All Of Your Questions About Vivid Dreams, Answered By Dream Experts
Some dreams are more intense than others—it's no wonder we've collectively decided to refer to the more intense ones as "vivid" dreams. But what actually qualifies as a vivid dream? And do we know why they happen? We asked dream experts to weigh in—here's what they had to say.
What classifies a "vivid" dream?
According to psychologist and dream expert Athena Laz, there is no validated or clinically established psychological classifier for what constitutes a vivid dream. "But we commonly know that vivid dreams are intense, feel very real, and often carry a significant emotional charge to them," she explains.
As dream analyst Lauri Loewenberg puts it, "A vivid dream is one that is full of clear details, colors, involved storyline, produces strong emotions, and is remembered as if it were an actual, real-life experience."
Take nightmares for example. Therapist and dream expert Leslie Ellis, Ph.D., tells mbg that nightmares are a "prototypical vivid dream," though vivid dreams aren't always bad. (More on that later.) "Lucid dreaming is also another category of vivid dreaming. When this happens, the entire dream experience is intensified," she notes.
What causes them?
The jury is ultimately still out (at least from a scientific or biological POV) on why some dreams are more vivid than others, and further, why some people seem to naturally have a lot of vivid dreams while others don't.
As Ellis notes, "It's not clear why some people dream more intensely than others, but it is true that in childhood and early adulthood, our dreams tend to be more intense than they are later in life."
That said, here are a handful of reasons you could be having more intense dreams than usual:
You're going through a lot in your life.
Ellis tells mbg that dreams often intensify when we're going through particularly charged or intense points in our life. So if you've been going through a lot, she says, "Dreams seem to mirror the intensity of our emotional life."
Certain substances are affecting your sleep and dreaming.
It's worth noting that certain medications and substances can interfere with your sleep, and subsequently, your dreams. For example, according to Ellis, alcohol is known to suppress the REM cycle (where a majority of dreaming takes place), "and when we abstain after a period of substance use, our dreaming rebounds with intensity, making up for lost dream time," she's found. This will level out eventually, she explains.
"Some medications have this effect too," Ellis notes. And like alcohol, she says, as your body adjusts to a new medication, the intense dreaming should settle down, though if it doesn't, you might consult your doctor.
You're a sensitive person.
Both Ellis and Loewenberg note that people who are generally more sensitive tend to have more intense dreams. Ellis says light sleepers, as well, are also known to have more vivid dreams. "There are simply those whose dream lives are rich and vivid as a matter of course," she adds.
"In my experience and research," Loewenberg tells mbg, "I've found that individuals who are creative, introspective, philosophical, and emotional tend to not only have better dream recall but also tend to have more vivid dreams," adding, "This is because the better relationship you have with your deeper, subconscious mind, the better you're able to remember your dreams and give them importance in your life."
You simply have good dream recall.
And speaking of dream recall, the truth is, some people are just better at remembering their dreams than others, and it's really the memory of the dream once we wake up that informs us whether it was vivid.
As Loewenberg explains, what we think of as "vividness" comes from "the strength, length, and intensity in which we are able to remember the dream." And what's more, even though we average five dreams per night, we may not remember them all.
"Those dreams could be very vivid too, were they remembered," she says, adding that it's almost like the chicken or the egg argument. The question then is, Was the dream "vivid" because we remember it so well? Or do we remember it so well because it was vivid?
Either way, if you've always been good at remembering your dreams, your ability to recall them in greater detail will make them feel more vivid when you think about them while awake.
Are they good or bad?
As aforementioned, nightmares are often very vivid because they're so emotionally charged. Though as Ellis notes, we can have very positive vivid dreams as well. Lucid dreamers, for example, can use their lucidity in dreams to master skills, flex their creativity, and explore their subconscious—and it will all be very vivid because of that lucid state.
And of course, the scariest dream you've ever had was probably pretty vivid, and you'd likely think of it as a "bad" dream. Though according to Ellis, Laz, and Loewenberg, you're better off thinking about your dreams as messengers than inherently good or bad.
