Have you ever wondered what an especially weird dream meant? The meaning of dreams is debatable, but the science behind dreams is more clearly defined.
William Shakespeare’s Prospero knew that “we are such stuff as dreams are made on,” but scientists are still figuring out the meaning of dreams themselves. People have inferred the meaning of dreams since ancient times. In more recent years, Sigmund Freud believed that a dream provided a window to our unconscious thoughts, while Alfred Adler argued that a dream helps us solve real-life problems.
“The purpose of dreams is still not known completely,” says Russell Rosenberg, PhD, director and founder of the Atlanta School of Sleep Medicine and board member of the National Sleep Foundation. Yet recent advances in both the physiology and psychology of dreams offer some fascinating insights.
Dream Stages and Research
Dr. Rosenberg distinguishes between sleep during which rapid eye movement (REM) occurs and does not occur. “Dreaming does occur in both stages of REM sleep and non-REM sleep,” Rosenberg says. In non-REM sleep, people are likely to produce a thinking or meditative dream. Scientists know less about non-REM sleep than its more dynamic counterpart, REM sleep.
“Most people’s dreams during REM sleep have a story line, action — that’s where we get auditory, visual, and even tactile kinds of experiences,” he says. Researchers also believe that REM sleep is crucial to problem-solving and sorting out meaningful vs. inconsequential events during the day. REM is said to be important to the consolidation and organization of memory, which is probably why students should get a good night’s rest before a big exam.
Research into the uses and meaning of dreams is growing. In one recent study, the smell of roses was able to induce positive dreams, while a whiff of rotten eggs produced unpleasant dreams.
While scientists still do not know the precise function of dreams, much contemporary research focuses on their connection to memory and deciphering problems. One study, for example, found that creative thinking was linked to dream-rich REM sleep, as distinct from resting quietly or sleep that did not involve REM. More than just improving memory, REM sleep reactivates nodes in our brains that have been previously stimulated, researchers suggest.
What Is the Meaning of Dreams?
The psychological meaning of dreams is difficult to interpret. “One thing to consider is that dreams are physiological events that involve not just the brain but, to a varying degree, the whole body, though generally not our voluntary muscles,” says Craig Webb, speaker, author, and executive director of the DREAMS Foundation, a non-profit organization in Montreal.
“Once in a while, dreams have ‘meaning’ only or largely at the unconscious, physiological level in that they help rebalance body and brain chemistry, but without necessarily offering a lot of insights at an interpretive level. Some nightmares are a case in point, and certain medications and drugs especially can stimulate this physiological aspect of dreams,” he says.
Rosenberg and Webb agree that the contents of a dream may have significance for an individual. They say that the meaning of dreams should be interpreted in the context of an individual’s life, perhaps with the assistance of someone skilled in psychological analysis.
People interested in learning more about their dreams are encouraged to keep a dream log. Techniques vary, but the main point is to keep a notebook near your bed to jot down the details of a dream as soon as possible after waking, no matter how disjointed or random the images seem.
Whether certain dreams might have an objective, standard meaning is a topic of some disagreement. “I’m not convinced dreams have some universal meaning,” says Rosenberg. “I think each person is his or her own director and producer in the way a movie is produced or directed.”
Webb, on the other hand, says he is willing to allow for the possibility of dreams that speak to people on a mythic level: dreams that connect symbolically and emotionally with great events throughout history.
By Elizabeth Connor – Medically reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH