Why do I dream when I sleep and is it healthy?

Published December 5, 2014

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We all dream, even if we don’t remember it the next day. But why we dream is a topic of research that has puzzled humans since antiquity.

What exactly are dreams?

Dreams are essentially stories or images our mind creates while we sleep and may be entertaining, bizarre and at times a little disturbing. Most of our dreams are thought to occur during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. We enter into REM sleep about every 90‐120 minutes through the night. Sleep researchers have established that eye movements tend to correspond with dream content, which suggests that we watch our dreams like we would a TV show or movie.1

Why do we dream?

In ancient societies, dreams guided social and everyday decisions. In the 19th and 20th centuries, psychoanalysts believed that dreaming was a way of acting out unconscious desires in a safe or unreal setting, because to do so in real life may be considered unacceptable.2

Today, the function of dreaming is still subject to debate. As dreaming occurs mostly during REM sleep when a great deal of nervous system activity is taking place, some researchers believe that it’s a meaningless by‐product of this normal brain activity.2 Others consider dreams as a mechanism for our brains to incorporate memories, solve problems and deal with emotions.2

What is known for certain is that dreams appear to be important for our health and well-being. Suppression of REM sleep, the main dream phase, is associated with the following health effects:3

  • Increased tension
  • Mood changes
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Lack of coordination
  • Weight gain
  • Tendency to hallucinate

In addition, because REM sleep makes up a significant portion of the total sleep time in babies, dreaming is believed to be important for helping mature a developing brain.1

What do my dreams mean?

Some researchers believe dreams are meaningless, whereas others say they reflect our underlying thoughts or desires. If you have a recurring dream, where for example you’re being chased or appear in public naked, it could be caused by hidden stress or anxiety.3 However, the particular reason behind a dream appears to be entirely unique to the individual.

If you’re intrigued by your dreams and want to sort out the meaning behind them, write down as many details as you can remember first thing in the morning while your memory is fresh.

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