What are dreams? Why do we remember some dreams and not others? Does everyone dream? We spoke to an expert about the science of dreaming.
Dreams can be as difficult to understand as they are to remember. But whether you’re the person who wakes each morning with a new dream to unpack or a deep sleeper whose nightly visualizations are, at best, fragmented memories, there’s more to the whole dreaming thing than many of us realize. For instance, sleep tendencies can influence your likelihood of remembering a dream and there are steps you can take to improve your dream recall.
To gain a more in-depth understanding of dreaming, we chatted with Leslie Ellis, a dream expert and psychotherapist. We learned a lot about why we dream, why some people appear to have more frequent dreams than others, the different types of dreams people have, and how we can interpret these nightly mind movies. Here’s everything to know about the science of dreaming.
Dr. Leslie Ellis is a teacher, author and psychotherapist interested in the many ways of cultivating inner life, especially through dreams and the body. She is currently offering online dreamwork instruction based on her book, A Clinician’s Guide to Dream Therapy (Routledge, 2020). She also offers training in focusing, a somatic approach to psychotherapy. Leslie has a PhD in Clinical Psychology from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology and a Masters from Pacifica Graduate Institute. She is vice president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams and past president and a Certifying Coordinator with The International Focusing Institute.
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We dream every night
Think you don’t dream? Think again. Every person dreams at least an hour and a half each night, says Ellis. However, those that don’t remember their dreams (more on that later), may think they don’t have nightly visualizations at all — but they do. Most dreaming takes place during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, a stage in the sleep cycle associated with memory consolidation and an increase in brain activity. During a normal night’s sleep, the average person experiences REM sleep four to six times.
Light sleepers are more likely to remember their dreams
Finally, a perk of being a light sleeper. Turns out, waking up throughout the night can actually make it easier to remember your dreams — perhaps because waking frequently throughout the night helps people recall them in the moment.
People who rise slowly in the morning are also more likely to recall their dreams. The reason is, in part, because most dreams happen in the morning before a person wakes. If you’re slow getting out of bed, you’re likely to spend more time in that phase between sleep and wakefulness. In fact, Ellis suggests foregoing a morning alarm if you want to remember your dreams.
“Just linger in that semi-dream state for a bit,” she says.
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Dreaming may help with emotional regulation
It’s not totally clear why people dream. But one theory is that dreams help people process emotions. Because dreaming occurs during REM sleep, which is associated with emotional regulation, dreaming could be implicated in this process, says Ellis.
Plus, if we dream about something that happened during our day or even about the past, it takes away some of the emotional charge of the memory, she adds. Dreams also allow people to prepare for social situations by playing out scenarios in their minds while asleep.
There are different types of dreams
You probably know by now that not all dreams are created equal. Some are enjoyable while others can be distressing. Here are a few different types of dreams, according to Ellis.
- Big dreams. These visualizations tend to be ultra-vivid and feel meaningful or even spiritual.
- Stress dreams. These dreams are exactly what they sound like — they’re brought on by some kind of stressor. This type of dream, for instance, can include a visual manifestation of a scenario you’re anxious about or not prepared for, like a speaking engagement or an exam. People who tend to worry or carry stress in their bodies are more likely to suffer these types of dreams, says Ellis.
- Grief dreams. This variety of dream can sometimes be therapeutic for people, says Ellis. Dreaming of a loved one — like a late family member, friend, or even a pet — can be healing for some as they process their sadness.
- Nightmares. Most people are familiar with these. Nightmares are most commonly experienced by children who are still learning to regulate their emotions but adults can have them, too. And because they’re frightening, nightmares often cause distress and can wake sleepers from their slumber. In some cases, nightmares can be a symptom of unresolved trauma (more on that below).
Nightmares are treatable
Many people who struggle with frequent nightmares think they’re doomed to have them forever. But Ellis, who specializes in treating nightmares, says this isn’t the case.
This is important. Frequent distressing dreams are associated with a higher risk of suicide, says Ellis — in part because people feel unable to avoid the difficult thoughts or memories, even in their sleep. But seeing a specialist can help.
“Nightmares typically end in the same scary place,” she says. “[But] if you calm yourself down and imagine a different ending for your dream or imagine it goes more to a resolution, that can [end] your nightmares. It can shift them.”
Dreams have meaning
Experts have varying viewpoints on this, but because Ellis has worked with dreams as a therapist, she’s come to believe that most of these visualizations have some personal meaning to the dreamer. That’s not to say that dreams have volition, she says. But she believes that our dreams pick up on the emotional undercurrent of people’s lives. And if you can remember your dreams, there’s a lot of wisdom in them.
“Dreams can look on the surface like they don’t mean much,” she says. “But they’re kind of a visual language. So if you see them as metaphors or if you see what emotions or memories it evokes in a person, that’s kind of getting at the dream in its own language.”
You can improve your recall of dreams
Want to start remembering your dreams? Keep a journal next to your bed so you can jot down anything you remember upon waking. Then, think about the moments of your dreams you do recall, even if they’re fuzzy. This practice can help you piece them together.
Lastly, practice waking up slowly. This will help you stay in that sweet spot of wakefulness and slumber where you can savor the final moments of any dream you’re having.
“If you set the intention of catching a dream, you’re more likely to catch it,” says Ellis.
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