What Does My Dream Mean & What Causes Nightmares?

Dreaming is a topic most people can relate to.

At the same time, it is a very misunderstood topic. If you have ever wondered: what does my dream mean? You are among many others (including scientists)

There has actually been a lot of research about dreams, in fact, there is a word for the study of dreams--oneirology. It is coined from the Greek words:

  • "oneiros"- dream
  • "logia"- study.
oneirology

There are many questions that may come to mind when you think about dreams. Questions like:

  • Does everyone dream?
  • Why do we dream?
  • What does my dream mean?
  • What causes nightmares?

The purpose of this article is to help you have a better understanding of dreams and hopefully answer all your questions, from a scientific approach.

    Before we start dealing with these questions, let's start by explaining some things about sleep stages and how it relates to dreams-- after all, dreams only happen during sleep.

    Stages of sleep

    Before, it was thought that the brain 'shuts down' during sleep. Research however found out that there is quite a lot of brain activity during this seemingly inactive period. 

    When scientists place electrodes on the head of a sleeping person, they get a recording of the frequency and amplitude of brain waves. This procedure is called Electroencephalography (EEG).

    Scientists use electroencephalography (EEG) to record brain waves and diagnose sleep, neurological and psychiatric disorders.

    Scientists use electroencephalography (EEG) to record brain waves and diagnose sleep, neurological and psychiatric disorders.

    They used this information as well as the eye movements to divide sleep into two broad stages:

    • Rapid eye movement sleep (REM)
    • Non-rapid eye movement sleep (Non-REM)

    During the rapid eye movement stage, the eyes move quickly around in many directions and brain activity is very similar to when you are awake. This is the sleep stage where dreaming tends to occur the most.

    We generally enter REM sleep 90 minutes after we start sleeping and each REM phase can last up to an hour. The heart rate increases, breathing becomes faster and irregular and very significantly, most of our skeletal muscles are 'temporarily paralysed'--so that we don't act out our dreams! Waking up before the REM cycle is completed can lead to a frightful disorder called sleep paralysis.

    Now that we know the sleep stage where dreaming occurs, let's move on to why.

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    Why do we dream?

    If this question was to be answered in four quick words: science is not sure.

    Let me try to explain. This statement does not mean that there isn't any research on why we dream, but there is no universally accepted reason why we do. There are many theories though, let's go through 4 popular ones.

    Popular dream theories

    Theory #1: Dreaming helps us form memories:

    Some researchers believe that dreaming is key to the formation of memories. Some studies have shown that we have more dreams when we learn new things. Also, dreaming, according to this theory helps to convert short-term memories into long-term ones.

    Theory #2: Dreams help us deal with emotions:

    dreams and emotions

    This theory basically ties our dreams with our emotions. It suggests that when we are awake, our brains are busy dealing with many activities and therefore do not have the 'space' to concentrate on things that bother our emotions. During sleep, the brain has enough time to sort out emotions and achieve a balance.

    Theory #3: Our dreams reflect our mindset, thoughts and daily activities.

    This theory was one proposed by Sigmund Freud, proposing that our dreams are a direct reflection of our real-life experiences and what we have in our minds. It further suggests that our dreams are our way of expressing emotions and desires that we suppress during wakefulness.

    Theory #4: Our dreams serve no function

    Some scientists believe that our dreams don't serve any function but are just part of the biological processes that happen when we sleep. The theory proposes that our dreams are purposeless and random firings of the brain during sleep.

    Despite these theories and ongoing research, there is no theory that is generally accepted yet. The exact reason why we dream is still a mystery. 

    What does my dream mean?

    dreaming

    Now that we have looked through the possible reasons why we dream, how about their meanings?

    What does science say? Is there a scientific way to interpret dreams?

    Well, the honest truth is that the meaning of a dream depends on the dreamer. Sleep experts generally warn against the use of 'dream dictionaries' or other methods of decoding dreams using symbols and texts. The interpretation and meaning of a dream are unique to the person who dreamt it.

    Some people get their creative ideas from their dreams and therefore trigger inspiration to carry out real-life activities and projects from things they learned in their dreams. 

    Another point to note is that many dreams reflect our current life situations. For example, if you took a very important exam last week and the result is due in a few days, you are more likely to have dreams of yourself passing or failing that exam-- reflecting your true life's circumstance.

    What Causes Nightmares?

    Dreams may also be influenced disorders. For example, people who suffer from anxiety, stress and depression are more likely to have nightmares. Also, some medications, alcohol and the use of hard drugs can cause nightmares.

    Nightmare causes

    So, now that we have an idea of what science says about the causes and meanings of dreams, let's conclude or recap by outlining some interesting facts about dreams.

    7 Interesting Facts About Dreams

    1. Everybody dreams every night, some people just don't remember.
    2. Most dreams happen during the rapid eye movement stage of sleep, where the eyes move swiftly in many directions.
    3. The body is temporarily paralysed during sleep so that we don't act out our dreams.
    4. Science does not yet know the reason why we dream.
    5. You are more likely to have nightmares if you are stressed or anxious.
    6. You are more likely to remember your dream if you wake up without an alarm.
    7. Some people get creative ideas from their dreams. Paul McCartney composed the melody for The Beatles' song 'Yesterday' in a dream.