About dreams

I have very vivid dreams, many of them, each and every night, some of which the details I remember after I wake up, though others quickly fade from memory. It turns out that everybody dreams during the REM (rapid eye movement) period of sleep but not everyone recalls those dreams on waking up, so the difference between people who say they dream a lot and those who claim to dream a little or not at all lies only in the recall of them. According to Susan Blackmore in Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction (p. 99), “In a typical night’s sleep the brain cycles through four stages of non-REM sleep; first going down through stages 1-4, then back up to stage 1, and then into a REM period, repeating this pattern four or five times a night.”

This article says that women recall dreams more than men, lists what each gender dreams about most, and the kinds of dreams we have.

Only 19% of survey participants say they remember their dreams every night. Forty-two percent say at least once a week; 38% say they rarely recall their dreams and 1% say they never recall their dreams.

Recurring dreams are interesting, and the article lists the most common types.

It is rare to find a single person who has not had a dream about falling. Indeed, over 53% of the survey participants report recurring dreams about falling. Not far behind are recurring dreams about being chased (almost 51%). Here are some of the other most reported recurring dreams (rounded up to the nearest percent):

  1. Being back in school (38%)
  2. Being unprepared for a test or event (34%)
  3. Flying (33%)
  4. Having sex with someone you shouldn’t be having sex with (32%)
  5. Encountering someone who has died in real life (31%)
  6. Death of yourself or a loved one (30%)
  7. Having your teeth fall out (27%)
  8. Being lost (27%)
  9. Running but getting nowhere, or running in slow motion (26%)
  10. Being late or missing a plane, train or bus (26%)
  11. Being paralyzed or unable to speak (24%)
  12. Discovering your partner has cheated on you (18%)
  13. Seeing snakes, spiders or other creatures (17%)
  14. Intruders breaking into your house (16%)

People in certain professions seem more prone to having certain recurring dreams. According to the survey, 74% of people in the telecommunications business have had recurring dreams about falling. Forty-six percent of those in public safety (police, fire, paramedic, security) fly in their dreams. Our randy military personnel lead the pack in dreams about having sex with someone they shouldn’t be having sex with (50%). Fifty-five percent of people who work in journalism, publishing or writing, report having recurring dreams about being back in school. Twenty-six percent of retired people find themselves naked in public. And early childhood education professionals often find themselves unable to find a toilet (25%).

I have always had a fascination with dreams, why they happen, and what they mean. I used to think in Freudian terms, that dreams represented my deepest and most buried feelings and try to interpret them to decipher their meaning. But not anymore. I have begun to think of them as not have any deeper meaning but more as curiosities, because often they have features that are based on events that occurred earlier that day or the previous day.

There seems to be research to support the idea that dreams serve to consolidate memories of recent events, according to Dr. Erin Walmsley of the Furman University Sleep Lab.

There’s a lot of evidence that one function of sleep is to consolidate, or process, recently learned information. And what we’ve seen is that on the one hand, people dream about what they have learned recently. And on the other hand, when they dream about what they’ve learned recently, that’s associated with improved memory later on. So that’s the main hypothesis that we’re working on in terms of what dreaming is — that the content of a dream is strongly influenced by the fact that the brain is, at that moment, reactivating and processing new memories that were just formed in the previous day or days.

Walmsley says that there is a reason that you cannot read a book, dial a phone, or or do certain other things in your dreams.

Anytime in a dream, when someone is trying to read or look at numbers, or there’s a very complicated visual representation — for example, a number pad or a page of a text— this is usually reported to be very difficult and to not really work correctly. It’s not typical for people to say that they dream about, like, reading, and they’re actually reading full sentences. And I think the reason for that is a very “duh!” obvious answer, which is that you can’t dial the telephone because there’s not actually a phone there.

