Ever since ancient times, people have been interested in the origin and purpose of dreams. The initial theories relied heavily on the supernatural and dreams were seen as mental meeting places for gods and mortals, where gods could express their will to mortals, reveal the future to them, or deliver messages from the afterlife.

In antiquity, Aristotle provided a new, purely sensory perspective on dreams: everything we experience subconsciously during the day materializes at night in dreams, under the influence of external stimuli such as noise or ambient temperature. In the nineteenth century, Freud correlated the interpretation of dreams with the theory of the forbidden fruit; from his point of view, dreams represent those desires that are taboo or intangible in reality, desires governed by sexual factors passing from the subconscious to the dream realm in order to gratify the organism.

In recent decades, their capabilities vastly enhanced by scientific and technological advances, researchers have been able to dig deeper into the heart of the enigma of dreams, but have not yet advanced beyond the definition of dreams as “a third state of consciousness, with a strongly outlined visual-hallucinatory character, based on bright, deformed, distorted but intensely elaborated imagery.”[1]

While the importance of sleep is well known (science has already warned that insufficient sleep creates major problems—behavioural changes, weakened immune system, risk of disease, decreased cognitive ability, etc.), the importance of dreams for our physical and mental health is still under investigation.

Stages of sleep

To understand how and why dreams appear, we must first review the four stages of sleep.

Phase 1, known as the transition phase, is marked by the transition from wakefulness to sleep, by directing attention from the outside to the inside. At this stage, the muscles gradually relax, eye movements and brain waves that are active during the day slow down gradually, and sleep can still be easily interrupted.

Phase 2 prepares the ground for the onset of a deeper sleep. The relaxation process started in the previous stage is completed: body temperature and heart rate begin to decrease, but sleep can still be fairly easily interrupted with certain stimuli. In the case of adults, the second stage occupies 45-50% of the total sleep time.

Phase 3 leads to the intensification of slow brain waves (delta) and to the deepening of sleep. The body becomes immobile, eye movements stop, while the difficulty of awakening increases significantly. This intense sleep, experienced for a maximum of 15% of the sleeping hours, takes place especially in the first half of the night, the second half alternating between phase 1, phase 2, and REM sleep.

REM sleep, which is the fourth stage, differs from all other phases by a specific characteristic, namely the rapid movement of the eyes (REM—rapid eye movement).

The discovery of REM in the 1950s changed the previous perspective on sleep as a state of total brain inactivity. Also called the paradoxical sleep phase, due to the physiological similarities with the waking state, the fourth stage occurs 90 minutes after falling asleep and can last up to an hour. Heart rate and blood pressure increase, breathing becomes fast and irregular, brain waves intensify, and muscle tension from the neck down almost disappears.

After REM sleep, we usually return to stage 2, and then the cycles repeats approximately 3-4 times in one night. A single sleep cycle lasts between 90 and 120 minutes, while the duration of the phases varies depending on the hours of sleep, its quality, but also the age of the individual. For example, babies have shorter cycles, with 50% of sleep in the REM stage, while adults experience a longer sleep cycle, in which the phases of REM decrease with age (the average REM sleep of an adult is 20-25% of the total sleep time).

Dreams, as protectors of sleep

REM sleep brings many benefits for the body: it lowers blood pressure, improves brain function, and decreases the risk of depression and anxiety. This is also when most dreams take place. Some theories claim that, although visually charged, surprising and illogical, dreams in this phase of sleep have the role of preventing the brain from overloading, by deleting unnecessary or harmful information that could lead to pathologies such as obsession and paranoia. Others argue for the importance of REM sleep in newborns by stimulating the maturation of neural connections.

Despite long-held beliefs to the contrary, recent research shows that people also dream in the non-REM stages, which helps restore reserves of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the molecule that provides energy to all cells in the body.

Other possible functions of dreams described in the literature are: strengthening the learning process, organizing information, developing cognitive capacity, preparing for future events, and assimilating day-to-day experiences.

Dreams and their themes

Whether they are like bizarre movie scripts or as realistic as daily life, dreams take us into the realm where anything is possible, where the subconscious is the only thing setting boundaries. In a dream we can be anyone and we can do anything, from teleporting to the other side of the world to flying with or without wings.

Dreams operate not only with distinct thoughts and emotions, but also with sensations over which we have little control; they can even induce the sensation of pain, felt as such through specific memories. However, what we experience when we sleep is based more on imagination, memory, abstract ideas and desires than on sensory experiences stored in the subconscious.

Many people encounter difficulties when trying to recall the content of their dreams, often laden with complex, contradictory, or meaningless events. It is said that 5 minutes after waking up we forget half of the content of the dream, and after another 5 minutes we lose another 40 percent of its memory. There are a few tricks that can help us remember a dream: waking up without an alarm, analysing the dream immediately after waking up, and journaling the content of our dreams.

Even if we forget 95% of what we dream, studies indicate that we have, on average, between 3 and 6 dreams per night, lasting between 5 to 20 minutes. Some themes appear more frequently in dreams. Most people dream of:

  • school, teachers, learning;
  • being pursued or attacked;
  • falling or being on the verge of falling;
  • the inability to get somewhere on time;
  • the death or resurrection of a loved one, or one’s own death;
  • sexual experiences;
  • flight or ascent into the air;
  • failing an exam;
  • being naked in public or improperly dressed;
  • being trapped or locked up somewhere;
  • losing teeth;
  • reliving childhood;
  • eating something good;
  • losing control over a car, etc.

Regardless of their specific content, these themes can usually be tracked to unwanted thoughts that were expelled from consciousness through a mechanism called repression, or to deep feelings, either positive or negative, that had a strong emotional impact. Our fictional journeys end up reflecting dilemmas, fears, unresolved conflicts, but also positive feelings, giving rise to cliché dreams—that is, dreams following certain patterns that are valid for a wide category of the population.

