Insights into Psychology

What Is… Dreaming (Insights into Psychology)

graphic of brain circuits

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is dreaming.

We all have dreams, whether we remember them or not, but what exactly are they? The reality is that no one really knows for sure.  There are a few things we do know, though.

REM sleep

Dreams occur mostly during the REM (rapid eye movement) phase of sleep, when the brain is quite active. The duration can vary from seconds to half an hour, and on average people have 3-5 dreams per night with dream phases 60-90 minutes apart.

Some dreams occur during deep sleep, but they’re less vivid and we don’t usually remember them. These are mostly associated with the hippocampus consolidating information into long-term memory.

REM sleep is a rather fascinating phase. On an electroencephalogram (EEG), the brain looks almost as active as when it’s awake. However, the brain does not release the neurotransmitters norepinephrine, serotonin, and histamine during this phase. The prefrontal cortex, which handles higher level cognitive functioning, is less active while dreaming, which may be why dreams can feel very real even if they’re bizarre.

It’s unknown what part of the brain generates the vivid imagery of REM dreams. It is clear, though, that it is not the same part of the brain that’s used for imagination while awake. Increased dopamine release is associated with increased vivid dreaming and nightmares, while suppression of dopamine transmission, such as with antipsychotic medications, is associated with decreased dreaming and less vividness. Antidepressants that affect serotonin can sometimes cause increased vividness of dreams. For people who have nightmares due to PTSD, there are some medications that could potentially help.

All mammals are thought to go through REM sleep, and signs of dreaming have been observed in a number of animals. I’m fairly sure that I’ve watched my guinea pigs while they were dreaming, with eyes darting around and ears flapping.

What do dreams mean?

The meaning of dreams from a neurophysiological perspective is unclear. Some researchers think that they’re involved in consolidating the day’s events into long-term memory. Others suggest that it’s the brain randomly putting together bits of information from stimulation of the posterior part of the brain.

Sigmund Freud believed that dreams were manifestations of one’s deepest thoughts and feelings, including repressed memories. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, he also thought that dreams were also a release of sexual tension. He believed that while in a dream state, the super-ego relaxed, and the id could really come out to play. Dream interpretation was an essential part of psychoanalysis, and continues to play an important role in that field.

Dreams have been interpreted as having divine significance since early Egyptian times. Now, there are plenty of sites scattered around the internet that will tell you what each specific element of a dream means. There doesn’t appear to be any research to back up these various symbolic interpretations.

Psychologist World has a rather lengthy list, so for fun let’s consider a few:

  • Bigamy: for a man, “loss of manhood and failing mentality”, and for a woman, “she will suffer dishonor unless very discreet”
  • Bonnet: “much gossiping and slandering”
  • Buffalo: “if a woman dreams of killing a lot of buffaloes, she will undertake a stupendous enterprise”
  • Camel: you will “entertain great patience and fortitude”

My own take

Personally, I think the symbol business is a load of BS. Sure, elements of dreams may mean something, but to me “bonnet” means Laura Ingalls Wilder, and to someone in the UK it means part of a car, so if I dream of a bonnet, how does that get interpreted? In more general terms, though, we all have a unique set of past experiences and memories, and as a result, we may each have very different associations with a particular item. If dreams do have a deeper meaning, I suspect it would be far more individualized than bonnet = gossip.

I seldom remember my dreams, which may be that I seldom get woken up out of REM sleep. My personal take on it is that dreams don’t necessarily have much meaning. We’re bombarded with so much sensory information during the day, much of which our brains conveniently filter out of our awareness.& There’s also our long-term memory banks, which aren’t that well understood. It makes a lot of sense to me that dreaming is what comes flying out while the brain is filing away all that information.

But who really knows, right? It could all just be a conspiracy of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her gossipy bonneted friends.

You can find the rest of the what is… series in the Psychology Corner.


Sleep Better: The Little Book of Sleep mini-ebook

Sleep Better: The Little Book of Sleep is a mini-ebook that covers a range of strategies, both medical and non-medical, to help you get the best sleep you can. It’s available from the MH@H Download Centre.

