Learn why we dream and how to interpret dreams
The Science of Sleep
A quick lesson on your A-B-Zzzs: While we snooze, we go through four stages of sleep followed by rapid eye movement (REM), according to the American Sleep Association. Each stage takes 5 to 15 minutes and they repeat throughout the night. One complete cycle takes 90 to 110 minutes. The first stage is a light sleep. By the final stages, our brain waves have slowed and our eye movements have stopped. Then during REM sleep, our breathing, heart rate and blood pressure pick up and our eyes twitch back and forth. Most dreams take place during this phase, and if you awaken right after REM sleep, you may recall your dreams in more detail.
Read Between the
Back in the day, some ancient cultures, including the Greeks and Mesopotamians, relied on dream interpreters and divination to try to predict the future. Similarly ancient Muslim dream interpretations were used to glean prophecies and messages from God in ancient and medieval Islam. While Judeo-Christian dream interpretation holds little significance in the religious community today, dreams played an important role in several parts of the Bible.
With the dawn of modern psychology, the focus of dreams moved away from prophecies and toward self-revelations. In the early 1900s, Sigmund Freud hatched the idea that dreams allow us to live out our repressed desires deemed unacceptable by society. According to his beliefs, symbols and even recent memories were used in our dreams to hide our primal (and often sexual) unconscious urges.
Freud's student Carl Jung had a different and decidedly less sexual take. Rather than agreeing that our dreams hid instincts, he thought dreams were supposed to bring concealed thoughts and issues to light. Because important messages could be couched in images and symbols, he believed dreams required interpretation. He also thought there was a universal unconscious—certain themes and scenes would occur among dreamers across the globe.
Contemporary researchers such as Calvin Hall proposed that dreamers develop individualized patterns: Each person will repeatedly dream about certain objects and themes that reflect aspects specific to their own lives. In the 1970s, psychologist Ann Faraday popularized self dream interpretation and dream groups with her book The Dream Game. Other modern scientists believe that dreams serve an evolutionary purpose, giving ourselves a chance to practice responses to threatening situations—without real peril hanging over us. And another line of thought, pursued by Ernest Hartmann, M.D., a psychiatrist at Tufts, states that dreams are a space where we can safely work through emotional issues.
Of course, some scientists believe that dreams have no significant meaning. According to the activation-synthesis model, proposed in 1977 by Harvard Medical School researchers Robert McCarley and J. Allan Hobson, the brain sends random signals to our forebrain, which tries to interpret these fragmented thoughts by turning them into one story. Then there are the so-called non-dreamers—people who claim not to dream but probably do. (They likely just forget their dreams faster than others.) When we sleep, the part of our brain that stores memories takes a rest as well, one reason why when we do recall our dreams it can be difficult to grasp specifics.
Astrologers have also studied the potential link between astrology and dreams. One line of thinking suggests that our dreams surface themes pertaining to our Sun signs. For example, Cancers might dream about home, while Scorpios dream about sex. In addition, our subconscious is associated with the Moon in astrology, so some believe our dreams are more or less vivid depending on different lunar phases or our dream themes change as the Moon moves through zodiac signs.
Since some dreams may point to unresolved issues, dream interpretation is considered to be therapeutic by some leading thinkers, including Hartmann. Recurring dreams and nightmares especially seem to point to some part of our lives that deserves attention. The challenge? Actually remembering your dream. Within five minutes, we can forget up to half of our dream, and within 10 we might forget up to 90 percent. For best results, try keeping a dream journal by your bed so you can quickly capture your thoughts and make sense of your dream meanings right after you wake up.