Hunter-gatherer societies still live something like our ancient ancestors did, thousands of years ago.
Around 40 percent of people are thought to recall their dreams after waking.
After treatment for depression or anxiety, people’s dreams often improve in tone.
People whose dreams are more positive have better mental health, research finds.
However, those who have more negative dreams tend to experience more anxiety while they are awake as well.
Indeed, after treatment for depression or anxiety, people’s dreams often improve in tone.
It may be because people who can regulate their emotions better while awake can also keep their emotions more positive while they sleep.
For the study, 44 people kept a dream diary for three weeks, recording what they remembered each morning.
They also rated the emotions they experienced with the dreams.
The results showed that people who experienced more positive dreams generally had greater peace of mind while awake as well.
Ms Pilleriin Sikka, the study’s first author, said:
“These findings show that if we want to understand how dream content is related to waking well-being, it is not enough to measure only the symptoms of mental ill-being but we should measure well-being in its own right.
Surprisingly, those aspects that are typically considered and measured as ‘well-being’ were not related to dream content.
So there seems to be something unique about peace of mind and anxiety.”
Anxiety while waking was linked to negative dreams, the authors explain:
“…individuals with more symptoms of anxiety expressed more negative affect in subsequent dream reports and rated their dreams to contain more negative affect.”
Previous studies have linked depression and anxiety to worse dreams:
“People with different mental health disorders (e.g., anxiety, depression), sleep disorders, and health behavior problems report more nightmares and negatively toned dreams in general.
Interestingly, the reduction of depressive symptoms as a result of antidepressant treatment has been shown to accompany a corresponding change in dream affect.”
- The three biggest risk factors for frequent nightmares.
- 10 facts about dreaming & how to remember dreams.
The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports (Sikka et al., 2018).
Lucid dreamers can take control of their dreams, providing freedom in a hyperreal world.
Lucid dreaming — realising you are in a dream while dreaming — has these cognitive benefits.
People who realise they are in a dream while they are dreaming — a lucid dream — have better problem-solving abilities, research finds.
This may be because the ability to step outside a dream after noticing it doesn’t make sense reflects a higher level of insight.
Around 82 percent of people are thought to have experienced a lucid dream in their life, while the number experiencing a lucid dream at least once a month may be as high as 37 percent.
Lucid dreaming study
The study, published in the journal Dreaming, recruited participants into three groups (Bourke & Shaw, 2014):
- Frequent lucid dreamers: those who experienced a lucid dream more than once a month.
- Occasional lucid dreamers: those who had had a lucid dream at least once in their lives.
- Non-lucid dreamers: those who had never experienced a lucid dream.
All the participants were given a test of problem-solving which required a flash of insight.
Each problem was made up of three words which led to another word or phrase.
For example, one problem gives you the words ‘mile’, ‘sand’ and ‘age’.
What other single word can be combined with all three to create three new words or phrases?
The answer is ‘stone’, which can be combined with the three words to produce ‘milestone’, ‘sandstone’ and ‘Stone Age’.
Solving insight problems
The results showed that in comparison to those who had never had a lucid dream, the frequent lucid dreamers solved 25 percent more of these insight problems.
Dr Patrick Bourke, who led the study, said:
“It is believed that for dreamers to become lucid while asleep, they must see past the overwhelming reality of their dream state, and recognise that they are dreaming.
The same cognitive ability was found to be demonstrated while awake by a person’s ability to think in a different way when it comes to solving problems.”
Lucid dreaming and solving insight problems may tap into similar cognitive abilities, the authors suggest:
“‘Insight’ can be seen to be related to other demonstrated cognitive correlates of lucidity in dreaming.
The tendency towards ‘field independence’ for example allows people to ‘step back’ from perceived reality, reflect on it and evaluate the perceptual evidence.
For the insight that leads to lucidity, people also seem able to step-back from the obvious interpretation and consider a remote and at the time implausible option – that it is all a dream.” (Bourke & Shaw, 2014)
How to start lucid dreaming
If you’d like to increase the chances you’ll catch yourself dreaming while asleep, here are three tips:
- During the day, repeatedly ask yourself if you’re dreaming.
