A Everyone dreams every night, but do our dreams mean anything or have any purpose?
B Most people have 4–7 dreams a night in a stage of sleep called REM (Rapid Eye Movement) which lasts for 10–30 minutes and happens 4 or 5 times a night. There are a few people who have no memory of dreaming when they wake up, but it’s unclear whether they didn’t dream or just don’t remember; you’ll probably only remember what you dreamed about if you wake up while you’re dreaming and then think about what happened.
C So, do our dreams have any meaning? This has been an area of interest over the years, and, if you look online, you’ll find quite a few interpretations of your more common dreams. For example, falling dreams might mean that you’re anxious about some situation in your life, being chased could mean that you’re running away from a problem, and flying might indicate that you are feeling powerful. However, all of this should be taken with a pinch of salt as, although interpretations like these might contain some truth, there is little scientific evidence for any of this.
D In his 1899 book about dreaming, Sigmund Freud argued that our dreams can tell us about our unconscious wishes. He believed that some of our desires, especially our aggressive and sexual desires, are so powerful that we repress them and they come out in disguise in our dreams. As part of his treatment technique, he had his patients recall their dreams so he could interpret the meanings to make the unconscious conscious and help treat their psychological problems. Although Freud’s theory is less popular these days, some believe that our dreams can tell us something about how we are feeling and allow us to experience emotions that we aren’t experiencing in waking life.
E Theories about why we dream tend to be more supported by science, and there are several popular ones, such as the information processing theory. This is the idea that when we are dreaming, our brains are sifting through all the information we have taken in during the day and helping us to organise and keep what is important in our memories and forget what is unimportant. Sleep scientist Matthew Walker adds that dreams also help us with creativity and problem solving by finding connections between things that may not be obvious to us when we are awake. He uses Russian chemist Dimitri Mendeleev as an example of this happening: in 1869, after spending many days trying to figure out the connection between all the universal elements, Mendeleev dreamed of the periodic table.
F Walker also believes that dreaming helps us with our emotional well-being. He explains that our dreams often feature difficult emotions that we have experienced during the day, and, when they do, they are helping us to process these emotions. Dreams take some of the emotional pain out of these difficult experiences and help us to make sense of them by integrating them with our other memories, which means we wake feeling better the next morning. He says that when you recall difficult experiences from your childhood, most of the painful emotions will have gone as dreams have helped you with this.
G Another function that REM sleep serves is helping us to understand what other people are feeling and communicating, according to Walker. In any interaction with somebody, a lot of information is communicated by facial expressions, and REM sleep readjusts our brains every night, so that they can decode these expressions and understand other people’s feelings. He adds that people who are deprived of REM sleep become more fearful of faces, even friendly ones.
H It’s difficult to know for sure what our dreams mean or if they have any meaning at all, but it does seem like they’re helping us in important ways. So, sweet dreams; but remember, even if they’re not sweet, they might be helping you to manage difficult emotions and feel feelings that you need to feel.