On dreams

I dream a lot. Not a night goes by when I do not have quite vivid and complicated dreams so I am naturally interested in the phenomenon. Many of the details in my dreams can be clearly related to events that occurred within the previous day or two but some dreams are recurring. One is a dream in which I want to go to the bathroom and find it extraordinarily hard to find one or the ones that I find are so disgusting that I don’t want to use them. The other is where I have driven somewhere, parked the car and gone inside, and when I return the car is gone and I spend some time trying to search for it, without success. These two recurring dreams are apparently quite common for a lot of people.

There are various theories of dreams. Some people think that they can be portents of the future or telepathic communication, something that I feel can be dismissed out of hand since it implies supernatural forces. All those times when we dream of someone and that person contacts us a few days later or we dream of someone whose death is then reported, can be dismissed as the product of coincidences that occur all the time. The more plausible options are the Freudian idea that dreams are the way that our deep and unconscious desires make themselves known (or that they are fulfillments of our fantasies) or that they are merely stories strung together from the random events of our lives that the brain is always producing and sorting through.

I tend to favor the last explanation. This kind of storytelling apparently goes on even when we are awake but does not reach our consciousness because the sensory inputs that are activated when we are awake (especially sight and sound) and the working of our conscious brain overwhelm them. (This article discusses some recent dream research.)

Another interesting question is why we don’t know we are dreaming in our dreams. Apparently some people do realize this (this is called ‘lucid dreaming’). I don’t think I have ever experienced such dreams. Or maybe I did and have forgotten

That raises another issue and that is why it is that the dreams seem to slip away so easily and quickly once we wake and are hard to recall later. As I said, I have vivid dreams that I recall quite clearly as soon as I wake up, but within minutes I have forgotten most or all of the details. Perhaps it is because unlike ‘real’ memories from our lives which involve sensory inputs, dreams are purely creations of our brain and thus leave a weaker mental footprint, so to speak, that can get easily covered over by new experiences.

Nonetheless dreams are interesting and fun. Unless they are nightmares, of course, which fortunately I never have.


  1. machintelligence says

    What about the classic student’s dream (nightmare?) where you arrive at a classroom to take the final exam for a class for which you can’t remember ever registering, and never attended the lectures? Also the dream where you are in a public place and not properly dressed?
    My most memorable recent dream involved slithering through a crawl space under a house (which I do fairly frequently at work) and crawling out of the bed and falling on the floor.

  2. OverlappingMagisteria says

    I also have dreams where I have to go to the bathroom. I find that usually when I wake up from one of those dreams I have to go to the bathroom in real life as well. I figure that my mind is just receiving sensory input from my bladder and working it into the narrative of my dream.

    I have wondered in regards to the common dream of finding oneself naked in a public place: do nudists have these dreams too? And if they do, do they feel anxiety over their nakedness like other people do, or do they just go about business as usual in their dream?

  3. mnb0 says

    I suppose I’m a weird person. As far as I can remember I always have been aware that I was dreaming on the condition that they were vivid dreams – one dream was so vivid I remember it 35 years or more later, including details. Until I was 20 or so I had several vivid dreams a week. But I got enough of them – several of them were nightmares, sometimes very frightening – so I trained myself to wake up. This is very handy btw – if dream about taking a leak I invariably need to go to the bathroom indeed. I also trained myself to shrug dreams off as soon as I woke up. As a result I hardly have vivid dreams anymore.
    Of course I still have dreams, but most of them are not vivid, I don’t remember them and they don’t disturb me anymore.

  4. Corvus illustris says

    Do you realize there’s a opposite number–in which the instructor enters the lecture hall with no textbook, hasn’t the foggiest idea what class it is*, and has to start immediately? I wake up in sheer panic.

    *Can we finesse “all my professors were like that in real life”? 😎

  5. Trickster Goddess says

    I sometimes have those, but due to my theatre background they take the form of being a last minute opening night substitute for the main role, but nobody is willing to give me a copy of the script.

  6. grumpyoldfart says

    I’m a lucid dreamer. I am always aware that I am dreaming and sometimes change dreams halfway through. If I seem to be getting nowhere with one dream I remind myself of that good dream where I’m flying – and away I go again. It’s brilliant. I love it. Or I might get bored with a dream and tell myself to wrap things up and get some proper sleep. Bingo! Dream ends.

    One strange thing though: Like you, I have great difficulty remembering any of the details after I wake up – but if I have the same dream the next night I will remember every sequence and be aware of what will happen next.

  7. Trickster Goddess says

    I have always had a very active and vivid dream life and almost always remember my dreams on waking. But they don’t fade: I can still remember them days, weeks and even decades later. It is like living a second life. Sometimes I will recall something that once happened to me, but then I have to stop and sort out if it happened in waking life or dream life.

    I particularly like being able to fly in my dreams. Over the years I have honed my skills so I have as much skill and maneuverability as a veteran helicopter pilot. Sometimes though I think I am awake and for fun try to see if I can levitate and fly like I do if my dreams and am amazed to discover that I actually can. It is only on awakening I realize that that too was a dream. This has led me to develop a strong safety precaution: even if I think I am awake and am absolutely convinced I can fly, always take off from the ground going up, not from a rooftop going down.