- When you’re asleep, try to identify any signs or events that would be weird in real life. As you know, dreams are usually chock full of them.
- Keep a dream journal to help you focus on your dreams. Write down whatever you can remember when you wake up.
Dream interpretation is nonsense, but psychologists have found many people still believe dreams can predict the future and more…
Dream interpretation is the idea that dreams hold special meanings: that they can predict the future, for example, or reveal deep psychological truths.
Most scientists believe that dream interpretation is essentially bunk: dreams have no meaning in the sense that most people mean it.
However, the attraction of dream interpretation is certainly obvious and many people believe in their power, as psychologists have frequently demonstrated.
Dream interpretation and meaning
We all live two mental lives.
When we are awake it is mostly ordered, rational, linear and bounded by rules, both behavioural and physical.
But when we are asleep it is chaotic, non-linear, without rules, often without sense, which opens the way to dream interpretation.
According to some psychologists, dreams are nothing more than the by-product of a brain disconnected from its normal sensory inputs, free-wheeling its way through the night.
To others, dreams denote night-time learning or problem-solving, even automatic sifting of the mind’s detritus, the skimming off of useless information to be dumped like so much mental junk.
Amongst the general public, though, there are much stronger beliefs about the power of dreams — hence the popularity of dream interpretation.
So strong that, according to research, people seem to believe dreams can predict the future.
Freudian dream interpretation
To see how much meaning people ascribe to their dreams, Carey Morewedge and Michael Norton asked participants to compare four ways of thinking about dreams (Morewedge & Norton, 2009):
- Freudian: dream interpretation reveals buried truths about the self.
- Problem-solving: dreams help us work through our problems while we sleep.
- Learning theory: dreams are how we process and sort out the day’s events.
- Random: dreams are vivid hallucinations that result from our brains trying to interpret random impulses.
Notice the last three theories all share the idea that, while dreaming may or may not have a psychological purpose, the actual content of our dreams is still mental junk: sometimes entertaining, sometimes frightening, often weird, but with no real meaning in and of itself.
The content only has a strong meaning in the Freudian approach.
Participants from the United States, South Korea and India were all more likely to endorse the Freudian view of dream interpretation than the other three.
In the US sample it was 56 percent Freudian, 8 percent problem-solving, 18 percent random and 18 percent learning.
Dream interpretation of a plane crash
Although 56 percent endorsing Freud might sound high, Morewedge and Norton thought it was still an underestimate of how much store people put by their dreams.
So,a second and third study asked both Freudians and non-Freudians to estimate the effect of their dreams on behaviour.
Participants were asked to imagine they were taking a flight tomorrow when each of the following events happened the night before:
- They consciously thought about the plane crashing on the route they were going to take.
- They had a dream about the same thing.
- Or, it actually happened the night before!
They were then asked to put these in order of most to least likely to make them cancel their flight.
My money was in the same place as I’d guess yours is: on the real plane crash being the most off-putting.
For the Freudians in the group, though, we’d both be wrong.
Incredibly, they thought the dream would be the greatest motivator to cancel the flight, even more so than an actual, real-life crash.
Non-Freudians rated the real-world event as more influential than the dream, but only just.
Giving the lie to their non-Freudian stance, though, they still thought dream interpretation would be more influential than thoughts they had while they were awake.
So the majority of people think their dreams will influence their waking life, often more so than a similar waking thought.
But the experimenters wanted to push it further: what if a dream’s message conflicted with a person’s best interests?
Morewedge and Norton’s next two experiments used a common dream in which someone we like does something nasty to us.
In this case it was dreaming that a friend had betrayed us by kissing our partner.
What they found was that people who remembered a dream about their friend kissing their partner tended to think it was meaningless, but when the dream cheat was someone they didn’t like, it was filled with meaning.
This suggests people only imply meaning into their dreams when the implications fit their motives.
In a final study experimenters pitted people’s dreams up against their religious beliefs.
Again, participants demonstrated a motivational interpretation of their dreams.
