Dreams 101: What They Are, Why We Have Them & How To Interpret Them
Whether the dream was enjoyable or horrifying, many of us know the experience of waking up and wondering, what could that have meant?
While dreams remain a somewhat mysterious function of the human brain, they're undoubtedly fascinating. So, we asked experts all your burning questions, from why we dream every night, to how to interpret your last wonky nightmare. Here's what to know.
Why do we dream?
The most widely accepted theory for why we dream is that dreams function as mechanisms for emotional regulation and consolidation of memory, therapist and dream expert Leslie Ellis, Ph.D., tells mbg.
Dreams help us "process the emotion-laden events of the day and then store these memories in our associative web of memories," she notes.
This can explain why we have recurring dreams, she adds, as deeply emotional events like trauma or grief can take a while to process. And then, of course, we must take into consideration the idea of dream interpretation, which has been a part of cultures for generations.
As professional dream interpreter Lauri Loewenberg explains, dreaming is still a "thinking" or neurobiological process. "So when we're in REM sleep, you're still thinking—but since your brain is working differently, instead of thinking in linear thoughts and words, you're now thinking in symbols and emotions, metaphors," she says.
While the jury is still out on whether dreams actually "mean" anything (scientifically speaking), they do seem to help us work through difficult emotions, uncover truths about ourselves, and even spark creativity—anecdotally, at least.
What our brains do while we dream.
Throughout the night, the brain goes through four sleep stages, each with its own function. In rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, we have our most vivid dreams. According to neuroscientist and author of The Oracle of the Night: The History and Science of Dreams, Sidarta Ribeiro, Ph.D., this process evolved over millions of years due to selective pressures facing mammals.
"If we look at our own brains," he says, "we see during sleep the brain is doing a lot of memory triage." The brain forgets some things, remembers others for the long term, and even mixes memories to get new ideas. "So it's a source of new ideas and creativity," he adds.
And this, of course, happens at a totally unconscious, cell-based, memory processing level, Ribeiro notes. On top of the neurological processes at play, you have the dream level that's symbolic and related to your life, he says.
Dreams are often also highly emotionally charged, and for good reason. As Ellis notes, we tend to recall things better when we have strong emotions associated with them.
"In dreaming, we appear to pull out those emotionally charged elements from the previous day or so and weave them onto our existing memories but also into a new kind of image or story," she says. Doing this seems to reduce that emotional charge, "almost as if the emotion has done its job and can now fade," she adds.
Why is it so hard to remember our dreams?
Both Ellis and Loewenberg use the same word to describe dreams: slippery. "They're like slippery fish wanting to escape back into the deep waters of our unconscious," Ellis says. As Loewenberg adds, the parts of the brain that help us imprint things into long-term memories are very weak when we're dreaming.
But that doesn't mean we aren't dreaming, and Ribeiro makes the argument that anyone can remember their dreams better if they give them more attention. How often do we immediately start our day upon waking without giving our dreams a second thought? According to Ribeiro, this is probably the biggest detriment to remembering dreams.
"In our society, there is no real space for dreams; people don't talk about them. It's so easy to recover the ability to remember the dreams—people just have to stop combating them." This brings us to our next point.
How to keep a dream journal.
Ellis echoes Ribeiro that all we have to do to remember our dreams—and learn something from them—is give them more attention. "The more we pay attention to our dreams, the more we recall them and the more helpful they are," she previously told mbg.
One of the best ways to do so is to keep a dream journal right next to your bed. Once you get in the habit of writing down what you can remember as soon as you wake up, "you'll start to be able to use your dreams to track changes and take note when something in your dream life begins to transform," she adds.
Loewenberg notes that aside from the fact that journaling can help you remember your dreams, it also allows you to document "the other side of your mind—your deepest, most powerful, insightful, authentic, honest thoughts."
Curious to give the practice a try? Check out our full guide on keeping a dream journal.
