Skip to main content

What are Dreams? Why We Have Them and Their Importance

Each night when we go to sleep, we dream. But what are dreams?

Each night when we go to sleep, we dream. But what are dreams?

What are dreams?

When we sleep our conscious mind switches off. The thoughts and feelings that we are aware of fade away and our unconscious mind takes over. We have no control over dreams, they happen automatically and we generally cannot control what we dream about, what we might see or feel in our dreams or how vivid they may be, or of course, whether we remember them in the morning,

What are dreams about?

  • The idea for Google came to inventor Larry Page in a dream
  • Some experience premonition dreams, where they dream events that actually happen later when they are fully awake
  • Dreams have a tendency to be more negative than positive
  • Studies have shown some people only dream in black and white

Dreams are a series of images, sensations, emotions and general subjective feelings that we experience while we are asleep.

Dreams that we remember often include people we know well or people we are associated with. The locations in our dreams could be familiar or unfamiliar to us and the action within the dream itself, what we are doing, may be something we do every day or something we have never done before.

Many people find their dreams to be unusual, sometimes quite bizarre and containing ideas or occurrences that just wouldn't happen in real life.

Dreams and the Sleep Cycle

The sleep cycle is important when considering the question of what dreams are. We sleep in different phases depending on how long we have been asleep, how deeply we are asleep and the stages of our eye movements and brain waves.

What are dreams?  They are the imagery and sensations we experience while we are asleep which occur during the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage of the sleep cycle

What are dreams? They are the imagery and sensations we experience while we are asleep which occur during the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage of the sleep cycle

Our sleep is made up of a cycle of phases we rotate through during the course of the night. We begin in a light sleep at stage 1, moving into stage 2 as we become more relaxed. As we go into a deep sleep we move into stages 3 and 4, before finally entering Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep where do we most of our dreaming.

What are Dreams - Brainwaves

30 seconds of EEG data for patients in Stage 4 sleep (top) and REM sleep (bottom)

30 seconds of EEG data for patients in Stage 4 sleep (top) and REM sleep (bottom)

Stage 1: We fall into a light sleep as we start to get comfortable and relaxed

Stage 2: Brain waves slow down and our eyes stop moving, this stage accounts for around 50% of our total sleep each night

Stage 3: Delta brain waves begin to occur which are very slow and we are falling into a deep sleep

Stage 4: Deep sleep, our brain waves are almost entirely delta waves, our eyes are stationary and our bodies are still

REM Sleep: This is Rapid Eye Movement sleep and happens when we are fully asleep. Our breathing becomes more regular, we have small but rapid eye movements and our limbs become temporarily paralysed. This is where most of our dreaming occurs and REM sleep accounts for about 20-25% of our total sleep per night.

Each cycle takes around 90-120 minutes to complete and repeats throughout the night. Each period of REM sleep increases in length as the hours pass.

During REM sleep our eyes move rapidly because the temporary paralysis we experience in the rest of our bodies does not extend to the eyes. Furthermore, both alpha and beta brain wave activity can be seen during REM sleep and the brain activity is most similar to when awake during this stage.

If you awaken during REM sleep you are much more likely to remember your dreams than during non-REM sleep phases (Franklin and Zyphur, 2005).

During a nights sleep we rotate through sleep cycles with phases of REM sleep becoming longer each cycle

During a nights sleep we rotate through sleep cycles with phases of REM sleep becoming longer each cycle

Why do we dream?

One of the main theories of sleep and dreams comes from the early work of Sigmund Freud regarding memory. In answering what are dreams for, he proposed they are a vehicle for our unconscious minds to act out our desires, wishes and fantasies that we are unable to do in real life. He connected such content to childhood experiences and memories. Freud believed that when we have memories of unpleasant or upsetting circumstances we ‘repress’ them in that we hide them away in our mind so we don’t think about them as they are hurtful.

Scroll to Continue

Dreams are a method of the mind to deal with these repressed memories by working thorough them, according to Freud.

Freud also introduced the notion of ‘repressed longing’ which refers to the personal thoughts and fantasises we all have which we do not act upon or speak about within our daily social lives. For Freud, dreams allow these to be explored in the safety of our sleep.

What are Dreams? Research Explained

Why are dreams important?

Carl Jung was another prominent psychologist around the same time as Freud and originally studied under him before finding his own path.

While he agreed with the basics of Freud’s theories on what are dreams, he focused more on their purpose being more useful to our waking lives and providing opportunity to work through problems and reflect on issues affecting our day to day reality.

What are dreams? - they take us to places filled with images, sights and sounds

What are dreams? - they take us to places filled with images, sights and sounds

He believed dreams were our way of working things out and allow us to resolve problems and conflict. Moreover, he thought that recurring dreams were a sign there was an ongoing issue that had not been addressed and the dream was a way of alerting the conscious mind that attention needed to be paid to that area.

