A It’s most likely that everyone dreams every night, but do our dreams mean anything or have any purpose?
B Most people spend around two hours dreaming per night, according to the Sleep Foundation. The number of dreams varies, but it seems that most of us will have between three and seven dreams each night in a stage of sleep called REM (Rapid Eye Movement), which lasts for ten to thirty minutes and happens four or or five 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 often only remember what you dreamed about if you wake up while you’re dreaming and then think about what happened in the dream.
C Whether our dreams have any meaning has been an area of interest for many years. In his 1899 book, Sigmund Freud proposed that they 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.1 His colleague Carl Jung also believed that dreams come from the unconscious but not only from our wishes; Jung believed that they could represent other parts of a person that aren’t being expressed in waking life.2 These theories are less popular these days, however, as they’re not very scientific.
D Modern dream analysis isn’t very scientific either, and there is disagreement about what our dreams mean or whether they have any meaning at all. While online interpretations of our more common dreams could contain some truth – falling might mean you’re feeling anxious or out of control, flying could mean you’re feeling powerful, for example – there is little scientific evidence for this. Some believe that dreams are simply our minds creating stories out of the random images our brains produce during REM sleep. However, others argue 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 When it comes to whether dreaming has any purpose, there is consensus that REM sleep is beneficial, but there is some disagreement about whether it is REM or the dreams themselves that are helping us. Some believe that dreams are an epiphenomenon: REM is providing the benefits, and dreams are just a by-product. Others argue that it’s the dreams that are helping us. Either way, REM and/or dreaming may be helping with memory storage, organising information that we have taken in during the day, and, according to sleep scientist Matthew Walker, problem solving and creativity.
F Walker is one of those who believes that the dreams themselves are helping us, and another area in which they do this is 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 seems like they might be 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.