They were happy to endorse the meaningfulness of their dreams, unless it contradicted their religious beliefs, in which case they deemed them meaningless.
Dangers of dream interpretation
Dream interpretation is not always a purely innocent pastime.
Dream interpretation can even implant false memories in people’s minds, either accidentally or when carried out in a malicious way.
An experiment by Giuliana Mazzoni from the University of Florence and colleagues demonstrates the power psychotherapists potentially wield with a mere 30 minute interpretation of a dream (Mazzoni et al., 1999).
This intriguing experiment had three stages:
- Participants’ very early childhood memories were tested.
- Dream interpretation was used to implant a false childhood event that was mildly traumatic.
- Participants’ memories were tested again for their belief in the implanted event and whether they had constructed any memories associated with it.
This is how it worked:
Part 1: Early childhood memories
One-hundred and fifty-nine potential participants were first asked to fill out a questionnaire asking about events they remembered occurring to them before the age of 3.
The questionnaire asked how confident they were in each of these memories.
The events included things like ‘found some lost keys’ or ‘hand caught in mousetrap’, but there were two questions experimenters were particularly interested in: ‘was harassed by a bully’ and ‘was lost in a public place for more than one hour’.
Only the 72 who were reasonably confident this event hadn’t happened to them were selected for the experiment.
These participants were then randomly split into two groups, with one acting as a control group while the other group were targeted with a dream interpretation session designed to change their beliefs and memories.
Part 2: Dream interpretation
Around two weeks, later the dream interpretation group were invited to take part in another study which appeared unrelated to the earlier questionnaire they had filled out.
They were told it was a ‘Dream and Cognition Study’, where they would bring two of their dreams to a session with an expert in dream interpretation.
In fact the expert dream interpreters were the experimenters.
When participants arrived at the session they were introduced to a ‘clinical psychologist’ who would interpret their dreams.
But the clinical psychologist, over a 30 minute session, instead of interpreting all the different dreams brought to her in different ways, rather single-mindedly gave one specific interpretation to all the different dreams.
Every participant was ultimately told that their dream probably indicated they had been bullied as a child or lost in a public space depending on which question they had answered ‘no’ to in the earlier questionnaire.
It was also suggested this had probably happened before the age of 3.
Participants in the control group did not take part in this section of the study.
Part 3: dream interpretation implanted false memories
A further couple of weeks later all the participants were called back to fill in exactly the same questionnaire they had completed in part 1.
They were told that this study was assessing the reliability of the scale asking about early events, which is ironic because it was really testing the reliability of their memories.
Impressively, fully half of the dream interpretation group reported increased confidence in their belief that they were either lost in a mall or had been bullied by an older child before the age of 3.
Of these people, half produced concrete reports of the events having occurred.
They actually built on the dream interpretation to fabricate memories of their own.
This was despite previously being fairly certain these events had never occurred.
In the control group, however, only a few people increased their confidence the childhood event had occurred.
In addition, 30 percent of the control group actually reported decreased confidence they had been bullied or were lost as a child compared to only a few percent of the dream interpretation group.
This suggests the dream interpretation group hadn’t simply had their memories jogged.
Also, suggestibility varied significantly between people.
In this study, those who believed in the power of dream interpretation were more likely to change their beliefs and generate false memories.
The power of dream interpretation
Despite these impressive results, this experiment probably under-estimates the power therapists could potentially wield over their clients’ beliefs and memories.
The experiment examined only people visiting a ‘clinical psychologist’ who they had never met before and about whom they probably had few expectations, other than that they were apparently a dream expert.
Real clients visiting their real therapist are probably much more invested in the relationship and hence probably much more open to suggestion.
Hopefully, of course, the strength of the therapeutic relationship can be used to make positive changes, but it is worth remembering that there are two sides to the coin.
Long history of dream interpretation
Part of the reason people sometimes place so much belief in dream interpretation is because of the long cultural history of dream interpretation which we are regularly reminded about in books, films and on TV.
But it’s more than just that.