Psychoanalysis, such as the theories of Freud and Jung, focuses on the interpretation of dreams, what they mean to us in the real world and how they may reflect or be connected to our waking reality.

Neuroscience on the other hand, is not interested in meaning; it is interested in the structures and processes that cause us to dream, how these mechanisms work and what control we may or may not have over them.

“It’s almost like having an internal therapist, because you associate, through dreams, to previous similar feelings, and you work through the emotion related to it so that it is reduced by morning.”

— Professor Rosalind Cartwright, Rush University, Chicago

The Neural Basis of Dreams

From a neuropsychological point of view, Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley suggested dreams were more physiologically based than psychologically based and they were the result of our many electrical brain impulses. Their answer to the question what are dreams, was the proposal of the Activation-Synthesis Hypothesis in 1976 where they saw dreams as random neural activity rather than our brains trying to do anything useful or meaningful.

This theory challenged the more traditional view points of Freud and Jung and dismissed the role of the unconscious mind within the dreaming process. They said the forebrain is simply reacting to the random activity experienced when we enter REM sleep, as certain circuits activate in the brain around the limbic system allowing our emotions, sensations and memories to all become active.

What are Dreams?

Dreams and their Interpretations:

Falling – may symbolize insecurities and anxiety, a feeling of loss of control or you have a sense of failure about something in your life.

Being Chased –may symbolize you are running away from a problem. What or who is chasing you in your dream may reveal what it is you are running away from.

Flying –may symbolize you are feeling in control and everything is running smoothly. If however your flying feels unstable, this may suggest there is something threatening that control.

Teeth falling out – may be associated with power and communication and symbolize a concern over an interference with your ability to communicate. Others feel the interpretation is related to anxieties or concerns over our appearance.

The reason dreams can be so bizarre, they said, is because this activity is entirely random and your brain is trying to make sense of it in an orderly fashion. In other words, trying to make a story out of random pieces of information.

However, critics argue if it truly were completely random activity, all the dreams we experience and have any memory of would be completely bizarre and random which we know is not the case. Many of our dreams do make sense and follow a story that is logical.

Why don’t we remember our dreams?

There are a number of different theories in understanding why we don’t always remember our dreams.

As Freud believed our dreams were repressed unpleasant memories, he claimed the idea was not to remember them and nor should we want to. Others believe that we learn and remember things through repetition and dreams are quick and unique states. Therefore, it would make sense we often do not remember them or can only remember small parts or a certain feeling associated with the dream you have had such as fear or pleasure.

What are dreams? Each night our minds take us on adventures and experiences while we are asleep

What are dreams? Each night our minds take us on adventures and experiences while we are asleep

Many people are fascinated by dreams and their meaning and many keep a dream journal where by when they wake they can note down anything they remember about their dreams whether that be people and locations, feelings and sensations, or images and sounds.

Maybe even one day it will be possible to record our dreams so we can relive them in the morning when we are awake.

While there are many different theories on dreams and why we dream, most do centre on the idea of our brain sorting through or working with the stimuli we have encountered during our waking hours.

This suggests dreaming could be very important for us to process our environment. Furthermore, working through problems, sorting through memories and dealing with issues could also be a very important function of our dreams allowing us to deal with the constant barrage of information and experiences we encounter every day.


Franklin, M; Zyphur, M (2005). "The role of dreams in the evolution of the human mind". Evolutionary Psychology 3: 59–78

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (2006) "Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep"

Webb, Craig (1995) "Dreams: Practical Meaning & Applications". The DREAMS Foundation (February 25, 2009) "The Health Benefits of Dreams"

© 2015 PsychGeek


PsychGeek (author) from UK on June 16, 2015:

Hi Harish, thank you for your great comments. Dreams are indeed a fasinating area and still quite baffling in many ways but I think that only increases the interest.

I do find the analysis of dreams really interesting but have never been very good at understanding what my own dreams mean. I do beleive they are a reflection in some way on the events going on in our lives, our emotions, fears and pleasures but I do agree, imagination is a large and very important part! I am glad you enjoyed the Hub!

Harish Mamgain from New Delhi , India on June 16, 2015:

This is a scientific subject but written in such an interesting way that it almost reads like some fiction. Dreams are ever enchanting and a big challenge to the scientists and psychologists.

You brought up some interesting facts like our body becoming paralyzed for a brief period and random neural activity giving birth to dreams. Interpretation of dreams is also a wonderful area. Falling in dreams really suggests failure in an activity, and ascendence means success. I saw such kind of dreams and found this interpretation true.

One of the dreams that I saw ample times is losing my pair of shoes or chappals. This is interpreted as indicative of non-yielding activity. I never linked it to my forthcoming activities and so not sure of this interpretation. PychGeek, my friend, dreams excite our imagination as well as the scientific temper. Thanks for sharing such a wonderful hub.

