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What Do Dreams Really Mean?

When you wake up in the morning, you may remember strange, emotion-filled experiences commonly known as a dream. This unique state of consciousness has perplexed scientists and researchers for decades despite being a universal human experience.

In a study performed by sleep researcher Dr. William Dement, participants were deprived of dreaming by waking them just as they went into rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Over time, these participants became irritable, anxious, gained weight, and even had a tendency to hallucinate. Clearly, dreaming and sleep serve important roles in our overall health.

Sleep studies also show that those who have tried to learn new things during the day tend to dream more at night. Why is this?

Let’s explore more about these mysteries of dreaming to help answer questions on the subject.

When do we dream?

Although many may consider dreaming as a state of deep sleep, our most vivid and memorable dreams occur during REM sleep. REM sleep is a lighter stage of sleep, which explains why we often wake up right after a dream. Brain wave activity during this sleep phase is often quite fast, similar to when we are awake.

Even more, studies show that the areas of our brain in charge of emotions are quite active while we dream. The part of our brain responsible for processing complicated thinking is not active at this stage of sleep. This may explain why our dreams are often filled with emotional content. You may have experienced strange scenarios such as wearing a bikini to the first day of class with Sponge Bob as the teacher.

Why do we dream?

The reason we dream remains largely a mystery. We do know that REM sleep plays a role in forming memories. As we sleep, our brains churn through the new experiences from the day prior, trying to sort out which to remember and which to forget.

REM sleep likely also plays a role in forgetting. If our brains held on to every little bit of information from the day, we would be bogged down by too many unimportant memories.

Sleep helps clear the clutter. It’s why you likely don’t remember what you ate for dinner five nights ago.

Do dreams have meaning?

Many people search for a hidden message within their dreams. And while dreams can reflect your daytime experiences, studies show that dreaming is not truly a reflection of deeper emotions or conflicts. One theory suggests that dreaming is simply a nonsense result of the activity that takes place while we sleep and restore our brains.

So when you wake up tomorrow after dreaming of your teeth falling out, rest assured that your brain is hard at work keeping you healthy and happy.

About The Author

Dr. Sujay Kansagra Sujay Kansagra, MD is an associate professor at Duke University Medical Center, a paid contributor of the The Daily Doze and Mattress Firm's Sleep Health Expert. He is also the Program Director of the Pediatric Neurology Residency Program and Director of the Duke Pediatric Neurology Sleep Medicine Program. Dr. Kansagra is double board certified in both Child Neurology and Sleep Medicine. He has published over 30 peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals and is the author of numerous book chapters and books on the topic of sleep, including My Child Won’t Sleep. He’s been featured on Huffington Post, Elite Daily, Bustle, SheKnows, Thrillist, CNN, and Reader’s Digest, among others and can be found regularly discussing sleep, medicine and education with his 129K+ Twitter followers via his accounts, @medschooladvice and @PedsSleepDoc. Best Night’s Sleep: Not just a sleep expert, but also an expert sleeper, Dr. Kansagra can sleep almost anywhere, thanks to years of sleep deprivation during medical school and residency call nights. But his best sleep is at home with his family, on a mattress he purchased at Mattress Firm long before he joined our team. He recently upgraded it with an adjustable base.

21 thoughts on “What Do Dreams Really Mean?

  1. If our dreams have no deep meaning? Why do people who have suffered trama, (such as soldiers) keep having re-occurring nightmares, that let doctors know the sufferer has P.T.S.D. (or post tramatic stress disorder)?

    • Exactly!!! I completely agree. Our dreams do indeed have meaning. A lot of meaning, out brain trying to declutter what’s in it. Either us trying to remember and keep memory or trying very hard to let it go. I think it’s a process of clarifying the mind, body & soul. And depending on how hard we took this hit or fantastic memory is how long we can dream of things to clear it from our concious. I remember a lot, most, of my dreams, I tend to be a lot more intuitive than most. Some of friends don’t dream or don’t remember their dreams at all, and let me tell you….a lot passes them by. They are oblivious to a lot.

      • Betty foreman says:

        Yes our dreams does have meanings. I’ve written my dream down since 1972 and won lottery with the numbers and watched out and seen what meanings most of them have. There are messages in those dreams. Then again some dreams are visions,my father taught me that one. There is a difference in dreams and visions.