Morewedge and Norton argue that there is also a basic psychological process supporting people’s belief in dreams interpretation.
We have random thoughts all the time, like day-dreaming about getting a raise at work.
If a thought comes while awake, it can be consciously dismissed as wishful thinking.
But when the same thought comes during a dream, it’s harder to dismiss — hence dream intepretation.
Although logically impossible, dream interpretation makes it feel like dreams come from outside ourselves.
Along with the long cultural history of dream interpretation, their apparently mysterious source may be partly why some people find dreams so influential.
Sigmund Freud is famous for his psychoanalytic theory and despite modern criticism, he presciently realised that cognitive processes are unconscious.
Sigmund Freud is one of the most famous figures in psychology.
He is best known for the method of psychoanalysis, which is a set of psychological theories and methods used to treat neuroses.
Therapy using psychoanalysis aims to release repressed experiences and emotions from the unconscious in order to facilitate the healing process.
Sigmund Freud and psychoanalytic theory
Sigmund Freud’s theory is that psychological problems are rooted in the unconscious mind.
The symptoms of these disturbances are seen in the symptoms of mental illness.
Sigmund Freud believed that the process of bringing the repressed conflicts to consciousness helps a patient deal with them.
Sigmund Freud’s theories have been extremely influential, leading to expressions like ‘denial’, ‘repression’ and ‘Freudian slip’ entering everyday discourse.
Sigmund Freud thought the personality had three major elements:
- Id: the most basic drive for pleasure, satisfaction of desires and wants.
- Ego: tries to satisfy the desires of the id in the most socially acceptable way. Freud explained the id was like a horse and the ego its rider.
- Superego: upholds moral standards often gained from parents and society.
Sigmund Freud’s theories and treatments were based on case studies of patients he had treated and those he had discussed with other doctors using similar methods.
Some of the most famous of these were:
- Anna O., who had hallucinations, paralysis and speech problems.
- Little Hans (Herbert Graf) who had a phobia of horses.
- Dora (Ida Bauer) who lost her voice.
- Wolf Man (aka Sergei Pankejeff) who was depressed and dreamed of wolves.
- Frau Emmy von N. is described in detail below…
Methods of Sigmund Freud
The problem for Sigmund Freud’s method was that if the key to mental healing is in the unconscious, how can it be accessed?
So, Sigmund Freud had to develop a series of techniques that he thought could reveal hidden neuroses.
The interpretation of dreams
Freud thought that the interpretation of the dreams was the ‘royal road to the unconscious’.
While were are asleep, he though, ideas that we would normally repress come to the surface.
Since dreams often make little sense, they need interpretation — Freud and other practitioners of psychoanalysis need to work out what they mean.
Sigmund Freud used free association as another method to access the unconscious.
This often involved saying a word to the patient and asking them to respond with the first thing that comes to mind.
Fragments of the true repressed problem are supposed to emerge through this method.
Sigmund Freud believed that aspects of people’s unconscious mental processes were revealed by slips in speech.
In other words, we sometimes say what we really mean by accident.
He thought there were accidents and that every behaviour had a meaning, if only it could be correctly intepreted.
Modern view of Sigmund Freud
The strange thing about Sigmund Freud is that, amongst psychologists, his stock is relatively low.
One of the main reasons his work is not considered ‘scientific’ is the apparent difficulty of testing his theories.
Actually there is plenty of scientific evidence for his most important finding – the cognitive unconscious – but it has taken some time to be acknowledged.
Indeed, Sigmund Freud made some startling contributions to psychology only accepted into the mainstream of academic research in the last few decades.
To really understand the revolutionary nature of Sigmund Freud’s work you need to do something for me: to forget you’ve every heard of him or his ideas.
Imagine travelling back to the 19th century and here is a smartly dressed young man looking at you with bright intelligent eyes and there is a pungent smell in the room of cigars.
The case of Frau Emmy von N.
Frau Emmy von N. was one of the earliest patients to be treated with the nascent techniques of psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic theory.
Frau Emmy suffered from a series of tics, some facial, the most obvious of which was a loud ‘clacking’ noise.
