Six dream mysteries explained
While you’re sleeping, your brain is cataloging all the events of the day.
We’re all fascinated by our dreams, but most of us don’t have a clue what they mean. And the rest of us can’t even remember what we dreamt about. Well, consider this: Experts say that keeping a closer eye on your dreams can actually help you improve your life. “Every night when you dream, you subconsciously assess what’s going on in your life,” says Gayle Delaney, PhD, author of In Your Dreams. “And if you pay attention, you can use it as a way to solve problems.” Here’s how to decipher your dreams, use them to your advantage, and understand why you have them in the first place.
What Happens When We Go to Sleep
In the first 90 minutes of sleep, you go through deepening stages—ranging from light sleep to deep sleep. Upon entering REM sleep, your heart rate and breathing become irregular, your eyes move rapidly and your brain activity rises toward the same level as when you’re awake. That’s when you do about 80 percent of your active dreaming—and when dreams are most vivid. You’ll go through this sleep cycle three to five times during the night, spending more time in REM sleep with each one until you wake up in the morning.
But here’s the fascinating part: During REM sleep, the rest of your body essentially becomes paralyzed. Why? “It’s nature’s way of making sure you don’t act out your dreams, whether it’s repeatedly kicking your spouse or jumping off the bed and hurting yourself,” explains William Kohler, MD, medical director of the Florida Sleep Institute in Spring Hill.
So exactly what happens in our brain when we dream? Sleep experts admit they’re not sure, but it appears that dreams are where memories meet emotion. On the one hand, your dreams can help you tap into the emotional issues in your waking life. On the other, they’re also a way for your brain to catalog the events of the day. “We know that memories are stored during sleep, and dreaming allows the brain to use certain circuits that improve long-term memory,” says Dr. Kohler. Simply put, you dream in order for a specific part of your mind to kick in and sort through memories, figuring out which ones to keep and which ones to let go.
If dreams are there to help file away memories for the long haul, why do they sometimes seem so surreal—not the literal way life happens to us? “When we’re sleeping, the controls of our conscious mind are turned off,” says Dr. Kohler. So as the brain sorts through our different experiences, trying to cross-reference memories (Is the day this happened the same day that happened?), it puts them together in strange and unusual ways (hence, our weird dreams) until it finds a connection that fits—and stores it in our memory bank.
Why Can’t I Remember My Dreams?
“We all dream several times a night, even if we don’t recall them,” says Michael Breus, PhD, author of The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan: Lose Weight Through Better Sleep. If you wake up at the end of a sleep cycle, you’ll likely remember a dream, but if you snooze through until the next one, you probably won’t. Since you have more REM sleep in the early a.m. hours, adds Dr. Breus, it’s easier to recall a dream when you wake up in the morning, versus, say, in the middle of the night. Age can play a role as well: REM sleep decreases as we get older—kids need more of its stimulation for brain development than adults—causing dreams to become less vivid, says Deirdre Barrett, PhD, clinical assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of The Committee of Sleep.
Since dreams can help you tap into—and even solve—problems in your life, it pays to remember them. If your power of recall is lacking, Karen Muller, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Medford, Oregon, has an easy way to trigger your memory: Place paper and a pen next to your bed. When you wake up, even in the middle of the night, jot down as much as you remember. Can’t recall more than a fragment? Resume your normal sleeping position for a few minutes. “It helps you recall more of your dream,” she says. Photo: Thinkstock
Is it True that You Never See Yourself in Your Dream?
No. “In my 30 years of practice, many of my clients have seen themselves in a dream,” says Dr. Delaney. Sometimes, however, you don’t look like yourself. So if you’re walking around in Angelina Jolie’s body in your dream, is it just wishful thinking?
Probably not. She could simply represent some part of your personality and the dream is trying to point out the similarities. “Your brain is sending a message that you have some qualities of this person, whether it’s someone you know in real life or not,” says Dr. Delaney. “And what you think that person represents, the feelings she or he evokes, could be the key to something you’re dealing with in your own life.” So rather than revealing that you covet Angelina’s looks, your dream may be drawing parallels to her philanthropic and nurturing nature and your own desire to give back in some way—or have more kids!
