Five questions about dreams you might not have thought to ask

What do we know about dreams? Can we learn from them and can they help us reach our goals?

We look at five questions about dreams you may never have thought to ask.

Is dreaming good for you?

The scientific study of dreams is known as oneirology - and it’s been around a lot longer than you might think.

In 1952 scientists Nathaniel Kleitman and Eugene Aserinsky discovered sleep cycles, and a particular cycle which resembled 'wakefulness' became known as Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. REM sleep is the period of sleep in which vivid dreaming occurs.

There are several theories about why it’s important to enter this state. A 1983 concept known as reverse learning suggests, that during sleep, the brain reviews important neural connections made in daily life (e.g. everything you think and do), and gets rid of unnecessary ones - a kind of de-cluttering of the brain. Without this process, your brain can be overrun by useless connections, and disrupt clear thinking and decision making while awake. Dreaming is thought to be a physiological side effect of this unlearning process.

REM sleep has also been linked to better memory and problem solving - so what about if you don't get enough of it? In 2017 the University of Arizona Health Sciences reported that patients whose REM sleep was interrupted suffered negative effects on their health. Therefore dreaming is not only important for improving learning and memory, but it’s also healthy for your body and brain.

So, if you get plenty of sleep before exams - and manage to dream about them - you’re likely to do much better when it comes to the real thing!

Can you learn from your dreams?

People have assigned meanings to dreams since the beginning of recorded history. In ancient Mesopotamia - a historical region of western Asia - kings would document and interpret their dreams on wax tablets. The ancient Egyptians wrote a 'dream book' which listed over 100 common dreams and their alleged meanings.

In the early 1900s, Sigmund Freud proposed that the images in dreams are symbolic of an unconscious wish or desire, and by analysing them, the psychological issue they represented could be addressed and resolved while awake. This is a therapy technique known as dream interpretation.

Many theories around sleep and anxiety have been built upon dream interpretation. People are far more likely to remember dreaming about negative things rather than positive. While this sounds like a bad thing, some scientists suggest this is a leftover survival technique known as “primitive instinct rehearsal theory”, which proposes that the subject of the dream relates to its purpose.

For example, being chased in a dream might help you practise your fight or flight instincts so you’re better prepared when you’re awake. But it doesn’t just apply to unpleasant dreams: dreaming about overcoming challenges and gaining rewards might encourage you to adapt to stressful situations.

However, if chronic nightmares are preventing you from sleeping, it’s best to go to a GP and ask about treatment to restore good-quality sleep.

Well, stone the crows! Joseph interprets the Pharaoh's dreams to tell a prophecy in the bible.

Do we dream differently across the world?

In the 1940s, psychologist and dream researcher Calvin Hall studied common “dream themes” across the world and found that many people dream about family and friends, finances and self-perception.

Further studies found that our anxieties are also similar across the globe. For example, being chased or attacked was common for both American and Japanese dreamers. One of the top five common fears related to school or work anxieties, such as freezing up in the middle of a presentation.

Surprisingly, the least common themes included flying, failing exams or being naked - contrary to the nightmare trope where the dreamer realises halfway through their big presentation that they've forgotten their trousers.

As Michelle started to giggle, John realised he wasn't dreaming.

Do we know when we are dreaming?

Some people report they are aware of the fact they are dreaming whilst the dream is ongoing, and may even have an element of control over the dreams - this is a phenomenon known as lucid dreaming.

Lucid dreaming has been referenced in ancient Greek writing, and is central to the early Tibetan Buddhist practice known as dream yoga, where having awareness during dreaming is thought to lead to a deeper understanding of the self.

The MILD (Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreaming) technique involves exercises to increase the chance of having a lucid dream. For example, setting intentions before you go to sleep - by repeating a mantra such as "I will recognise that I am dreaming" you can encourage your brain to be aware of when you're dreaming.

Performing ‘reality checks’ (such as counting your fingers or looking at the time) while awake can also help in recognising a dream. If something appears 'off' in your dream - such as having too many fingers on one hand or not being able to make sense of numbers - you might realise you’re dreaming and potentially control what happens next.

You can also keep a dream diary and note down what you remember from your dream the second you wake up. This will help you tune into your dreams and detect 'dream signs' - patterns which signify you are dreaming.

"Henry, this sleepover is getting out of hand."

Does every living thing dream?

Not necessarily. Dreaming is understood as the sequence of cognitive, sensory and emotional experiences during REM sleep. Insects and fish do not experience the same sleep cycles as us, including REM sleep, so it is assumed they don’t dream - but mammals exhibit behaviour during sleep including running, kicking and jumping, which is an indicator that they’re dreaming.

It’s even been suggested that some birds practise songs in their sleep, which scientists can determine by measuring chemical activity in the brain.

So before you go out and make your dreams reality, make sure to get a good night’s sleep!

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