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):
- Being back in school (38%)
- Being unprepared for a test or event (34%)
- Flying (33%)
- Having sex with someone you shouldn’t be having sex with (32%)
- Encountering someone who has died in real life (31%)
- Death of yourself or a loved one (30%)
- Having your teeth fall out (27%)
- Being lost (27%)
- Running but getting nowhere, or running in slow motion (26%)
- Being late or missing a plane, train or bus (26%)
- Being paralyzed or unable to speak (24%)
- Discovering your partner has cheated on you (18%)
- Seeing snakes, spiders or other creatures (17%)
- 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.