Dreaming takes up a surprisingly large amount of our night. A study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where they measured people’s brain waves while they were sleeping, found that we spend up to 70 percent of our nights dreaming.
However, we never remember most of our dreams. So why do we have them?
Well, scientists are now beginning to understand why we have certain dreams and what they mean.
Dreams have fascinated us for a long time. The ancient Greeks decided there were two types: most were unimportant, brought on by everyday hopes and fears. But some were prophetic, a form of divine intervention that allowed the gods to communicate with ‘chosen’ individuals and help them see into the future.
I’ve never had a prophetic dream that I know of, and the ones I remember are fairly simple, like trying to pack my bags in time to get to the airport, but struggling to find the last few socks or underpants I need.
Dreams about being naked in public can suggest that you harbor feelings of guilt or inferiority. Identifying what is causing stress can help
This type of dream is very common, one of several classic “anxiety” dreams.
But while most of us have anxiety dreams, in fact much of what we dream is, as the ancient Greeks claimed, simply a reflection of the events of that day and that your brain is busy processing.
This was surprisingly demonstrated in a recent study from the University of Freiburg in Germany, where 20 people were asked to listen to four audiobooks before bed. These included Agatha Christie’s Mystery of the Blue Train and Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart.
The volunteers were asked to wear an EEG cap, to record their brain waves, and then left alone in the sleep lab to wander off into the land of assent.
Ninety minutes after they had gone to sleep, the volunteers were woken up and asked if they had been dreaming and, if so, about what. The researchers did this to the unfortunate volunteers several more times during the night.
The next morning, independent researchers (who knew nothing about the experiment) read the accounts of what each volunteer had been dreaming of and were asked to guess which audiobook they had listened to. They got it right with impressive precision. They were also able to tell, based on their brain waves, which of the volunteers had been listening to the same audiobooks.
In other words, their dreams reflected the things that happened to them earlier that day.
A study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where they measured people’s brain waves while they were sleeping, found that we spend up to 70 percent of our nights dreaming (File Image)
Most dreams occur during a stage of sleep called rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, particularly our anxiety dreams, which paradoxically serve an important purpose: to help us feel less stressed when we’re awake.
During REM sleep, most of our muscles are paralyzed. We’re still breathing, but other than that, the only part of us that’s obviously moving is our eyes. (If you look at someone in REM sleep, under their eyelids, their eyes will flicker madly.) It is believed that this ‘sleep paralysis’ is to ensure that we do not act out our dreams.
REM sleep is also the only time, day or night, when the links to stress-inducing chemicals in the brain are disconnected. This means that while the dreams we have can be scary, they are not as bad as they would be if you had them while you were awake.
Having a stressful dream during REM sleep is a form of psychotherapy: you revisit unpleasant memories and events but remain calm. This allows you to process your emotions and calm them down.
Therefore, the more REM sleep you can get, the better for your emotional well-being. We get REM sleep throughout the night, but more towards the morning, so try not to shorten your sleep.
There are many different ways that people express anxiety in their dreams, but here are six of the most common:
1. Being late
For me, this takes the form of trying to pack for a plane, but failing. Or sometimes I’m late for a meeting and can’t find my way.
These types of dreams are believed to be your subconscious mind telling you that you are cluttering too much into your life.
It’s time for me to reign!
Now that I am 66 years old, I get tired more easily than before; However, despite this, I also overcommit myself to doing a lot of things that I really don’t want to do.
This phenomenon is so common that it has a name: ‘the yes-damn effect’. You say ‘yes’ to something because it’s so far in the future, and when the time comes to do it, you realize you don’t have the time or inclination, hence the ‘damn’.
This happens because we believe that our future selves will be less busy than our present selves and can handle additional commitments.
In fact, the best guide to how busy you will be in the future is how busy you are now.
To avoid a ‘damn yes’ situation, try the ‘no-hooray’ technique: you say ‘no’ to doing something, but write it down on your calendar anyway.
When the date comes, you’ll be so grateful that your past self didn’t compromise too much, that you’ll be able to celebrate it.
That’s the theory, now I have to put it to the test.
2. Chasing someone
I often dream of chasing someone, but I’m never able to catch up.
The most plausible explanation is that it is a subconscious fear I have that no matter how hard I try, I will never achieve my goals.
3. Fall off a cliff
Dreams of falling, perhaps from a cliff or a building, are interpreted as a fear of losing control; that you don’t feel as in charge of your life as you would like.
4. Not being prepared for an exam
Like falling off a cliff, it’s about feeling out of control and ill-prepared for the challenges ahead.
5. Tooth loss
This seems to occur more commonly after the loss of a loved one and may reflect a fear of growing old and dying.
6. Being naked in public
This is not something I experience (and therefore I don’t have to force it on your imagination), but if it does, it may suggest that you harbor feelings of guilt or inferiority.
If you have anxiety dreams, it can be reassuring to know that they are common and are really just a sign that you are stressed.
Identifying what is causing the stress can help, as can writing the dream down during the day and then changing the ending.
I know someone who was haunted by dreams of spiders, but found that writing about them and then imagining them running away in terror from her made a world of difference. The spider dreams gradually faded away.