dreams during the night, but some remember more than others. If you do feel like you are recalling all of your dreams, you could be waking up during your REM cycles. While REM sleep predominates in the second half of the night, it’s possible you aren’t getting the proper amount of uninterrupted sleep if you’re waking up in the early parts of the REM cycle. 

Dreaming is essential for the health of your mind and overall well-being. They can help you cope and reset your emotions of the day. Some experts think that dreams are essential for conflict management. You dream every night, and if you recall those dreams you get a little insight into what is going on inside your psyche. 

Tips for dream recall. 

There are tips you can use to improve your dream recall. If you are a deep sleeper, you probably won’t remember all your dreams as clearly as a light sleeper. Those that wake up after their REM cycles will be able to recall several different dreams throughout the nights. However, you can still recall dreams if you put in the effort. 

Don’t use an alarm

Letting your body naturally wake up is the best thing that you can do to recall your dreams. When your alarm goes off, your body will focus on the noise and it’s easier to lose your dream. 

Tell yourself you want to remember

If you make a conscious decision to remember your dreams before you go to bed, you tend to remember more. 

Playback your dream

Once you awake, try to play back everything you can remember in your dream. This can help you when you’re journaling. 

Interpreting dreams enhances your life 

Since you will always dream, you might as well start enjoying and interpreting your creations. You can open up a new aspect of your life by exploring your subconscious.

Dreams will always continue to fascinate us because nobody can really prove what they mean. 

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