Other ways to remember your dreams:
Don't get up right away upon waking.
Ellis, Loewenberg, and Ribeiro all agree: The most effective way to remember your dreams is to get into the habit of lying still when you wake up. "Stay in the exact same position you woke up in," Loewenberg suggests, adding that when you roll over, "you're disconnecting yourself, unplugging your memory from the dream you were just in seconds ago."
For a few moments, lie still, quiet your mind, and let the dream come back to you. Even if you come up with just a fragment of a memory or emotion, try writing it down next.
Get the dream out of your head in some way.
Whether you keep a dream journal or not, you'll want to have a record of your dream. Loewenberg says you can also describe your dream in a voice note on your phone, while Ribeiro is a huge proponent of talking about dreams with friends or family.
"We need to talk about dreams when we wake up in the morning and tell people what we dreamed about. It should be part of our conversation," he says.
Get better sleep.
And of course, you can't get rich REM sleep if your overall sleep quality is poor.
Ribeiro advises against things that can adversely affect REM sleep and, in turn, dreaming, such as inconsistent sleep schedules, too much screen time, alcohol or other sleep-impairing substances, and even exercising or eating too close to bedtime.
On top of what to avoid, you can work on what to prioritize, like having a set bedtime every night, keeping your bedroom dark and comfortably cool, or taking a relaxing sleep supplement for extra support.* (If you're taking recommendations, here's a list of our favorites.)
The moral of the story is: anyone can remember their dreams with a little patience and practice—and it can happen fast. "I've seen it over the years," Ribeiro adds, "if people focus on [all these things] for even a few days, they very quickly recover the ability to remember dreams."
Whether dreams have universal interpretations is still up for debate within the scientific community. But for believers like psychologist and dream expert Rubin Naiman, Ph.D., dreams contain certain symbols that can be applied to our waking lives.
However, he previously told mbg that these dream symbols are not meant to be taken literally but rather metaphorically. And further, the emotional components of a dream are often the most significant when it comes to understanding its meaning.
When interpreting a dream, Naiman suggests feeling into the emotions it brought up, and thinking about when you may have felt like that recently, or even in the past. For more tips, check out our full 101 on dream interpretation, plus interpretations for 12 common dreams below:
12 common dreams & what they could mean.
While there's no shortage of weird and wonky dream themes out there, a handful seem to show up more frequently for a lot of people, like dreaming of your teeth falling out or dreaming you're being chased. We rounded up 12 of the most common, plus what they can mean.
Just remember, it comes down to what you felt in the dream, so if an interpretation doesn't resonate, you can always dig a little deeper.
- Dreams about teeth falling out. Themes around teeth falling out in a dream include lack of confidence or self-esteem, shame, change or transformation, lack of control, and loss or grief.
- Dreams about falling. Themes around falling in a dream include stress, lack of control, insecurity, instability, and personal struggle.
- Dreams about being chased. Themes around chase dreams include running from a problem, avoidance, stress, and feeling threatened.
- Dreams about pregnancy. Themes around pregnancy dreams include growing and evolving, creativity, growth in a project or relationship, and development (personal or in your life).
- Dreams about snakes. Themes around snake dreams include transformation, healing, rebirth, a toxic person or situation, change or the unknown, and simply a fear of snakes.
- Dreams about spiders. Themes around spider dreams include deceit, lies, criticism, an untrustworthy person, and simply a fear of spiders.
- Dreams about nudity. Themes around being naked in a dream include feeling exposed, feeling embarrassed, openness, honesty, freedom, and letting yourself be seen.
- Dreams about sex. Themes around sex dreams include admiration, jealousy, inspiration, psychological union, and more straightforward, a desire to sleep with someone.
- Dreams about fire. Themes around fire dreams include anger, rage, a sense of urgency, passion, and transformation.
- Dreams about death. Themes around death dreams include fear, the unknown, life transitions and change, an identity crisis, and transformation.