35 thoughts on “What Is… Dreaming (Insights into Psychology)”

  1. This is a really interesting one – dreams are fascinating, aren’t they? We covered a bit about sleep & REM cycles and such during my psych degree. I used to get the odd dream I would remember but something a bit off has been happening since August 18th (the day I changed to a memory foam pillow, so I’m much flatter than I used to be on two pillows! 😆) It’s been since having breathing issues with bronchiectasis and lung scarring so I wondered whether I’m waking up and not knowing. I don’t snore but I don’t really know what I do/don’t do in my sleep. This sounds so stupid so I don’t really know if it’s worth mentioning. But – I’ve had dreams, very vivid and memorable dreams, every single night since Aug 18th. Why!?!? xx

  2. I don’t remember my dreams. When I do, they are not pleasant. Sometimes very scary or very confusing. I don’t like them because they make me more tired. I think, my opinion, is that when the body evens out things, like the dopamine you described, the body feels that something is happening and the mind gives it a scenario. Like when your hearbeat goes up and you start looking for danger. With what scenario the mind comes up will be very unique and maybe it is the id that comes to play. I killed someone once, so my super ego was surely not in the picture!

  3. I am an incredibly lucid dreamer. I almost always recognize I’m dreaming and have some ability to control my dreams. I often have dreams within dreams and there has been a few times where at the end of a dream, closing credits have rolled.

  4. I woke up today with a cry resounding in my head, something about “the honor and power of Eastern China” or something like that. I don’t remember what I was dreaming, but it sounds really weird.

  5. I have many moments where I feel like I am living my dream and it feels real. My dreams are always bizarre with some scary ones that aren’t nightmares. When I wake up, it feels odd finding out it was a dream. My puppy has loud dreams. He often whines in his sleep.

    I used to think that symbols meant something but they never turned out to be true. I stopped believing they are. I never symbols haven’t been proven. It makes sense because there is no way to study if they are.

  6. Terrific post. Great share, as always. I’ve run the board with dreams and dreaming. From deeply vivid, wildly sensual – the good – to a terrible spell of suffering Night Terrors over many years, which have only lessened to a very rare occurrence the past couple years.

  7. My dreams are directly related to my trauma recovery and / or incidents that I have lived through. My dreams directly show me what I still need to work on. At first I fought them and dreaded the nights. Now Im trying to embrace them as a powerful tool.

  8. I try not to laugh too hard when my dog barks in her sleep– it sounds like she inhaled helium. I also find it hilarious when she starts drinking water(?) while sleeping. I’ve woken her up by accident a few times with my mirth.

  9. I don’t believe in dream symbols, like… I dunno, a black cat dream signifying betrayal for example, but I do think sometimes a dream can be powerful and so can have meaning and represent what’s happening in real life. For example, a few months ago I dreamt my therapist was really safe and kind, and telling me how important I am to him as a client, and how I felt the first internal shift towards trust had taken place in my psyche as a result of that dream, even though I knew it was only a dream!
    I once decided to amuse myself by being my own guinea pig and set my alarm clock during REM sleep intervals, as soon as I woke I scribbled a word or two about the dream and then fell back to sleep. It was really interesting to see the variety of dreams, some were hilarious and others anxiety-related. I love dreams!

  10. Freud’s student Jung thought that there was a deep level of the human brain, the collective unconscious, where there are shared symbols that occur across all cultures and mythologies and hence dreams. Which would get around some of what you said about culture-specific imagery. But Jung is as untestable as Freud.

    (I don’t get the bonnet thing thought, because someone would dream the image of a bonnet, regardless of what they thought that was, not the word ‘bonnet.’)

    Jewish thought says that some dreams have deep meaning, but others are just craziness from your brain. It encourages finding a positive meaning for a dream because that will make it more likely to happen, in positive-thinking style. The Talmud has a story about a dream interpreter who gave good and bad interpretations to the same dream from two different people, the good interpretation to someone who paid him and the bad one to someone who wanted a free consultation.

      1. Well, certainly not that one. I just looked the story up (I’ve never learnt it properly) and it ends with him getting cursed because he should only have given positive interpretations.

    1. I used to dismiss dreams and appropriate them to the spicy pizza one had before bed. Although that may still be true, I’ve come to believe they can have deeper significance. Unresolved conflict. Fears. Decisions. Even messages from God.

Leave a Reply