It’s just in your head. And to keep that complicated representation of where the numbers are — and what they look like — stable, without changing, is not what dreams are like. When people look at complex imagery in dreams, it’s always changing. So you look at a line of text, and then you look back at the beginning of the sentence and it’s different than it was before. And it’s moving, the words are different, there’s just constant change in the imagery. Because it’s not real. It’s a mental representation, and mental imagery is not the same thing as interacting with a solid real object where the sentences are what the sentences are, where you can look back and it’ll be the same.

This intrigued me enough that soon after I had a dream in which the title of a book was clearly visible and I could read it and recall it. Maybe my brain was simply testing Walmsley’s hypothesis.

Blackmore says that during REM periods of sleep our muscles become paralyzed in order to prevent us from acting out our dreams. Sometimes people wake up before this sleep paralysis wears off and, if they are unaware of this phenomenon, get frightened. Many cultures have developed myths about the reasons for sleep paralysis.

One thing that interests me is ‘lucid dreaming’, where people realize within the dream that they are dreaming and use that knowledge to take control of the direction of the dream. I have never been able to do this. The closest is recently I dreamt that I was in a strange city and Baxter the Wonder Dog had disappeared and I had no idea where to find him. In my dream, I was really upset and decided that the only way to recover him was if I was in a dream and forced myself awake.

Most people do not have lucid dreams but a few claim to be able to induce them almost at will, using such techniques as keeping a journal where they immediately jot down their dreams upon wakening. The practice has plenty of dark sides because the results can be upsetting, such as the phenomenon of false awakenings.

Robert Waggoner, a lecturer and author of Lucid Dreaming: Gateway to the Inner Self who has logged more than 1,000 lucid dreams since beginning the practice in 1975, believes false awakenings may be the dreamer’s most unsettling experience.

“You feel the dream getting ready to collapse, you expect to wake up, you found yourself in bed, you look in your dream journal, and someone else has written down the dream,” he says. “You realize you’re still dreaming, wake up, and it starts up again. You get out of bed and there’s pink tile in the bathroom. You’re still dreaming.”

Another problem is that people who have lucid dreams frequently have trouble distinguishing between reality and dreams.

“Vesper,” a 23-year-old audio engineer and onetime lucid dreamer in Seattle, began practicing after hearing about how people used it as a form of escape. A few months after starting, she began to have difficulty separating a dream memory from a real one.

“I remember going to a store and talking to the staff there but this never actually occurred,” she says. “At this point in my life, I was very introverted, so I often confused my dreams with real life because my dreams were better. I remembered them as fact.”

Other times, Vesper would be socializing and behave irrationally. Her conscious mind was telling her she was in a dream and could behave without a filter. When situations grew uncomfortable, she’d try to wake herself up — only to realize she was already awake.

“One of the concerns I had about pushing lucid dreaming is with regard to people with thin boundaries,” says Jayne Gackenbach, Ph.D., a psychologist who has written several research papers on lucid dreaming. “People need to have a firm sense of their own reality. Children can do lucid dreaming, and do it well, but their reality is still an emerging thing. It’s similar.”

Gackenbach is well known for studying the escapism of video games on the psyche. She’s seen a close cousin phenomenon in her research: a “transfer effect” where realities begin to blur.

Vesper didn’t seek professional help; she simply stopped trying to lucid dream. When she did, her symptoms disappeared.

One thing that prolific dreamers like me quickly realize is that while dreams are often fascinating to the dreamer, nobody else wants to hear about them, so it is better not to share them unless absolutely necessary.


  1. oualawouzou says

    Lucid dreams are so much fun. It’s a really cool phenomenon. I can disrupt nightmares, or cause certain events to happen pretty much at will. For some reasons though, it has its limits. As an example, for the longest time, I couldn’t run very fast in my dreams. Running would have me kick up a lot of dust without moving much at all, like a cartoon character “revving up”. So I worked on it, and now, I can move fast if I picture myself gliding over the ground instead of running. Fast, as in picturing myself zooming between cars on the highway. Joy! 😀

    As for having trouble telling dreams from reality, I’ve had that feeling, but only from within dreams. I’ve never tried to “wake up” from reality (that’d be a freaky feeling for sure). There are tricks to tell if I’m dreaming. The easiest one is willing myself to float. If I can, I dream. If I can’t, I’m not dreaming. How sad. 🙁

    Oh, and I taught my daughter about looking at the time in dreams. It has helped her tell a nightmare from reality on a few occasions, and it helps her calm down when she wakes up.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Who decides who’s “someone you shouldn’t be having sex with”?

