Vincent Van Gogh may have been onto something when he said, “I dream of painting and then I paint my dreams.”
Throughout history, dreams have fascinated scientists, psychologists, and artists alike. And over time, studies have contradictorily concluded that dreams mean nothing, mean everything, hold literal significance, or are just attempts to rationalize images we conjure up in our sleep.
Freud believed that dreams were valuable clues into how the unconscious mind operates. In his book, “The Interpretation of Dreams”, the father of psychoanalysis argued that dreams reveal thoughts, motivations, or desires of our unconscious. He may be right.
How we dream
Ever been jolted awake but unable to move? That’s your body keeping you safe while you sleep. Because we mostly dream during REM sleep — where our heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, and brain activity is the same as when we’re awake — if we weren’t physically paralyzed during that sleep stage, we’d literally be acting out our dreams.
Here’s what happens in our brains while we sleep:
Our eyes are closed, so the primary visual cortex is inactive, but the other areas of the cortex — the parts that analyze visual stimuli — are active and attempting to make sense of images our brains are making. Meanwhile, the limbic system — the primary control center for our emotions — becomes active, too.
Our brains don’t process things the same way when we’re sleeping because the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex — which controls logic and rational part of our brains — also becomes inactive, meaning our dreams can be emotionally charged but completely illogical.
How dreams affect our mood
While your dreams may be forgotten soon after waking, they don’t just stay in your bedroom. Whatever you’re feeling in your dream — good or bad — affects your daytime mood and social interactions the next day.
Dreaming during REM is most common, but it can also happen during “non-REM sleep” or NREM. According to NCBI research, the NREM and REM sleep states may create opposing types of daytime social interactions because they occur in different parts of the brain. The studies revealed that dreamer-initiated aggressiveness is more characteristic of REM sleep, while dreamer-initiated friendliness is more typical of NREM sleep.
The threat simulation theory argues that dreaming can be seen as a biological defense mechanism. Dreams could have provided an evolutionary advantage because of the brain’s ability to recreate potential threats. When we see threats in our dreams, it increases our cognitive ability to perceive and avoid them when we’re awake.
Know your dreams
We’re still learning and processing memories during sleep, and that affects the kinds of dreams we have. Here are a few of the most common ones you may experience:
- Lucid dreams: Lucid dreams happen when you become aware that you’re dreaming. We interviewed Flower Power Herbs & Roots owner, Lata Chettri-Kennedy about the power of mugwort and its effect on lucid dreaming. Mugwort has been known to keep dreamers in REM stages longer, increasing chances of attaining the lucid dream state.
- Nightmares: Nightmares can be vivid, emotionally draining, and often upsetting. While one every now and then is normal, consistent nightmares can be linked to mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression.
- Day dreams: A Harvard study shows that people daydream about 46.9% of the time. But, the same study found that letting our minds wander doesn’t necessarily make us happier. Researchers discovered that people didn’t just fantasize when they were unhappy; rather, their fantasies actually led to unhappiness.
Make sense of your dreams
Though we often dismiss our dreams and move on with our day, analyzing dreams is a first step to figuring out what our unconscious mind is up to.
- Write them down: Write down everything that comes to mind before you forget. You may think you’ll be able to remember and analyze your dreams later that day, but here’s the thing: our waking brain is logical and rational, whereas our sleeping brain isn’t. That means your waking brain may try to add in details that weren’t there before.
- Reflect on your emotions, too: Don’t just write down what you did, write down how you felt in your dream. Were you stressed? Anxious? Happy? Excited? Ask yourself why you felt that way. Keep track of your mood the next day and be mindful of any correlation that might arise.
- Determine what they might be telling you: Are your dreams mundane or fantastical? Do they follow a logical progression or jump from place to place? Do you have any recurring dreams? Sometimes, anxiety-based dreams repeat actions that are unfinished in waking life. Take a deeper dive into dream interpretation to find meanings or common symbols in your dreams.
Though dreams can be messy, complicated, and emotional, remember that they’re healthy, and even cathartic. Our dreams may be just what we need to re-align what’s off-balance in our lives. After all, Freud believed that dreams were really just wishes looking to be fulfilled. So, in the words of Aerosmith, dream on.