    I rarely have nightmares, but one notable one was when I once was going through a period of severe insomnia. One night I finally did fall asleep for a bit, but the time was filled with a vivid dream that I was unable to fall asleep!

    The latest bit of recurring dream weirdness for me is seeing something happen, but then as the dream progresses discovering that it was just a hallucination I was having within the dream. That seems to be getting a bit meta.

    For me, every night brings new adventures.

  8. Corvus illustris says

    This ability has got to be connected with the ability to bring to reality a character that is completely unlike your own when you’re acting. Do other actors dream this way?

    Only on the matter of doing work in dreams, not to do with you! and I hope not an instance of Godwin: the mathematician Oswald Teichmüller claimed to get his results in dreams, writing them down when he awoke.–and the results were of very high caliber. However, this was a near-genius with a monstrous personality: a dedicated Nazi who was killed in battle as a direct result of volunteering to fight on the east (Russian) front in WW_2. (The German Wikipedia has some details of his behavior during the Brown Period, and they’re really ugly.)

  9. Heidi Nemeth says

    As youngsters, I allowed my children an uncommon amount of nudity despite our conservative suburban neighborhood. Within a few weeks of starting kindergarten, each, in turn, reported a nightmare about going to school naked. None of them accepted my casual attitude about nudity thereafter.
    My husband, a computer scientist, ascribed to the belief that dreams are the brain’s way of defragmenting itself. They have no more importance than what is in the trash.

  10. says

    There is not a whole lot of agreement on what dreams area really about. What neurobiology reading I have done on the subject is not all that helpful for answers.

    My personal idea is that dreams are part of how we remember things for our procedural implicit memory processes. That is why you can find some things that make sense. For example I have always been one to bury my head in a textbook and try to learn something new and I always love to try to figure something new out. My dreams include things like familiar childhood and other places blown up into larger size and everything has closets with hidden doors and passages and everything is a labyrinthine version with hidden secrets.

    The details don’t seem to mean as much as the generalities. It’s more about how things are happening and themes. The details always seem to be more random and sort of pulled off of my mental shelf.

  11. brian faux says

    I`d guess there would be strong selection pressure in favour of forgetting dreams as false memories could be pretty dodgy in the real world.

  12. garnetstar says

    Thirty-five years afer my undergrad days, I’m still have the student’s dream. Apparently no life events since then were as traumatic as exams, so I always revert to those for anxiety dreams. I’ll bet that’s one of the most common dreams, and it’s interesting to think why so many people should have the exact same dream. ARe there other dreams that a large number of people share?

    I have lucid dreams often, my eyes are open and I’m noticing things around the room and know that I’m lying in bed, but am still dreaming.

  13. Mano Singham says

    I am impressed that some of the commenters here are not only lucid dreamers but seem to be able to actually control their dreams. That must be fun!

  14. Corvus illustris says

    Mrs Corva has lucid dreams, remembers them, controls them, and can get back into last night’s dream if she chooses. This is part of an involuntary tradeoff for ordinary sleep, not medically well-understood, that has brought terribly disturbed sleep, lack of adequate amounts of deep sleep, and RLS. (Drugs are not involved. We’re both rather cynical about sleep studies and “sleep MDs”.) Prosaic sleep has its virtues too.

  15. says

    I have the “maze of nasty bathrooms” dream at least once a week.

    I’ve had an interesting variation on the “Student’s Nightmare”. I’m late for a final exam, in a class I didn’t even know existed until five minutes ago, have attended exactly ZERO sessions for, and to get there I have to navigate hallways that were built in, well… rather non-euclidian ways. In a manual wheelchair. Then, when I get to the classroom itself, it’s at impossible angles, and there’s my desk, and my brakes aren’t working at all, so I’m sliding forward and it’s a whole bunch of little anxieties turned into The Worst Thing To Ever Happen.

    I’m often nude (or nearly so) in my dreams. Then again, I’m often in furry form in my dreams. And in RL, I’m often quite comfortable in the nude, anyway, so it’s not, like, a metaphor for vulnerability for me. Now, dreaming about my teeth falling out? That is a nightmare — it’s a… loss of control, loss of power, a helplessness that outright terrifies me. Or the one where my claws are ripped out one by one…. *shudder*

    Then there are what I’ve started calling the “quest dreams”, where I’m searching for something, or pieces of something, sometimes in RL locations, sometimes not, often in a survival-horror setting, and there’s always that one piece or object that just can’t be found and a lovely sense of impending doom (with or without lurking horrors).

  16. nobonobo says

    In several dreams someone uses an acronym that I don’t know. When I ask what it means, someone gives me the correct (IRL) answer. How did I both know and not know what it meant?

    It’s somewhat startling to wake up while dreaming that you are in the act of relieving yourself. So far, it wasn’t actually happening.