To Sigmund Freud the symptoms she showed were typical of hysteria and he soon set about treating her with his strange new methods.
And what strange methods they were.
He talked to her.
Talking to a patient?
What good could that do?
He hypnotised her and soon she began to speak of her frightening experiences – being a maidservant in an asylum, nursing her dying brother.
Then Sigmund Freud did something more unusual.
He let her give full vent to her emotion.
Later, after she had calmed down a little, she seemed better…
What then did these past events in Frau Emmy’s life signal to Sigmund Freud?
What was the connection to her current symptoms?
At this time Sigmund Freud had begun to develop a psychoanalytic theory that physical symptoms could be caused by thoughts not available to the conscious mind.
His treatment – the talking, the hypnosis, the hand on the forehead, the free association, the couch – all were designed to try and access this so-called ‘unconscious’ world, to find the root-cause of distress.
Once this root-cause could be identified and explained, Freud thought, the physical and psychological symptoms would be alleviated (Breuer & Freud, 1893).
The cognitive unconscious
It was in Freud’s work ‘Project for a Scientific Psychology’ (Freud, 1895) that he first laid down the radical (at the time) idea that cognitive processes are intrinsically unconscious.
We are effectively cognitive icebergs with most of our ‘thoughts’ occurring below the water line, out of conscious perception.
The fact that this idea is no longer considered radical is testament to the last few decades of research which have shown the importance of unconscious processes.
We now have abundant evidence for unconscious processes in the operation of memory, affect, attitudes and motivation (Westen, 1998).
And so, far from being unscientific and untestable, Freud’s theory of unconscious mental processes was incredibly prescient.
It laid the ground for some of the most important lines of research in psychology today.
Research that tells us more and more about what it means to be human.
Facts about dreaming including how to remember dreams, why we forget dreams and whether heavy or light sleepers remember more.
While we are asleep the brain is active all night long.
Both adults and babies are thought to dream for around two hours each night.
People have several dreams each night, but probably forget about 95 percent of them.
Here are 10 more fascinating facts about dreaming…
1. How to remember your dreams
Some people recall all kinds of dreams, others hardly anything.
Why the big difference?
Part of the reason that some people remember more of their dreams is that they wake up more in the night, even if only for short periods.
It is a fact about dreaming that we need to be awake to encode dreams into long-term memory, otherwise they are generally lost to the night.
So, to remember dreams, they need to be talked about, written down or reflected on immediately after waking.
If you don’t record them in some way then it will be harder to remember your dreams.
2. Light sleepers remember more dreams than heavy sleepers
Whether you remember dreams, then, depends on whether you are a light or heavy sleeper.
A brain imaging study has found those who recall more of their dreams have higher activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (Eichenlaub et al., 2014).
In addition, those who recalled most dreams showed greater activity in the temporo-parietal junction: this area of the brain is associated with attention towards things happening in the external world.
Together these two areas are very important in dream recall.
One of the study’s authors Perrine Ruby, explained:
“This may explain why high dream recallers are more reactive to environmental stimuli, awaken more during sleep, and thus better encode dreams in memory than low dream recallers.
Indeed the sleeping brain is not capable of memorizing new information; it needs to awaken to be able to do that.”
Intention and practice will also help if you goal is to try and remember your dreams.
3. Daydreamers are also night-dreamers
The overlap between waking and dreaming states was at the heart of the Matrix films.
Sci-fi aside, though, the film asked about the fact that when we’re awake, are we really awake or is this just another dream?
That’s all exciting philosophical stuff of course, but actually this has some neurobiological truth.
Neuroscientists have found that it is a fact that parts of the brain responsible for daydreaming while we’re awake are also responsible for our dreaming while we sleep.
Effectively the neural substrate responsible for dreaming may be a sub-system of that responsible for our waking lives.
“…dreaming may be the quintessential cognitive simulation because it is often highly complex, often includes a vivid sensory environment, unfolds over a duration of a few minutes to a half hour, and is usually experienced as real while it is happening.” (Domhoff, 2011)
4. Some people cannot dream
Some say that they don’t have dreams, but in all likelihood they do, it’s just that they don’t remember their dreams because they are heavy sleepers.
