Dreams and nightmares

Although we might not always remember them, we all dream. Sometimes emotions can be as intense as when we are awake, and at other times nightmares can wake us up screaming. So what is going on in our brains when we snooze?

Boy asleep hugging his duvet

What do you dream about?

What’s happening when I’m asleep?

Scientists have found patterns in how much brain and muscle activity is taking place when we sleep, and divided the time we spend asleep into five stages. Stage one sleep only lasts for one to seven minutes, and is when we are feeling drowsy, but can still be easily awoken. As we go into stage two sleep, it becomes harder to wake us; we spend about 50% of our time asleep in this state.

Then follows the deepest slumber in the third and fourth stages. At this time our heart and respiratory rates decrease, and our body temperature drops. During these stages, sleepwalkers do their rounds.

The last stage of sleep is known as Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep; the time for dreaming. We typically have three to five periods of REM sleep per night, occurring every hour or two. During REM sleep, the main muscle groups of the body are paralysed, and only smaller muscles like fingers, toes or facial muscles can move or twitch. The paralysis might be our body’s way of making sure that we don’t act out what’s happening in our dreams.

Why do I dream?

Although science has found out a lot about how our brains work during dreaming, we still know very little about why. Sigmund Freud thought that dreams were a way of fulfilling our wishes, while Carl Jung thought dreams made up for parts of the psyche undeveloped by daytime activities. Recently, it has been suggested that dreaming has a role in how we develop and learn. Experiments have shown that memory is better after a good night’s sleep, so doing an all-nighter before exams is not a good idea.

Some scientists believe that dreaming could be the body’s way of sorting out which memories to store and which to delete, and to compare new experiences with old memories. Others claim that dreams are a subconscious effort to solve problems the sleeper may not even be aware of.

So why do I sometimes have nightmares?

Solving problems isn’t what most of us will associate with nightmares, but some believe that these nightly frights are signals about things that are wrong, or need facing up to. Although dreams can be intense and often include emotions of anxiety and fear, a bad dream becomes a nightmare when, because of the intensity of emotions, we wake up.

Nightmares are often long or elaborate and can be reoccurring. Alcoholics and drug addicts, and people who have experienced trauma, are more likely to have recurrent nightmares.

Can nightmares be avoided?

  • If you ask your grandmother, she is likely to say eating cheese will give you nightmares. Although this is not scientific, it isn’t recommended to eat large meals before going to bed, as your digestive system will not be able to function properly.
  • For a more psychological approach, trying to master lucid dreaming might be worth a shot. This is a way of making yourself aware that you’re only dreaming, and trying to control your dreams.

Can there be other reasons for nightly frights?

Some people experience extreme feelings of fear in their sleep. As opposed to nightmares, which happen during REM sleep, night terrors or ‘incubus attacks’ occur during stage four of sleep. Unlike nightmares, which we often remember as movie-like dreams, those who suffer from night terrors can rarely explain what they were dreaming of, other than that they experienced an extreme sense of fear. However, when they do remember, spiders, snakes, animals, people, or an evil presence in the room are often featured.

Some sufferers continue to hallucinate when they wake, which can cause some to become violent, either as a response to their dreams, or in an attempt to run away. The cause of night terrors is thought to be increased brain activity, or a chemical reaction that makes the brain ‘misfire’. For many, medical treatment is necessary to help people cope.

Do my dreams mean anything?

People have tried to interpret dreams since 3000 BC, when dreams were recorded on stone tablets. Roman emperors often brought dream interpreters to the battlefield, but in the 19th century, dreaming somewhat lost its status, and it was believed they stemmed from anxiety or indigestion. Now we know that if we are woken up during the REM stage, we are more likely to remember our dreams. This is one of the reasons it is often easier to remember nightmares, because we wake while still in the REM phase.

Most of us only remember about one per cent of our dreams, but there are a few common themes such as being naked, taking an exam, falling or flying, missing a body part (often teeth falling out) or searching or being chased. Sigmund Freud, who revolutionised the study of dreams, was preoccupied with their sexual content. He believed that long, slender or elongated objects represented the male phallus, while any cavity or receptacle (bowl, caves, etc) denoted the female genitalia.

Interpreting dreams can be great fun, and some websites offers online dictionaries. However, there is little scientific evidence that suggest dreams are anything but just that, dreams.

Next Steps

  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.



By Ingunn Handagard

Updated on 29-Sep-2015