Dreams, sporadic manifestations of our inner thoughts, desires and fears, are normal yet complex every night occurrences.
Sophomore Will Grogan is in Egypt and he is deathly ill. Although he is only an infant, he knows that he has contracted a deadly disease: Tuberculosis. He soon notices that he is capable of healing himself part by part and that he can fly. Suddenly, he wakes up. He is sweating and quickly sits up, moving his head from one side of the room to the other. A sigh of relief leaves his body when he realizes it was only a dream. He settles back down in his warm bed and tries to go back to sleep.
What are dreams?
Every night the brain creates images in the mind; however, not everyone wakes up remembering them: dreams.
Thoroughly researched occurrences, dreams are formed in the brain during a restful night’s sleep.
The study and research behind the science of dreaming is fairly new. The first sleep research laboratory was established in 1929 by Nathaniel Kleitman at the University of Chicago, but it was not until 1953 that Kleitman and one of his students, Eugene Aserinsky, discovered rapid eye movements during sleep and associated these eye movements with dreaming.
These brain images are what we know as dreams and according to Dr. Leon Rosenthal, a sleep medicine specialist, we always dream, and we always have dreams. Actually, we dream several times every night.
“Every time we hit REM sleep, we are having that stage of sleep where we dream,’’ Rosenthal said. “And the assumption is that we are having a dream because that’s the way the brain works. If you have eight hours of sleep, you likely have four cycles of non-REM sleep, so you [would] have gone through the stage of REM sleep [four times] during a period… and you would have that number of dreams.”
Whether we remember them or not, we all dream. According to The National Sleep Foundation, most people spend two hours dreaming each night, usually having around four to six dreams. Some wake up with a clear memory of their dream or dreams while others may not have any recollection at all.
“We do not recall dreams because we usually do not wake up [while in] REM sleep,” Rosenthal said. “But if we wake up from REM sleep, it’s more likely that we will remember our dream.”
There are two stages of sleep—NREM, and REM sleep—in a typical night’s
rest. And there are three stages of NREM sleep based on the pattern of brain activity. The first is non-rapid eye movement (NREM) one (N1), which is classified as the transition from wakefulness to light sleep. Next is NREM two: the light sleep before deep sleep. In NREM three, the delta waves—a type of brainwave—put people in a relaxed state and into a deep sleep. Lastly, most complex dreams occur during REM when the bodily muscles are paralyzed and, because of the increased brain activity, dreams have greater intensity.
“We dream a lot more than you think at night,” Science Department Chair Amy Henderson said. “But you only remember maybe two or three of your dreams. Your dreams only last 90 seconds to a few minutes, so you dream a lot more [than you think].”
During REM, more blood flows to the cortex of the brain and limbic system, the system that processes emotions. However, the frontal lobe is not active while asleep, so the brain will believe these stories we create until we wake up.
“What goes on in the brain when we sleep [and] dream is that we have complex dreams that have some emotional content, [and they] usually happen during REM sleep,” Rosenthal said. “[But] it does not mean that there are not dreams during the other stages of sleep.”
Harvard Medical School sleep researcher Robert Stickgold wrote in an article for the BBC that some people do not remember their dreams because their morning routines are hectic, causing them to forget. The blaring of an alarm clock combined with a fragile state of memory when waking up leads to dreams escaping the mind.
Grogan has extremely vivid dreams each night and used to keep a journal to record them.
“I remember my dreams every night,” Grogan said. “Mostly, I just remember a hodgepodge of something, so I just consider it one dream.”
According to the May 10 poll of 146 students, 61 percent of students sometimes remember their dreams. In the same poll, seven percent reported that they never remember their dreams.
“If you don’t remember your dreams, you should [put a] dream journal like right next to your bed. When you wake up, write down the first thing [you] remember, and the more you do that, the more you’ll remember,” Henderson said. “There’s a theory that you can write down what you want to dream about that night.”
Junior Sarah Cabrales began keeping a dream journal in the notes app of her phone to recount her impressive dreams.
“I just write them down in my notes app,” Cabrales said. “I think after I started writing them down, my dreams became way clearer and gave me a longer time frame to remember more details in the morning.”
Even though the field of sleep medicine and sleep research has grown immensely in the past few decades, there are few people who still do dream research. According to Rosenthal, scientists who did dream research used to bring subjects to sleep in the sleep lab, and they would wake up these subjects at different times to characterize dream recall.
“So when they would wake up subjects from REM sleep, they got all these wild stories,” Rosenthal said. “[The subjects would say] ‘I was hunting or I was going after XYZ.’ They would recount a very complex story.”
The Psychology of Dreams
From being chased, to having the ability to fly, to teeth falling out, the contents of dreams often correlate to real life stressful situations.
“A lot of it is traced back to different [anxieties] about upcoming events or things that you have in the future,” Henderson said. “So, are you anxious about an upcoming project? Or are you worried about how you’re going to look? Or are you worried about failing and so you feel like you’re falling?”
To famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, every dream had a meaning, no matter how senseless the dream may have seemed. In his 1899 book “The Interpretation of Dreams,” he said that dreams are fulfillments of wishes, desires and thoughts from our childhood.
“Freud thought that every dream had like a manifest and [a] latent content,” Henderson said. “Manifest is what you actually dreamt, and then latent content is like the hidden meaning behind it. He would have people do free associations, and he would have preset stations. So the first thing that came to your mind was the dream, then he would try to find that latent content [from] the dream.”
Matthew Wilson, a researcher at MIT’s Center for Learning and Memory, was featured in a 2001 MIT News article. Wilson spoke of Freud’s studies of dreams.
“It has been a century since Freud brought forward the study of the subconscious and the examination of the content of dreams as a tool for understanding the nature of cognition and behavior in humans,” Wilson said.“We now have the means to bring this world of dreams into the study of animal cognition, and by doing so, gain deeper insight into our own [minds].”
In contrast with Freud’s theories, Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung believed that dreams were direct expressions of the mind, not disguised, and that they give people a view of their unconscious. Jung thought that dreams both compensated for imbalances in the person’s psyche and prepared the dreamer for the future.
Dream interpretation began to gain popularity in the 1970s after the release of Ann Faraday’s book “The Dream Game,” which gave techniques as to how dreams can be remembered more readily. Today, there are hundreds of different books to help people interpret and understand the meanings of their dreams. Although we have a much better understanding of dreaming today, there is still much to learn about the complex topic.
“[My dreams] normally correlate to what I’m most stressed about,” Grogan said. “In a sense, it shows the dark side of my life.”
Sleep experts and doctors categorize dreams into seven types: current or recent event dreams, metaphorical or symbolic dreams, fantasy or comfort dreams, creative or problem-solving dreams, supernatural dreams, nightmares and lucid dreams.
The most common dreams are current or recent event dreams, and they mirror recent experiences either directly or indirectly. In addition, people may often experience metaphorical or symbolic dreams, allowing them to process important life events.
“Metaphorical dreams are instructive in that, properly interpreted, they can provide insights for personal development,” Psychology Today said.
Fantasy and comfort dreams reflect wishes or aspirations oftentimes compensating for ups and downs in someone’s personal life. Furthermore, these dreams may be subconscious ways to help the dreamer release stress or anxiety.
“One theory regarding the role of dreams in memory is that dreams may provide the opportunity to bring together experiences that were related, but did not occur at the same time, in order to learn from them,” Wilson said in an article in MIT News. “For example, replaying a series of pleasant or unpleasant experiences may allow us to learn what these experiences had in common and use this to guide future behavior.”
Creative and problem-solving dreams may be motivating and encouraging as they provide creative ideas or long-sought solutions to problems. For example, famous musician Paul McCartney gained inspiration for the song “Let it Be” from a dream.
“In the dream [my mother] said, ‘It’ll be alright,’” McCartney said in Far Out magazine. “I’m not sure if she used the words ‘Let it be’ but that was the gist of her advice, it was, ‘Don’t worry too much it will turn out OK.’ It was such a sweet dream I woke up thinking, ‘Oh, it was really great to visit with her again.’ I felt very blessed to have that dream.”
Rarely occurring supernatural dreams are the most noticeable and memorable type of dream and are sometimes remembered for months or even years.
Nightmares are notorious for their fear-inducing storylines. Nightmares may occur following stressful or traumatic events, but there are many different possibilities as to why a nightmare could have transpired. Additionally, they can be triggered by anxieties, fears or traumas in someone’s daily life. In some cases, there may be biological, neurological, psychological, chemical and dietary reasons behind why a nightmare would occur. As you age nightmares become less frequent and intense, although roughly two to eight percent of adults suffer from nightmare disorders.
“I used to have a recurring nightmare and there was a witch that would come down my hallway,” Grogan said. “I would hear her walking, and the door would open without me touching it. I didn’t think that was scary. But then at the end of the hall there was a witch who was outlined in light. And she would scream, and then I would die.”
Finally, a type of dreaming that has been the subject of many research studies, journal articles and debate is lucid dreaming. To many neurologists and psychologists, the lucid dream is mysterious and puzzling and could potentially advance studies of human consciousness.
Through lucid dreaming, people can control what they do while dreaming; they are metacognitive: aware of their awareness. According to the American Journal of Psychology, the average lucid dream lasts 14 minutes. There are a variety of methods, and some will even train themselves to lucid dream. Methods to achieve lucidity include frequently asking yourself if you are dreaming and checking your surroundings or entering REM sleep directly from consciousness by setting an alarm for a few hours after bedtime then falling back asleep, according to Healthline.
“I called [this dream series] Twilight Tuberculosis, because it was at night and I had tuberculosis,” Grogan said. “I would wake up in my dream out of bed, and this was the only lucid dream I ever had.”
Dreams can be a window into our brains, telling us what is at the forefront of our minds. Whether it’s fear, excitement or stress, our brains create images and stories at night to reflect that.
“I also, you know, I think that my dreams often reflect the tribulations of my life,” Grogan said. “And it really shows the gravity of the world we live in.”