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Health and Wellbeing

Why Do We Dream?

Dr Nerina Ramlakhan

Dr Nerina Ramlakhan

12th April, 2024

Elderly lady in deep sleep

As a sleep expert one of the most common questions that I’m asked is ‘why do I dream’? The subject of dreams is a fascinating one, isn’t it?

Despite considerable research being undertaken on the subject of sleep, we still have a lot to learn about dreams. However, it seems that the most likely reasons that we dream are to do with the following:

-   To consolidate the information that we’ve taken in during the day.

-   To process emotions.

-   To express our creativity and solve problems.

-   To improve our ability to deal with threat.

What is a dream? Dreams consist of images, thoughts and emotions that are experienced during sleep. They can range from very intense or emotional to fleeting, nonsensical and mundane. Some dreams are joyful while others are frightening or sad. Some dreams might have a clear meaning and make sense to the dreamer while others make no sense at all.

Another question I am frequently asked is why can’t I remember my dreams? Also, some people think they don’t dream at all because they can’t remember their dreams. The fact is, we all dream but we don’t all remember our dreams. There are several theories about dream recall and the work of the scientist Dr Eric Hartmann suggests that the ability to recall dreams is related to thick and thin boundaries in the brain. According to his theory, these boundaries are the gaps in the brain that allow communication between the right side of the brain (the side that dreams) and the left side of the brain (the side that analyses and remembers). So, to have good dream recall, you need to have good communication between these two sides of the brain. According to his research, people who score high on empathy, creativity and are sensitive in nature are more likely to be ‘thin-boundaried’ and therefore, have higher dream recall. It is worth noting that some forms of prescription sleep medication can also suppress dream recall.

Sleep mask, earplugs and alarm clock

On average, we have about six episodes of dreaming throughout the night. Most of our dreams occur during the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) phases of sleep that occur periodically throughout the night. During REM sleep, the body goes into a state of paralysis to stop us acting out our dreams. The exception to this is if you experience night terrors and then have little or no recollection of your dreams, as this is most likely to occur during deep, unconscious sleep. But the dreamer may be left feeling tired and uneasy during the next day. Getting the right amount of REM sleep is key to maintaining good mental health. On average, the optimal amount for healthy adults starts from 1.5hrs but slightly decreases with age.

So, getting back to the question of why do we dream?

Information Consolidation

According to the ‘information-processing theory’ during REM sleep we pack away the memories and information of the day. Apparently, this filing process is a vital part of the process of memory consolidation enabling memories to be strengthened or weakened depending on whether they are useful memories to hold on to or not. So, when we get the right amount of REM sleep at night this enables us to wake up feeling sharper and more mentally focused.

Woman stretching after good sleep

Processing Emotions

According to the emotional regulation dream theory, we dream to process emotions and help us deal with stresses and trauma in the safe space of our sleep. Research shows that parts of the brain that are involved in processing emotions, such as the amygdala and hippocampus, are active during vivid, intense dreaming. This might explain why some dreams can be emotionally vivid and why you might dream repeatedly about something traumatic that has happened in your life – for example dreaming about a loved one who has died. This is your brain’s clever way of trying to help you process the grief and come to terms with the bereavement.

Dreaming and Creativity

Dreams can provide important insights into your creativity and can help you to solve problems. You may find that there have been times when you’ve gone to bed with a particular problem in your mind and then woken in the morning feeling better about it and maybe even having found a solution. ‘Sleeping on it’ can sometimes be a very good idea. Many famous artists, writers and scientists came up with brilliant creative insights during their sleep. Notably, the famous writer Stephen King describes in his book On Writing the dream that gave birth to one of his most popular stories. He fell asleep during a plane trip to London and had a dream…

‘…about a popular writer…who fell into the clutches of a psychotic fan living on a farm somewhere out in the back of beyond. The fan was a woman isolated by her growing paranoia.’

King woke from the dream and scribbled it down on a napkin. I’m sure you’ve guessed it by now, but these dream scribblings were the basis of the bestselling novel Misery.

Do you know if you are creative and whether you might even have a bestselling novel in you? Perhaps you might start scribbling your dreams down and see where that might lead you.

Dreams that confront fears and threat

Dreams can also help us to rehearse and prepare for threatening or so-called ‘fight or flight’ situations so that we’re more ready for them should they occur. I once worked with a Premiership goalkeeper who occasionally had a particular recurring dream the night before a big game in which he missed a crucial penalty kick. He described the dream to me so vividly and I asked him if he felt anxious about playing the next day. His reply: ‘Absolutely not! It’s great when I have this dream because I know this won’t happen when I play on the day’. For him, this dream was a way of helping him to face and overcome his unconscious fear without it getting in the way of performance on the big day.

Woman covering eyes due to nightmare

Do you want to explore your dreams?

Many people are afraid to start looking at their dreams either because they’re afraid of ‘opening a can of worms’ or not being able to write. However, we can all benefit from paying more attention to our dreams (not least because you could end up writing that bestseller!) so here are a few tips to help you capture the meaning of your dreams:

- Keep a pen and notepad handy by your bedside table.

- Before you fall asleep tell yourself ‘I am looking forward to remembering my dreams when I wake up’.

- If possible, write as soon as you wake up and avoid talking about your dreams to someone else before you write. Dream recall can be easily interrupted by even the slightest distraction, so try to remember as much of your dream as soon as you wake up. Avoid getting out of bed or thinking about anything else.

- Don’t try to force it. Just relax and breathe and allow the images and memories to slowly bubble up to the surface.

- Avoid trying to force any immediate analysis or interpretation of your     dream. Write down as much as you can about your dream and then come back to your record later. Interpretation may well come later.

Woman writing in dream journal

I hope you have enjoyed learning about why we dream and are looking forward to finding out more about your own dreams. Many people find that when they start exploring their dreams their sleep becomes deeper and more peaceful and they even feel a greater sense of vitality and wellbeing.

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