Expert Q&A: Dreaming Explained

A sleep expert answers your top questions about dreams

Ever wonder what goes on in your head after you fall asleep? Neuroscientist Rosalind Cartwright, Ph.D., author of the upcoming book The Twenty-Four Hour Mind: The Role of Sleep and Dreaming in Our Emotional Lives has the answers to some common questions about dreams.

Why do we dream? Dreaming can serve many functions, depending on what our needs and issues are at any one time. For example, if you’re learning a lot of new information, dreaming helps your brain to store it in long-term memory. During dreams, you may also subconsciously be working out solutions to problems or processing emotions you experienced during the day.

I have the same dream over and over. Is that normal? Repetitive dreams are quite common. Often they’re troubling and involve disturbing imagery such as falling, getting trapped or failing a test, or being naked in public, chased or attacked. In many cases, such troubling dreams are based on experiences we had when we were very young and coping with developmental challenges. For example, when we’re learning to walk as toddlers, we fall down a lot. This may create images of falling that are stored in our memory banks and crop up when we’re feeling insecure about something as adults. Repetitive dreams may also be good dreams — flying instead of falling, for example.

How often do we dream? Most people dream three to five times per night. Dreams are most vivid during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which occurs every 90 minutes or so. Periods of REM sleep last from about 5 to 10 minutes at the beginning of the night to as long as 45 minutes in the last few hours of sleeping. I never seem to dream, or at least I don’t remember dreaming. Is that unusual? We all dream. But we don’t recall most of our dreams; only if we awaken from one do we remember it. That’s why people tend to remember early-morning dreams more vividly than nighttime dreams. Dream recall varies quite a bit from person to person as well. Generally, women tend to be better recallers, as are people who are introspective, curious about emotions or undergoing psychotherapy.

Can I train myself to remember my dreams? And is there any reason I should? Remembering dreams can be valuable because they can give you insight into your thoughts and emotions. To improve your dream-recall ability, tell yourself at bedtime to try to remember your dreams. Keep a notebook beside your bed, and when you wake up from a dream, lie still, with your eyes closed, and go over the details of the dream in your mind. Then, give the dream a name. For instance, you might tag a dream about getting your hair combed “The Hair Combing Dream.” Next open your eyes and write down what you remember. Over time, your recall may improve.

Do we dream in color? People have reported dreaming in black and white, but most dream in color.

Do babies dream? How about dogs and cats? Babies experience REM sleep, so scientists believe they dream — but obviously they don’t know this for sure, since babies can’t report their dreams. However, by the age of 3 or 4, when children develop adequate language skills, they start to report having dreams (they can also draw what they saw in their dreams). So, it’s highly likely that they’ve been dreaming all along. The same idea applies to animals: Most mammals experience REM sleep, and dogs and cats often display behavior during sleep that suggests they’re dreaming — for example, a sleeping dog may move his legs in a running motion (chasing a squirrel in his sleep, perhaps?).

Can I choose what I dream? You can’t control your dreams completely, but you can increase the chances that they’ll be pleasant by taking steps to alleviate stress and anxiety during the day, for example, and by avoiding foods and medications that can disturb sleep. Just as important: getting an adequate amount of sleep each night. At the beginning of sleep, the REM stages are very short, and so dreams are short, and the brain doesn’t have enough time to retrieve and process relevant experiences. (For more happy-dream tips, check out 6 Ways to Make Sure Your Dreams Are Sweet.) In fact, many of us have unpleasant dreams in the beginning of sleep because of these short REM cycles, but fortunately, we don’t remember them if we sleep long enough to have long REM periods. As the night progresses, the REM cycles get longer, and the brain has more time to devote to working out concerns. When your brain can devote up to 45 minutes to a problem, the problem will likely be worked through to a reasonable and satisfying outcome — and the dream will be positive. If you’re nightmare-prone, you can get help with therapy, medication or both, or you can try a simple technique called image rehearsal therapy.

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