    And I didn’t see on this list one of my most common dream types, where I’m trying to return (myself or some thing) to a place visited earlier in the dream, and either the way back, or the surrounding conditions, have changed, or some distraction(s) get in the way, or my intention is otherwise frustrated, over and over.

  3. Johnny Vector says

    I can’t really do lucid dreaming, but I do seem to have a built-in coping mechanism for nightmares, which is to start directing them. “That exploding plane is moving too fast to look real; better slow it down,” or things like that. Sometimes I’ll even think about what to do to make it scarier: “What if we pulsed the lights in time with that buh-bump scary music?” It seems to work every time. Too bad I don’t actually make films, cause some of the ideas seem pretty good even after I wake.

    My most common recurring dream used to be about being on an airplane but either flying low over highways or more commonly just taxiing along the road with the cars. I think that one started after landing on runway 18R at Schiphol in The Netherlands, where you have to drive 6 miles through the polders after landing to get to the terminal. Thanks a lot, The Netherlands.

  4. invivoMark says

    The most remarkable dream I had was at college, where I dreamed that I was studying for a test I had the next day. The incredible thing is that I actually had a test the next day, and I had planned to spend the morning and noon hours studying. I woke up feeling far more confident about the test than I had the previous night, and after a few minutes glancing at the textbook, I decided to skip studying. I aced that test.

    This is by far the most directly useful dream I have ever heard of. If only they all were so helpful.

  5. Owlmirror says

    Having your teeth fall out

    I’ve had this one, a few times over the years. It’s always weird for me, feeling them loose and/or crumbling in the dream, then waking up and feeling the reassuring solidity of my real teeth. And I can’t reconcile the dream with anything real — I think back to losing my baby teeth and growing in my adult teeth, and there’s no similarity in the sensations, given that the real tooth loss was one at a time.

    One thing that prolific dreamers like me quickly realize is that while dreams are often fascinating to the dreamer, nobody else wants to hear about them, so it is better not to share them unless absolutely necessary.

    I’ve had dreams that were sufficiently interesting that I think they could be turned into stories or movies or other forms of art. But I’ve realized that that takes work; actually creating a narrative that brings together everything in the dream into something coherent that people who didn’t have the dream would be able to make sense of is a lot of effort.

    I’ve also seen some stuff — I think mostly comics, and maybe movies — where some scenes or set pieces made me wonder if the author got the idea in a dream, and tried to build a narrative that led to that set piece. Sometimes I can buy off on it, but in other cases, thinking about it carefully makes the scene make less and less sense.

  6. says

    I dream about buildings, usually houses. They are purely dream houses; I have never seen them in real life. However, I repeatedly go back to the same dream house, exploring other rooms, sometimes being chased through them, sometimes searching for a toilet, sometimes organizing a bunch of kids. One went on fire in a dream. I never “went” back to that one.

    Another common dream situation often occurs when I fall asleep reading; I go on reading in my dream, following the story line or the argument, until it falls off the rails; then I wake up, wondering where, exactly, the words became mine.

  7. says

    @Pierce R. Butler

    Well, there’s my ex, for example. I shouldn’t be having sex with him under any circumstances, but he — or at least his penis — still shows up in my dreamscape.


    I checked off every dream on that list, Mano. I’ve had dreams where I’m in school, running late for a final for a class I never signed up for or attended, moving in slow motion. And once I get there, I’m hosed anyway because the floors are always at impossible angles.