"If your dreams are intense and upsetting, I always suggest paying attention to them, as they are clearly trying to get your attention," Ellis says, with Laz adding, "Dreams help alert us to what is occurring beneath the surface of our conscious minds, and through these stories, we can later reflect and bring unconscious material and make it conscious—which can help us to feel better."
In fact, Loewenberg says, the more upsetting and intense the dream, the more important the message. "Dreams are a conversation with the self—a subconscious reaction to your current circumstances, behaviors, goals, struggles and relationships. So an upsetting, vivid dream is similar to you sending a strongly worded letter of concern to yourself," she explains.
How to stop recurring dreams.
If you've been having consistently intense, vivid dreams that are upsetting in nature, you might be wondering how to take them down a notch. As previously explained, if you think it could have to do with your health care plan and any new substance, Ellis would suggest talking to your doctor. Regardless of substances, "If the situation persists and continues to be deeply distressing, consider professional help."
In other instances, here's what Ellis, Laz, and Loewenberg recommend:
Prioritize sleep hygiene.
One way you can "tone down" your dream life, according to Ellis, is simply good sleep hygiene.
For starters, going to bed and waking up at the same time every day (yes, even on the weekends) will get your sleep schedule back on track and help you sleep more soundly.
Other factors like temperature or eating before bed can also influence dreams. Sleep researcher Rebecca Robbins, Ph.D., has previously told mbg that sleeping in a room 70°F or higher makes us "more prone to worrisome dreams and fitful sleep," and a big meal before bed can disrupt our sleep enough that we're more likely to recall our dreams in greater detail upon waking up.
A sleep supplement like mbg's sleep support+ can also help you to sleep more soundly.* And if you need more info on good sleep hygiene, check out our guide for improving your quality of sleep. Consider starting with these baseline, physical factors, and see if that helps.
Practice nightmare "re-scripting."
If you've been plagued by the same vivid nightmare for a while, Ellis suggests practicing something called "nightmare re-scripting," in which you imagine the dream forward to a better resolution. If you keep dreaming of a car accident, for example, while you're awake, you would imagine yourself in the dream, and rather than getting into an accident, imagine you reach your destination safely.
Try to decipher the dream's meaning.
Of course, as aforementioned, our most vivid dreams often have a message for us, and when we can figure out what that message is, we can work through it. Loewenberg says you'll want to pay close attention to any emotions present in the dream, and then identify where those emotions are present in your waking life.
"Those emotions from the dream are very real and exist somewhere in your real life, and when you are able to connect them to a current situation or even to a current person in your life, you now have your starting point," she tells mbg.
From there, she says, anything that was said or thought during the dream is also particularly important. "Whatever is said—no matter who says it—and whatever is thought while in the dream are your subconscious thoughts. They're very insightful and will be relevant to, and make sense when, applied to the real-life issue you already pinpointed," she adds.
Once you've figured out what the general message of the dream is, Loewenberg says, you'll be able to make better decisions about your next steps. "It may not be possible to change the situation, but it will help to process the emotions associated with it and to come to terms with what is happening in your life," Ellis adds, noting dreams themselves may even help you to do so.
Practice dream journaling.
Related to the above point, Ellis and Laz both note that dream journaling is a great practice to get into if you want to decode your dreams—or even get better at dream recall. "Get curious about your dreams. Write them down, paint, or draw their images, mull them over, and consider what the dream is asking of you," Ellis explains.
Explore lucid dreaming.
And last but not least, for the curious and avid dreams, Laz recommends trying your hand at lucid dreaming. After all, when you're aware you're dreaming—and potentially even able to manipulate your dreams—it tapers the intensity down a bit.
"The main technique [to practicing lucidity] is through becoming more self-aware in waking life so that reflective meta-thinking naturally carries through into your dream life," Laz explains. Simply put, by flexing your awareness in real life, you'll be more likely to notice when dreams get wonky, and you'll know you're dreaming.
Here's our guide on how to lucid dream to help get you started.
For better or worse, your most vivid dreams likely have an important message for you. Some may be exciting, and some may be scary, but in either case, when we take the time to understand our dream world, our subconscious, and the messages within our dreams, we can connect more deeply with ourselves.
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.