It Was All A Dream: The Science Behind Sleep Stories«

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Amelia Corcoran, Editor

Can you remember the last dream you had? When you woke up, did you think about what it might have meant or simply dismiss it as meaningless? Though nothing is certain, many people have theories about why we have dreams and what – if anything – they mean.

Some scientists think the reason we have dreams is to keep our visual sense active. A part of the brain called the visual cortex usually helps you see things, but gets taken over by other senses such as hearing and touch when sight is disabled. This includes when your eyes are closed while you sleep at night. Since dreams are visual, they exercise your visual cortex in a way it would not have been exercised were it not for dreams. This is the brain’s way of making sure our visual cortex continues to visually aid us. Another aspect of dreaming is that it enforces smarter thinking, better problem solving, and more creativity. It also clears out negative emotions. This is because when we are in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, the stage of sleep when we have most of our dreams, and the most vivid of them, there isn’t any noradrenaline, a chemical that causes stress, in our brains. This allows us to unconsciously look at the problem from a calmer perspective.

So what are the ingredients to these midnight movies? Dreams are made up of events, memories, and accumulated information, both from recent times and from longer ago. Scientists believe this is because your brain is processing the memories from the waking day. However, experiences don’t instantly affect dreams. Dream lag is when a memory takes anywhere from a few days to a week to sneak  into a dream. Dreams are also impacted by negative emotions such as grief, fear, and abandonment and medical disorders such as migraines, obstructive sleep apnea, and clinical depression.

But what does it all mean? Though there is no scientific proof that dreams mean anything, many people believe they do. A few common dream themes and their supposed meanings are as follows: 

  • Flight – You are unlimited or you want to be free from something.
  • Falling – You are out of control or you are being threatened.
  • Being chased – You are avoiding what scares you.
  • Taking a test – You need to prove yourself of something.
  • Running late – You are afraid you won’t reach a goal you’ve set for yourself.
  • Teeth falling out – You are too concerned about what other people think of you or you are anxious.
  • On an island – You are lonely.
  • Finding a new room in your house – You have unlocked a personality trait you were unaware you had.

Remember, though, that dream meanings aren’t set in stone. Think about similar things happening in your life or times in your life when you felt the same emotions you felt in your dream. Your dreams could have special meanings that only apply to you.


Bibliography

Breus, Michael J. “Why We Dream What We Dream.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 20 Jan. 2015, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/sleep-newzzz/201501/why-we-dream-what-we-dream.

Cline, John. “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 30 June 2019, www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/sleepless-in-america/201906/sweet-dreams-are-made.

“Dream Interpretation Offers Insight.” WebMD, WebMD, www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/features/dream-interpretation-offers-insight.

Eagleman, David, et al. “Why Do We Dream? A New Theory on How It Protects Our Brains.” Time, Time, 29 Dec. 2020, time.com/5925206/why-do-we-dream/.

Maril, Kristen Bateman and Madge, and Kristen Bateman
Contributing Editor
Kristen Bateman is a contributing editor at Harper’s Bazaar. “What Is Your Dream Trying To Tell You? Experts Reveal The 14 Most Common Dream Meanings.” Harper’s BAZAAR, 19 Nov. 2020, www.harpersbazaar.com/beauty/health/a11043/8-common-dreams-and-what-they-mean/.

Walker, ―Dr. Matthew, et al. “Why Your Brain Needs to Dream.” Greater Good, greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_your_brain_needs_to_dream.