Things Science Knows about Dreams

Recent research has uncovered how men and women’s dreams differ, why some people remember their dreams, and more.

Decoding Dreams

Sweet dreams, horrible nightmares, dreams forgotten before you open your eyes — researchers have been poring over dream journals and monitoring brain activity in attempts to understand what we dream about, why we dream, the emotions behind dreams and nightmares, and male and female differences in dreaming. Studies are just beginning to tap the vast science of dreaming, but here’s what we know so far.

Why We Dream

“We dream because we think,” said Lauri Loewenberg, author of “Dream On It: Unlock Your Dreams, Change Your Life” and founder of the website What Your Dream Means. “Dreaming is a thinking process and is actually a continuation of your thoughts from the day,” she said. “That stream of consciousness, that inner chatter that runs through our heads all day long, doesn’t stop once we’ve fallen asleep.”

While you sleep, the part of the brain responsible for linear thinking and logic becomes dormant, and the area that controls emotion becomes more active. People generally dream off and on, about every 90 minutes throughout the night, she said. As the words, thoughts, and feelings from the day are processed through this different part of the brain, you experience images, symbols, emotions, and metaphors through dreams while asleep.

Nightmares Aren’t Just Scary

Nightmares pack a much stronger emotional impact than mere bad dreams, according to a 2014 study published in the journal Sleep. It isn’t necessarily fear that turns a dream into a nightmare — fear isn’t even present in a third of nightmares. The study found that sadness, guilt, confusion, and disgust are some of the emotions that lingered after study participants were jolted awake by nightmares. Bad dreams may be unpleasant, but they don’t typically result in a sudden awakening, so the feelings they engender don’t linger as long.

Men and Women Dream Differently

Dreams of men more likely have themes of natural disasters or war, while women are twice as likely to have dreams that revolved around interpersonal conflicts, the 2014 study found. Such differences could be caused by many things — perhaps the result of gender-based societal expectation or biochemistry, suggested Loewenberg. “We gals tend to be our own worst critic, so if we are hard on ourselves and constantly putting ourselves down or rehashing an interaction we had with someone earlier, this will be expressed in our dreams in the form of an argument with some dream character or even in the form of being harassed or physically harmed.”

Light Sleepers Remember Their Dreams Better

Some people can recall their dreams every morning, while others very rarely remember them. People who most often woke during their sleep cycles were more able to recall their dreams, according to a 2014 French study published in Neuropsychopharmacology. These short moments of wakefulness allow time for a dream to be encoded into long-term memory so that it can be recalled later. The study also showed that those able to recall their dreams had more activity in an area of the brain that responds to stimuli. “This could explain why they awaken more, and then get the chance to encode dreams in memory,” said study co-author Perrine Ruby, a researcher in cognitive neuroscience at Lyon Neuroscience Research Center in France.

Therapy Could Banish Nightmares

Nightmares can be treated, said Antonio Zadra, PhD, co-author of the University of Montreal study. “Unfortunately, mental health professionals don’t always take nightmares seriously,” he said. “Many view them as a problem secondary to some other issue, and most are unaware of effective cognitive behavioral treatments that work with most types of nightmares, including trauma-related.” Loewenberg noted that it’s possible for nightmares to be rooted in difficult, ignored, or mishandled issues. “The best way to respond to a nightmare is to correct the issue that it is connected to,” she said. Journaling about your dreams, for instance, may help pinpoint the root of a nightmare. And re-writing your nightmare to include a new ending can be an effective way to train your subconscious to respond differently the next time it occurs.

Mikel Theobald