A large number of people around the world have reported experiencing unusually vivid dreams while in lockdown, leading many to wonder what exactly goes on in our brains while we sleep.
What are dreams?
Dreams are thoughts, sounds, and sensations we experience while sleeping. They mostly occur during the deepest period of sleep known as rapid eye movement (REM). It gets its name because our eyes move around quickly, reacting to the images we “see” in dreams. During REM sleep, our brains are just as active as they are during the day, creating the dream experiences that we sometimes remember when we wake up.
What do they mean?
Humans have been trying to analyse dreams for centuries. The Sumerians were trying to interpret them in 3100BC, and the ancient Egyptians recorded theirs on papyrus. Despite years of study, dreams remain largely mysterious.
Sigmund Freud believed that dreams were expressions of subconscious thoughts. Today, it is still believed that certain types of dream represent personal worries or desires. For instance, dreams involving floods could be down to stress we’re feeling in our daily life.
Why do people sleepwalk?
Sleepwalking is particularly common with children. Some adults do it too and it’s a symptom of a mild sleep disorder. When we dream, we can run around, talk, sing, and sometimes even fly, while our bodies remain motionless in our beds. This is because the brain prevents our limbs from reacting to the sensations we experience while dreaming. For some people, this does not happen, meaning their bodies end up joining in with their dreams.
Can dreams make us more creative?
Surrealist artist Salvador Dali went to sleep each night holding a heavy object. As soon as he fell asleep, he would drop it, and the noise would wake him up. He then wrote down everything he could remember, believing that dreams were representations of his creative mind.
Some experts now believe that dreams are the product of the brain firing signals as it organises thoughts and experiences from the previous day to create memories.
Do they tell the future?
Dreams cannot give us insight into future events, but the superstition that they do could be nearer the mark than we think. Studies show that when people wake up after frightening dreams, the part of the brain responsible for controlling fear is more responsive. This could mean that dreams are the brain’s way of preparing us for real life challenges when we are awake.
Could we record dreams?
Most people wake up remembering only 10% of their dreams, and forget them shortly afterwards. For people who want to relive the experience of flying or eating a perfect meal, this is a disappointment. Some people can retain an awareness that they are dreaming while unconscious. This is known as lucid dreaming and it allows people to make decisions while asleep. Despite the effort of scientists, though, it seems unlikely that we will ever be able to record and replay our dreams.
- Would you like to record and replay your dreams?
- Next time you remember a dream, use it as inspiration for writing a short story.
- People from one of the first civilisations in the world, in the southern part of Mesopotamia (modern day southeastern Iraq) that started around 3500BC.
- A material made in ancient Egypt from a water plant, turned into sheets for writing or painting on.
- Sigmund Freud
- An Austrian scientist who invented psychoanalysis (a method of treating mental disorders), working in early 20th-Century Vienna.
- The part of the mind we are not aware of, but which influences our thoughts and feelings.
- Sleep disorder
- Conditions that affect the way we sleep. The most common is insomnia, which prevents people sleeping.
- A movement in art and literature which sought to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind.
- Lucid dreaming
- A particularly popular kind of dream, where the dreamer has control over their actions and environment.