  8. anat says

    I hardly ever remember dreaming at all, let alone the contents of said dream. My husband OTOH often recalls dreams. He has been able to increase vividness of dreams by consuming cilantro shakes (which he was taking for anti-inflammatory activity). He is now training himself to be aware of his dreams in order to induce lucid dreaming at will. He says meditation helps. For me this is entirely hypothetical as I have trouble sleeping in the first place (peri-menopause does that), let alone dreaming and remembering doing so.

  9. kestrel says

    Fascinating. When I’m having a dream, if I have to roll over or change position that dream goes away… somehow physical movement stops that dream, even when I really wish to go back to it. I’ve used this when I’m having a dream that begins to disturb me; I just change position and it’s gone. *relief*

    @Susannah: I too dream about houses I’ve never seen. All kinds, all different all the time although some I “visit” more than once. Never had anything bad happen in them, though; just perfectly normal stuff, no house catching on fire or anything.

  10. Mano Singham says

    My most common recurring dreams are searching for a bathroom and either not finding one or finding one that is disgustingly filthy, and going somewhere in my car, parking it and going off for a bit and returning and finding it gone.

  11. machintelligence says

    I had a failure of REM sleep paralysis once, I dreamed that I was crawling under a house in the crawl space (appropriate name, eh? — and I have done things like that when at work) when I crawled off the bed and fell on the floor.

  12. Trickster Goddess says

    For most of my life I have almost always remembered my dreams. Not just the morning after, but they become integrated with my waking memories so that in recent years sometimes I have had trouble distinguishing if something that happened to me years ago happened in waking life or in dreams. Over the past year I start the practice of saying a mantra upon waking: “What happens in Dreamtime stays in Dreamtime” and that has helped to curtail the longterm memory formation.

    My favourite part of dreaming is the flying and over the years I have practiced and really honed my skills at it so I very good at maneuverability, flying backward, sideways, etc., even being able to use the ability to do other things like propel a kayak without a paddle. A recurring thing that has happened lately, though, is that I find myself in a situation where I suddenly find myself hovering and I am amazed to realize that I can actually do it in waking life as well! Then of course later I realize…

    Mano: When I find myself in a dream where I am looking for a washroom or the ones I find are inadequate (no privacy, stall too small, etc.) I come to realize that it is my bladder sending a message that I need to find a real toilette.

  13. Holms says

    I’m not sure I get much benefit out of lucid dreaming. On the odd occasion I gain control of a dream, that to me very quickly spoils the dream-like quality of it. Within minutes (not that keeping time while dreaming is all that reliable… ) I simply feel like I am awake, and the immersion is gone.

    Probably the most remarkable dream of have had was during high school; I woke up utterly convinced that that day was the first day of year 12. I managed to work out that it was actually the first day of a new term in year 10, to my great relief.

  14. starskeptic says

    Francis Crick gave a talk at Northern Illinois University during the time he was researching neural nets -- the section on dreams was particular interesting. They would wake volunteers up during REM periods and the dreams reported where chaotic and meaningless, IIRC he likened it to throwing a car in reverse while driving; the brain doing its reorganization and disposal routine. The only time dreams seemed to take on recognizable meanings was when waking occurred close enough for consciousness to start seeping in and begin assigning shapes to the mess.

  15. Mano Singham says


    There are theories of dreams in which the dream is actually constructed at the moment of waking up, which would be consistent with what you are saying.

  16. Sam N says

    There are aspects regarding the memory coding hypothesis that leave me skeptical, and I feel like they are overly based upon positional replay from rodent studies. For example, although I rarely remember dreams (maybe twice a month), dreams over the course of years have stable spatial locations that do not exist in reality, versions of my home town that both resemble and do not resemble it’s true geography. Use of the replay in my dream would be utterly useless in trying to get to places in my real home town. Instead, I seem to have constructed a new memory that is only accessible when my brain is in the REM context.

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