- Dreams about being in school. Themes around school dreams include stress, feeling unprepared, a problem you're facing, and work-life or career.
- Dreams about your old home: Dreams that take place in your childhood home could indicate that you're growing or evolving, or reclaiming a part of your past.
Stress dreams & nightmares.
Stress dreams and nightmares are obviously both unpleasant, but nightmares definitely fall at the far end of the unpleasant spectrum, whereas stress dreams are more inconvenient or frustrating than anything.
Ellis previously explained to mbg that stress dreams are—you guessed it—caused by stress. Nightmares, on the other hand, are often rooted in deeper fears and even traumas from our past.
Also, Loewenberg notes, "Nightmares are terrifying to the point that they wake you up. They're so intense and powerful, you jolt awake with your heart pounding," she says. Most people, however, can sleep through stress dreams.
"Stress dreams will be caused by something in your waking life that's frustrating or stressing you," she adds, while a nightmare will be caused "by something very, very difficult in your life, like a death in the family, trauma from the past, or something that is a huge jolt to the system."
What to do about them.
If you're having upsetting dreams, whether they be stress dreams or nightmares, Ellis suggests journaling about what's bothering you before you go to bed. After all, we tend to dream about what we repress—so getting it out of your head while you're still awake could help.
And as Loewenberg adds, don't let these dreams frighten you, but instead, welcome them. She believes that these dreams can actually help you with your most difficult issues—if you let them. After all, our nightmares are often connected to issues from the past that we never resolved, so they can alert us to any healing and processing that still needs to take place.
What it means to dream about someone.
Dream characters often show up throughout the night, whether you dream of an ex, a total stranger, or a parent. Of course, interpreting the meaning behind these dreams depends on who is present and what happens.
Generally speaking, Loewenberg previously told mbg that dreaming about other people can help you process what you've gone through with that person, show you what you admire (or don't admire) about them, or even shine a light on a part of yourself by presenting certain qualities through someone else.
There are so many possibilities, so take a look at our explainer on dreaming about someone for more information on this.
Lucid dreaming, simply put, is when the dreamer becomes aware (lucid) while dreaming and realizes they are dreaming. Sometimes, this lucidity allows the dreamer to actually control their dream, leading to all kinds of experiences, insights, and abilities.
Most of us have lucid dreamed at least once, but it's not something many people can do willingly—at least without practice. Nevertheless, Ribeiro notes he believes lucid dreaming to be "among the most interesting mental states that are available to most people," with many Eastern traditions that place value on gaining full control over the dream experience.
- Repetition and suggestion: Before falling asleep, clear your mind, relax, and repeat something along the lines of "Tonight in my dreams, when I see something strange, I will realize I am dreaming and become consciously aware." Keep repeating that until you believe it.
- A hand-gazing exercise: Waggoner came up with the "Modified Castaneda" technique after reading Carlos Castaneda's book Journey to Ixtlan. Before going to sleep, look at your hands and repeat, "Tonight while I am dreaming, I will see my hands and realize that I am dreaming." Soften your eyes and keep repeating until you start to get sleepy. At some point, you may notice your hands as you dream and realize you are, in fact, in a dream.
- The right mindset: According to Waggoner and Ellis, one surefire way to wake yourself up when you become lucid is by getting too excited. When and if you do realize you're dreaming, try not to react, and just keep calmly going about your dream business.
Still curious? Check out our full guide on how to lucid dream.
The bottom line.
Dreaming sure is a wild time, right? And the craziest part is, we don't fully understand the true nature of the dreaming mind and what our dreams can tell us, which leaves it up to us—the dreamers—to figure out for ourselves.
But as Ellis says, dreams are like an honest friend who isn't afraid to tell you the truth—even if it's painful. In fact, "They can become your great ally."
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, a registered yoga instructor, and an avid astrologer and tarot reader. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from State University of New York at Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.