    • scott wootton says:

      My own dreams seem to be a daily relief of all the days events, be it bad or good. They seem to be interpreted in a manner in which I feel they should be. It appears that my brain wants to take bad and make it good, with bizarre changes in daily activities. I have much more rest and relief during my dreaming time. All dreams are retained and I tend to sort out memories I want to keep.

    • George Amsterdam says:

      Dreams do have meanings. Shortly before my youngest brother died, I dreamed of he and myself, being apart for a while, finally being together going for a walk. He looked drained, tired and much older. It was after a horrible snow storm and the top of the snow was smoggy (dirty) and piled up pretty much. It was a rough snow event and the aftermath. Shortly thereafter he died in a horrible accident. Also, I dreamed of myself flying, propelling myself easily and comfortably and in total control of myself up in the air having fun. Shortly after that, the peak of my life took off, well off and I was happy doing pretty pretty good and things just came my way. The true stories go on and on. If you follow your dream and relate it to reality, for real, you will clearly see and/or feel the truth about dreams.

      • Betty foreman says:

        George that ,I dreamed about flying and the peak of my life was going great at that time also. If I don’t dream for a few days,I feel something is wrong.

    • Excellent question! Dreams have been understood as traumatic release of emotions and can be understood as metaphors. Sometimes as in trauma the dream is a combined screen memory and daily activity.

  2. Eron J Holley says:

    I must say interesting and an intelligent approach on the physical side.

    In my opinion in a SYFY turn of events just from the types of dreams I have had it almost seems like I had been taking a ride in the shoes of my counter part front an alternate dimension. Just from the details, colors, conversations.
    Yes I know I sound like a SYFY geek who has seen one to many movies. However it is the only theory I have come up with not only from my own dreams but from hearing those of lots of other people.
    No I do not have any type of degree or probably much sanity, I’m just your typical family man and veteran.

  3. I do not agree regarding dreams not reflecting conflicts. I am not a lottery player- and in 2005 I dreamed that I fogeot to play the number 1111- IN the dream I was crying very hard, and while asleep I could feel my throat tighten from the crying. The dream eneded abruptly. And I slept very deeply afterwards. The next afternoon-the dream came back to mind and I really had to think about if it had happened or if I had dreamed it. In the dream every detail of a gass staion I use was clear as a bell. The number had been painted on the glass windows surrounding the cashier. I realized it was a dream, and played the number and won $5000.

    • Betty foreman says:

      Ok. I dream at least 3-4 times within 7 days, I look up my dreams and most times hit numbers related to my dreams, my mother taught me this. Also, certain things that stay on your mind ,play that number and win the money.

  4. I am a 71 yr. old male. I have dreamed for all my life as far back as I can remember. Most all my dreams seem to relate back to some experience that I have had sometimes going back 40 yrs. to experience’s that I have had recently. From an early age {around 12yrs. old}, I would dream when I got off of my school bus the only clothes I would have on were brief underwear. It was the most horrible thing until I would wake up and realize it was only a dream. The dreams seem so real. Then as I began to grow older and into the present, my dreams usually consist of things, times and places that I have worked over the years. The thing that I can’t come up with is an explanation for the underwear dreams. As far as the other dreams I have worked with numerous different people and they are all dead now. Can anyone figure my dreams out?

  5. I read that dreams have no deep meaning but I’ve had different dreams about the same subject for almost 17 years. I was a real registered nurse for 20 years and lost my license because of drug abuse. Ever since that time, I’ve dreamed that I am working as a nurse even though my license was revoked and am very fearful that I will be discovered and prosecuted. All dreams have slightly different details but all revolve around that same content. I have a dream like this every couple weeks and wake up frightened and in tears. I have never even considered nursing after my license was revoked, so why do I dream about this?

  6. I learned a little more from the last guys’ reply. Maybe dreams are representative of our true souls’ experiences. Since at least some of my dreams are distant representations.

  7. I have a brother who is really stubborn and a bit of a blockhead. I dreamed that I was in his childhood room where he was sitting on his bunk bed and I had a chisel and hammer in my hand and was chipping away at his head. My mom was in the dream and she kept saying,”Stop hitting your brother!” It seemed so real at the time. It was a very weird dream.

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