I Have Recurrent Nightmares. How Can I Get Rid of Them?
You’re not alone. Research suggests that up to 8 percent of adults suffer from chronic nightmares, like drowning or being chased, at least once a week. “Most of the time, they’re triggered by ongoing stress,” says Shelby Harris, PsyD, director of the behavioral sleep medicine program at the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, New York. “Bad dreams are your mind’s way of processing stress and figuring out how to deal with it in the future.”
To find out what some common nightmares mean, read our article, ” Common Dreams Decoded.” But remember, trying to decipher a scary dream won’t make it go away, says Dr. Harris. “Tackling a nightmare head on can help banish it.” If you have frequent bad dreams, see your doctor; nightmares can occasionally be caused by certain medications. If there’s no medical cause, your doctor may refer you to a sleep specialist to provide relief
One popular method: Imagery rehearsal therapy (IRT), which focuses on changing harmful thought patterns. A landmark study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that 65 percent of people who used the therapy had significantly fewer nightmares. “During IRT, my patients write down their nightmare, then think of a way to change it for the better,” says Dr. Harris. “One patient had a recurring dream of being in shark-infested water. She changed the sharks to friendly dolphins and visualized this new dream for five minutes twice a day—once in the morning, and once before bed. Her nightmares disappeared within weeks.” Photo: istock
Why Do My Dreams Seem So Real that I Wake Up Crying or Laughing?
Because your brain is just as active when you dream as when you’re awake, says Dr. Barrett. In fact, some areas of your brain—like the occipital lobe, which processes images, and the amygdala, which regulates emotions—are even more active when you’re dreaming, “which is why a dream can seem so vivid and evoke so much emotion,” says Dr. Barrett. Pay attention to any negative emotions your dream evokes, especially if they stay with you for the rest of the day, advises Tore Nielsen, PhD, professor of psychiatry and director of the Dream and Nightmare Laboratory at the University of Montreal. “Think of the most recent time you felt the way you did in your dream. Upon reflection, you may realize that you felt that way when you argued with your husband recently, or when you ran into someone who was rude. It usually doesn’t take much digging to figure out the source of that emotion, and doing so can help you get closure.”
Can Dreams Predict the Future?
A lot of us have had dreams that foreshadowed an actual event—a relative’s death, the breakup of a relationship. But in reality, a prophetic dream, even one about something unexpected, is just bringing to light an issue you’ve been subconsciously worried about, says Dr. Barrett. If you wake up from a dream feeling disturbed, ask yourself, Have there been hints of that situation in my daily life that I’ve ignored? Say you dreamt of losing your job. Have you recently had any unnerving discussions with your boss?
If you dream of medical ailments like heart attacks, take it seriously, say experts. “Many of my students and associates have had recurring dreams that alerted them to health problems,” says Stanley Krippner, PhD, professor of psychology at Saybrook University in San Francisco. “It’s your body’s subtle way of telling you that something strange is going on. If you have a dream like this more than a few times, see your doctor to get checked out.”
I Dreamt of Another Man Last Night. What Does That Mean?
Most of us have sex-related dreams at one time or another, but dreaming about an old boyfriend or a hunky coworker “doesn’t mean that you want to cheat on your spouse,” says Dr. Barrett. Sex dreams are less about wanting to have sex with that person and more about desiring an attribute he represents. So if you dream about a college fling, for example, “you may be feeling nostalgic for a time when you were young and carefree,” says Dr. Barrett.
The same holds true if you dream about sex with a man you don’t know. “When you wake up, ask yourself what characteristics the stranger had, and whether or not those are traits you wish your husband possessed,” says Dr. Barrett. Most of the time, pleasant sex dreams don’t mean you’re dissatisfied with your sex life or unhappy in your marriage. You just want a little of what your “dream” man symbolizes, like assertiveness, say, or nurturing.