  17. morsgotha says

    I too often have lucid dream. The trick is to realise you are dreaming in the first place. My own method is to ask myself…am I awake? If there is any doubt whatsoever I know I am dreaming.

    The second thing I do is to concentrate on the details of the dream…everything becomes really vivid on the things I am concentrating on.

    I cant say about controlling the dreams, I don’t seem to be able to do that except to a limited extent. I can make myself fly for example but only if I concentrate really hard on it, and concentrating too hard seems to wake me up.

    They are fun experiences though, especially when it is a nightmare because if I realise I am dreaming I am able to overcome whatever bogeyman is coming to get me with sheer force of will.

  18. Mano Singham says

    But to be able to ask yourself if you are awake in your dream is to be able to control the dream and I just have never been able to do that.

  19. Mano Singham says

    Like everyone else, I have had the naked-in-public dream and the unprepared-for-exam dreams but I have never had a dream where I was furry. I wonder where that comes from? The teeth-falling-out dream is supposed to be common but I had never heard about it until I wrote this post. Maybe I’ll now start having it. Ugh!

  20. Trebuchet says

    I lucid dreamed just last night! I was wandering around in a large school/workplace type cafeteria, trying to find something to eat. The place was circular (kitchen in the middle?) and for the second lap, all the food was gone. “AHA”, I thought, “that means it’s a dream. Let’s see if I can make the food come back next time around.” It did. I eventually acquired some ice cream and went outside, where something unpleasant made me say (still in the dream) “OK, time to wake up”. So I did.

    Like others, I still have the “student’s nightmare” decades after my last day of school. Since I retired, I’ve added “back at work” dreams to the repertoire. These have two consistent features: A setting that is almost, but not quite, exactly unlike any place I’ve ever actually worked, and a realization that although I’ve been back at work for some time, I’ve neither been submitting time sheets nor getting paid.

  21. Trebuchet says

    As an engineer, I used to design/invent stuff in my dreams pretty frequently. It was always absolutely brilliant and I’d never remember quite what it was in the morning. I even, for a while, left a pad and pencil at the bedside so I could wake up and write stuff down, but never used it.

    One morning I woke up having had one of those dreams and actually remembered it with crystal clarity. I practically flew out of bed and began writing and sketching. Then I stopped and looked at it and realized it was utterly ridiculous, violating at least half the know laws of physics. I don’t invent stuff in my dreams much any more, and don’t worry about it if I do!

    I did actually dream up a design solution for a catapult I was building a year or two ago which I not only remembered, but worked and was fairly clever.

  22. morsgotha says

    Yes, you are right of course.

    I don’t know any of the science behind dreams, this is complete speculation on my part so take it with a huge pinch of salt.

    I find that if I ask myself ‘am I awake?’ throughout the day whenever it pops randomly into my head, then think about it just as I tuck myself into bed, then the questions pops randomly into my head whilst I am dreaming too. When it does, and I don’t immediately think ‘Yes’ then I know something isn’t right.

  23. Crudely Wrott says

    I had a typical child’s nightmare when I was twelve that I have never forgotten. It was a typical fleeing from the ogre scenario. I found what I thought was a good hiding place but the ogre came right to it. It snatched away my cover and, leeringly, began to reach for me. So I reached out too, grabbed an imaginary TV turner knob and click! changed the channel.

    I was instantly in another scenario but have no recall of it because the novelty of my new found ability caused me to wake up. Boy, did I feel snug.

    In almost all cases of dreaming I have what I term as a small knot of neurons that don’t sleep and monitor my dream contents. I frequently awake in what seems a purposeful manner from dreams with distressing content. Not that I would call that “lucid” dreaming in terms of being able to control dreams. Rather it seems as though a small part of my mind is aware that I am dreaming. Sometimes there is something like a critique of the dream going on that I am aware of.

    If I could dream “lucidly” all my dreams would be flying dreams. I still have them at long intervals but wish for the ability to have them at will. The sensations!!! are transporting.

  24. Corvus illustris says

    Never had a naked-in-public dream, sorry. As everybody has probably heard, the missing-teeth dream is supposed to be concerned with processing the death of relatives. I think this notion is originally Freud’s, and it is amusing that Freud and his Traumdeutung = “meaning (or interpretation) of dreams” have figured so little (if at all) in this conversation. Freud’s notions were a cultural landmark, if not a scientific one.


  25. Stephanie Curtis says

    When I first started to lucid dream, I relied mostly on online “courses” I found through Google about Lucid Dreaming. But even though it was reasonably effective in helping me remember my dreams, I never actually ever had a dream where I was aware that I was dreaming.

    The breakthrough for me was when I downloaded the background sound cues that came with a qualified lucid dreaming method with pretty satisfactory feedback, the Lucid Dreaming Fast Track – http://www.reviewspanel.com/lucid-dreaming-fast-track/.

    Now I can remember my dreams with extremely clarity, and not only that, but I now have full control over my dreams (well not FULL control, but enough to be able to visit any place on Earth at will)

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