Why We Dream

Dreams are the stories the brain tells during sleep—they’re a collection of clips, images, feelings, and memories that involuntarily occur during the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of slumber. Humans typically have multiple dreams per night that grow longer as sleep draws to a close. It’s hypothesized that everyone dreams, but a small subsection of the population reports that they never remember experiencing dreams.

Dreams typically involve elements from waking lives—like known people or familiar locations—but they often take on a fantastical feel. While dreams are frequently interesting, and can allow people to act out certain scenarios that would never be possible in real life, they aren’t always positive—negative dreams, referred to as "nightmares," can create feelings of terror, anxiety, or utter despair, and can lead to psychological distress or sleep problems like insomnia.

The big question, however, is why humans dream. Though it’s been discussed and studied for millennia, it remains one of behavioral science's greatest unanswered questions. Researchers have offered many theories—including memory consolidation or emotional regulation—but a unified one remains, well, a pipe dream. Nevertheless, people continue mining their nighttime reveries for clues to their inner lives, for creative insight, and even for premonitions.

What Dreams Mean

What do dreams mean? Humans have puzzled over this question for centuries. The ancient Egyptians believed that dreams were communications from the gods, or prophecies of what was to come. Dream interpretation as a field of psychological study took off in 1899, when Sigmund Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams, laying the foundation for many of his theories of the unconscious mind. Today, many experts disagree with Freud’s conclusions—and some don’t think that dreams signify anything at all—but most people still wake up after a particularly vivid dream and wonder what it could have been trying to tell them.


Creativity, Fantasies, Sleep, Unconscious


Terrifying dreams that rouse someone from sleep—commonly known as nightmares—more frequently plague children. But adults aren’t spared; at least half have occasional nightmares, with less than 10 percent reporting frequent or recurring episodes.

Nightmares are often confused with night terrors, but they’re not the same: Night terrors are a type of disorder that causes sleeping people to scream, bolt out of bed, or demonstrate symptoms similar to a panic attack. Unlike nightmares, which can leave unpleasant memories or leftover feelings of anxiety, night terrors are usually not remembered the next day, even though its sufferers may appear to be awake during the experience.


Anxiety, Fear, Sleep, Unconscious

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