It is a fact about dreaming, though, that some genuinely cannot dream.
Often as a result of brain damage from strokes, these patients can be awoken repeatedly during the night and asked about their dreams: they claim never to be dreaming (Bischof & Bassetti, 2004).
5. The purpose of dreams
Of course we don’t know what dreams are for so there is no ‘fact’ here.
It could be that dreams have no purpose, but are merely distracting by-products of losing consciousness in the particular way we do when we sleep.
Being human, though, means searching for explanations, so there’s no shortage of theories about what dreams are for.
They may be for testing out ideas, they may be for consolidating information, they may allow us to work on problems while we sleep, or they may be a way of getting rid of all the emotions we’ve built up during the day.
Which you believe probably has less to do with science than your own personal preference.
So, believe whatever makes life more fun for you!
6. It is not a fact that dreaming only occurs in REM sleep
Since the 1950s it’s been thought that dreaming is only associated with the so-called ‘Rapid Eye Movement’ portions of sleep, which make up around 20-25 percent of total sleep-time.
But this idea has now been challenged.
Studies have found that sometimes when people are awakened from REM sleep they report no dreams.
And, sometimes when awakened from non-REM sleep they do report dreams (e.g. Nielsen, 2000).
Although much of our dreaming is done in REM sleep, some is probably also done in non-REM sleep.
7. People everywhere dream about the same stuff
A study of 50,000 dream reports by US psychologist Calvin S. Hall and colleagues found that there are remarkable similarities in the way people dream all around the world:
- Dreams are usually phantasmagoric: people, places, events and objects tend to merge into one another.
- The most common emotion experienced in dreams is anxiety and negative emotions are much more prevalent than positive.
- The vast majority of people dream in colour–if you watched monochrome TV growing up, though, you’re more likely to dream in black-and-white.
- Only around 10 percent of dreams are sexual in nature, although the percentage is higher amongst adolescents.
8. The meaning of dreams
Dreams mean nothing.
That is not so much one of the facts about dreaming, more that I personally don’t believe dreams mean anything in the sense that most people understand this question.
But I’m in the minority, as demonstrated by a study which found that 56 percent of Americans endorse the Freudian view of dreams, in that they reveal deep psychological truths about the self (Morewedge & Norton, 2009).
Indeed this may even be an underestimate of how much store people put by dreams.
Morewedge and Norton’s study found that the majority of people think their dreams will influence their waking life, often more so than a similar waking thought.
So apparently I’m wrong: dreams mean a lot to people–even if it’s only because of the importance people ascribe to them.
→ Read on: Dream Interpretation: What Dreams Really Mean
9. Recording a lucid dream
Recording what happens in the brain during a particular dream is hard.
You can put people inside brain scanners while they’re asleep and then ask them afterwards what they dreamed about, but the problem is they don’t know when they dreamed it.
So it ends up being tricky matching up the brain imaging results with a particular dream.
One solution is to use lucid dreamers.
These are people who have trained themselves to be aware of when they are dreaming and who can also take control of their dreams.
A recent study of facts about dreaming which used lucid dreamers this way found significant overlaps between the activity in the brain during wakefulness and during sleep (Dresler et al., 2011).
One of the authors, Michael Czisch, explained:
“Our dreams are therefore not a ‘sleep cinema’ in which we merely observe an event passively, but involve activity in the regions of the brain that are relevant to the dream content.”
10. Do blind people ‘see’ in their dreams?
Have you ever wondered if blind people can see in their dreams?
This is one of the facts about dreaming that blind people get asked a fair amount.
Here is Youtube star, radio presenter and ‘blind film critic’, Tommy Edison, explaining the answer:
Studies back this up, finding that people who never had sight or who lost their sight before they were five do not dream visually.
The striking weirdness of dreams in contrast to the quotidian sameness of life may help keep our minds sharp.
COVID-19 has created a ‘shared mindscape’ in people’s dreams.