The Science Of Our Dreams

Illustration by Aminah Brown.

There’s a common experience that all humans, regardless of culture or language, share:


But what are dreams, really?

When we sleep, the brain never stops its activity and it continues throughout the night. Dreams occur during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, a period of sleep that involves more  brain activity than other periods. Scientists are still trying to discover what exactly causes dreams and how they work. Reading about the studies makes for an interesting time.

Dreaming has been recorded for thousands of years. The earliest account comes at about 2,500 BC and details a king’s fears about his death. For just as long as they’ve been recorded, people have been trying to figure out what they mean. As such, there are many different interpretations. However, there’s one thing just about everyone agrees on: dreams do mean something.

In his book The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud states that “dreams are the royal road to the unconscious.” To him, dreams are the manifestation of subconscious thoughts and desires.

Carl Jung, a psychoanalyst, brings a different perspective. According to him, dreams are a natural product of the imagination working to integrate the subconscious mind and conscious mind.

Another belief that features prominently in historical texts is that dreams are prophecies, giving the dreamer a glimpse of his or her future life. In addition, some people believe that dreams had a divine origin, among them Homer, Plato and Aristotle.

Kelly Bulkeley, a dream researcher, brings a more pragmatic approach. According to Bulkeley, dreams are intended to prepare for the future. “We’re doing that when we’re awake all the time,” he says. “We have a capacity for forethought—it’s going to get cold in the winter, so we better store up food. All sorts of things we do depend on the capacity to predict the future. I see the mind and the brain as a 24-hour system and that same kind of [preparatory] thinking is happening in sleep as well.”

Across the globe common themes appear in the dreams of people. Have you ever had a dream about being chased by someone (or something)? Well, you’re not alone, 54% of other people have had it to. What about dreams of you falling? Over half of people report having that one. Other common dreams are being able to fly, failing tests and being back in school.

The average person has somewhere between three to eight dreams per night. That means that over the course of a lifetime a person will have more than 130,000 dreams. That seems like a lot, but we don’t remember the vast majority of these dreams. This is mainly because we are usually only aware that we have had a dream if we are partially awake at some point during it and we have a tendency to remember only the ones that are exciting and interesting.

While researchers have only begun to probe the surface of dreams and the science relating to them, the consensus seems to be that dreams do have some sort of meaning. So maybe next time you have a dream take some time to think about what its meaning could be.

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