Dream themes usually concern three important aspects of human existence (relationships with others, libido, exposure to humiliation) and evolve with the environment in which we live. For example, between 1956 and 2000, the number of people who dreamed of flying increased, a result attributed to the increase in air travel. Likewise, between 1993 and 2009 people began to dream more often in colour, which, according to specialists, is due to the presence of colour TV in a growing number of households. Age also influences the colour of dreams: as we age we dream less and less in colour and more in monochrome.

A taxonomy of dreams

Dreams during REM sleep that primarily cultivate fear, but also anger, guilt, or sadness, are categorized as nightmares. About 5% of the population have nightmares every week, their occurrence being caused by stress, traumatic experiences, medication, or drug abuse. In addition, migraines, depression and some conditions such as sleep apnoea increase the chance of nightmares, which in turn can lead to insomnia, chronic fatigue and anxiety. In spite of the negative effects, nightmares can be beneficial, specialists say, because they help us to simulate and test certain reactions in the face of future threats, thereby developing adequate defence mechanisms.

A study which analysed over 250 nightmares found that their most common recurring elements were: the idea of ​​physical aggression, the prevalence of bizarre situations, emotionally intense, imminent failures, as well as events with an unhappy ending. Unlike nightmares, what we generically call “bad dreams” have a less dramatic and frightening component: out of 431 episodes analysed, the theme of interpersonal conflict, which is based on primary emotions other than fear, was most prevalent.

Recurrent dreams occur with high frequency and usually contain threats to the physical integrity or emotional balance of the person. In both children and adults, the repetitiveness of dreams is based on acute states of stress that are difficult to manage when awake.

Research conducted on 30 women facing domestic violence showed that more than half of them regularly dreamed of drowning, being chased, killed or killing their abuser. Nightmares, bad dreams and recurring dreams betray everyday problems and sound the alarm about the need to overcome situations that destabilize our inner selves.

Lucid dreaming is a unique state of consciousness, a paradox experienced when we are aware that we are dreaming and have the power to control or manipulate imaginary events. “While lucid dreamers are fully asleep, detached from the external reality of the physical world, they are at the same time fully awake, attentive to the internal reality of the dream world.”

In this situation, the frequency of brain waves is higher than in the case of non-lucid dreams, and the activity in the brain’s frontal lobe (the area related to self-awareness, memory and language) is significantly increased, which allows the dreamer to be able to analyse their own dream, even resolving conflicts to obtain satisfactory emotions.

Lucid dreams have varied underlining mechanisms (sensory, perceptual, emotional and cognitive) and are more common in children, their incidence starting to decrease after the age of 16 years.

Dreams and reality

Although dreams continue to be relatively impenetrable mysteries, it is certain that this altered state of consciousness—more complex than sleep, but dependent on it—helps us process the emotions, stimuli, memories and information we experience every day.

Dreams fulfil an important adaptive function, say French authors Bourguignon and Humery, who validate the individual’s need to dream as a way to “complete their organized and meaningful experience.” Even if the results of this process are, most of the time, unique, curious and incoherent, its constituent elements come from real life.

Most dreams use information from autobiographical memory and, in the background, episodic memories of different events, places, and time periods. At the same time, we tend to dream of well-known people, important from an emotional or social point of view: according to a 2008 study, we can identify by name over 48% of the people we dream of. Around 35% of them we can identify by their professional role (policeman, doctor and so on), while 16% of the people in our dreams are strangers or individuals whose identities have been erased from our memory.

Life context, personal circumstances, interests and occupation—everything that defines and differentiates us from others—leaves its mark on what we dream: pregnant women dream about pregnancy and children, musicians have twice as many dreams related to music as other people, medical or care staff also meet their patients in their sleep. External stimuli also affect the emotional content of dreams: someone who sleeps wrapped in the scent of roses will dream more beautifully than someone who falls asleep near rotten eggs.

Dreams also cultivate aspects that go beyond the scope of our direct experience: those paralysed from birth dream that they can walk, run or swim. People who have lost their sight or hearing after the age of 5-7 can see and hear in their dreams. However, those who are born without a certain sense cannot integrate it into a dream.

According to a Danish study in 2014, the blind dream as they live: with a rich mix of sensory information that compensates for visual impairment. Among the blind participants, 18% reported using their sense of taste in at least one dream, as opposed to 7% of participants with no vision problems; 30% reported the use of olfactory sense, compared to a percentage of 15% recorded in the control group; 70% reported the use of tactile sense and 86% of auditory sense, compared to 45% and 64% of all subjects with intact vision, respectively.

Dreams and self-knowledge

Dreams reveal important things about the dreamer, truths that might otherwise go unnoticed even by their own consciousness.

Beyond the general theories of dream analysis, beyond the theories forwarded by neurobiologists, psychiatrists and psychologists, the best interpreter of stories created by the subconscious is the person dreaming them.

Dreams are and will always be the property of the dreamer, especially because they don’t only involve images and words, but also bodily experiences and sensations difficult to define and almost impossible to reproduce in words.

When we dream we are freed from norms and constraints. That is why dreams could be a good way to decipher our fears, but also our authenticity, the extent to which we are faithful to our principles and behaviours.

Genia Ruscu has a master’s degree in counselling in the field of social work.

[1]„Mielu Zlate, Introducere în psihologie (Introduction in Psychology), Ed. Polirom, Iași, 2000, p. 298.””.

„Mielu Zlate, Introducere în psihologie (Introduction in Psychology), Ed. Polirom, Iași, 2000, p. 298.””.