PsychGeek (author) from UK on March 30, 2015:

Hi Ron, thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts! It does appear we have a long way to go before we understand dreaming. There are so many theories and potential explanations out there which is I suppose why we find it so interesting; we are always attracted to the unknown. It does make you wonder whether animals do fully dream in the same way as we do, as you say some evidence suggests they do. I would love to know what my puppy dreams about!

Ronald E Franklin from Mechanicsburg, PA on March 29, 2015:

This is a very interesting topic. One obvious objection to the of Freud/Jung approach, it seems to me, is that it posits a very high level of cognition. Yet, as I understand it, some animals show the physiological signs we associate with dreaming. I'm not sure my dog is dealing with repressed memories of childhood every night! My takeaway from your excellent presentation: we still don't understand very much about dreaming.

PsychGeek (author) from UK on February 25, 2015:

Hi Frank, thank you for stopping by and such lovely comments - dreams for me are one of the most interesting aspects of our mind and brain, so many possibilities. I love the idea they have meaning and are useful to our waking reality, there is something extremely intriguing about that.

Frank Atanacio from Shelton on February 25, 2015:

Fascinating, educational and concise look into what are dreams.. it's more than just saying the brain is the utmost part to memory and dream.. thank you for sharing my friend :)

PsychGeek (author) from UK on February 23, 2015:

Hi Coleton, I am glad you enjoyed the Hub! Lucid dreaming is fascinating and apparently with practice some people really can control their dreams and what they do in them. I agree it would be interesting to find out what the theories are on this and how it is possible, you may have just given me an idea for my next Hub, thank you!

Coleton LM on February 22, 2015:

I've been exploring my dreams to a greater degree lately, and this was a phenomenal read! I'd be very interested in reading how the differing perspectives of psychology explain lucid dreaming.

PsychGeek (author) from UK on February 20, 2015:

Thank you aesta1, I am glad you enjoyed the Hub and if it has helped you make sense of one of your dreams, that is even better!

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on February 20, 2015:

This is really an enjoyable read. You have presented this very well. I now understand one of my recurring dreams so thank you.

PsychGeek (author) from UK on February 18, 2015:

Thank you Kristen! I do love the idea of writing stories from your dreams, that's fantastic and I wonder whether they follow a pattern or a theme? I'm starting to learn more about nightmares and night terrors, both very bizarre and frightening experiences that some people seem to have while others don't.

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on February 18, 2015:

Great hub with filled facts on dreams. Well-written and voted up. Most of my story ideas comes from dreams, like Stephanie Meyer for the Twilight series. But every now and then, I do have a nightmare and wonder why.

PsychGeek (author) from UK on February 17, 2015:

Hi Sharp Points, the concept of dreams, their purpose and what they mean I really do find fascinating. I think it is the idea that is our unconscious mind working away that interests me and the notion it is sorting through and organising everything. Our minds are such huge vaults of information and stimulus, it really is quite amazing how it all works. Thank you so much for such kind comments and vote!

Sharp Points from Big Bear Lake, California on February 17, 2015:

Such a great mystery. What an extremely well informed article, two thumbs up for sure. I have always found dreams extremely interesting. My old therapist studied dream deciphering as well so I would always tell her my dreams. She asked what I thought they meant first and I would give a detailed description of what each thing meant. Blew my mind when she gave extremely simple answers for everything and it all made sense. Who knows if we will ever really know what the purpose of dreams are. I guess the idea that it's the brain cataloging our memories makes the most sense to me. Anyway beautiful article, voted up!

PsychGeek (author) from UK on February 16, 2015:

I also find remembering my dreams very difficult. For me I seem to awake with an emotion rather than a clear memory of the dream, in that I will feel sad or scared with a very vague idea why but little detail. This of course soon passes but I do find it quite fascinating!

Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent from Mississauga, ON on February 16, 2015:

This is correct. I hardly remember my dreams even though some of them are so disturbing that I wake up and say to myself this is the one I am definitely going to remember. But lo and behold, by morning, I would have forgotten them.

PsychGeek (author) from UK on February 16, 2015:

Hi Suhail, thank you for reading and commenting! I do think dreams are very important to our general cognitive functioning and act as a sorting centre of sorts. Apparently we do always dream at least once a night, usually multiple times, but we generally do not remember doing so. It is interesting how there are common dreams that many of us have, which does very much make me wonder whether they have more meaning behind them.

PsychGeek (author) from UK on February 16, 2015:

Hi Heidi, dreams really are one of the most fascinating areas! I agree, I believe they are a product of our minds sorting and organising and allowing us to work through conflict. Thank you so much for the share and your kind comments!

Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent from Mississauga, ON on February 15, 2015:

I was able to read this very informative hub thanks to its sharing by Heidi.

Some people also suggest that dream are the malware of our central processing unit. Since I usually dream of being chased, flying and teeth falling out I think this may also be true.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on February 15, 2015:

What dreams are and why we have them are truly a Holy Grail of psychology. I definitely believe it's one way our minds help sort things out that we either cannot or are not consciously willing to do so. Voted up, interesting and sharing!

Related Articles