Why We Dream: The Transformative Power of Our Nightly Journeyby Alice Robb
Why We Dream is your go-to resource about dreams and how to get the most out of them. Based on the latest scientific research, you will learn how to boost dream recall, analyse your dreams and become lucid in your dreams. Explore the surprising power of dreams on mental and emotional well-being, and how dreaming can benefit modern culture and society.
Why We Dream
“Dreams play a crucial role in some of our most important emotional and cognitive functions, helping us form memories, solve problems and maintain our psychological health.”
Dreams are a biological reality and necessity, just like the rest of sleep. They serve important and unique functions for our mental and emotional health, creativity, and self-awareness.
Human sleep is broken into 90-minute cycles, during which we alternate between deep sleep and REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep.
REM sleep is associated with dreaming, whereas deep sleep is more likely to be dreamless. REM sleep periods get progressively longer throughout the night and are longest in the second half of the night or early morning. This is when we dream the most, and our ability to recall our dreams is correspondingly higher when we wake up during this time of the night.
During REM sleep, our brain strings together snippets of experience from daily life into a kind of narrative we experience as a dream. Dreams involve a diverse array of memories and associations, often put together in strange and unpredictable ways. They are a mixture of memories and emotions, often liberally filled in or fleshed out with creative imagination. This is why dreams often seem jumbled, bizarre, or surreal.
The process of crafting a dream, which happens unconsciously, is how the brain and mind try to figure out the significance of our daily experiences—what things mean and how they fit together. Dreams help us make creative connections between often quite unrelated events, leading to new insights and discoveries in many realms of life.
When we dream, we are open to many more possibilities without the usual boundaries of logic and reason that limit our thinking in waking life. Dreams are also a kind of self-created safe zone, as they have limited consequences in the waking world or for other people. The dream space is like a therapeutic playground where we can imagine and experience different realities in a relatively short time.
The journey that we go on each night as we dream, and the unconscious knowledge we gain from dreaming, filter up into our waking life and affect our behavior and choices. Dreams are incredibly important in emotional processing and contextualizing our waking life experiences. This is true whether or not we remember or engage with our dreams (though the effect is magnified in those who recall and reflect on their dreams).
Without our dreams, we can’t put things into perspective—which is why we become irritable and hyper-sensitive, more likely to blow things out of proportion. Dreams are also a gateway into deeper self-awareness and can serve as both guide and comfort as we go through life.
The first step in getting the most out of your dream life is remembering your dreams. Anyone can improve dream recall, regardless of age, gender, or prior experience. Several simple ways to enhance and improve dream recall include good sleep habits, setting a genuine intention, and recording your dreams.
Actions to take
Making Sense of Dreams
“If we fail to take the simple steps to remember and understand our dreams, it is as though we are throwing away a gift from our brains without bothering to open it.”
Once you start to remember your dreams—even small images or fragments—you are ready to explore and analyze what they might mean. It is important to recognize that dreams don’t work like ordinary life.
The dream landscape has its own unique structure, logic, and meaning that is usually symbolic and creative rather than literal. Analyzing dreams is not like learning a new subject at school or even learning from books. It requires lateral thinking, creativity, and a process-oriented approach with a lot of trust and honesty.
Over time, you will become more familiar with the language of your own dream world, as well as different ways to interpret the symbolism of dreams in general. The golden rule when unsure is to trust what feels right to you. When you come upon the ‘right’ interpretation, it often ‘clicks’ somewhere inside you or simply feels right to you. Dream analysis is not an objective, scientific process but a subjective, personal, and often intimate experience.
Dreams are designed to help us through difficulties. Often in dreams, our minds are replaying and rehearsing scenarios from life or hashing out different responses to figure out the best one. A case in point is dreaming about being late to important engagements or the classic dream of turning up to an exam and forgetting everything you studied. In these dream scenarios, we subconsciously process our fears and anxieties before the fact to better prepare us for the real event.
Another way that dreams help us learn and prepare for life is when we are going through important transitions, learning new skills, or facing challenges. During these times, we often dream a lot more than usual, as our brain tries to help us adapt to our novel circumstances.
In the case of learning, we may spend many hours of dream time replaying (in creative ways) the content and skills we are immersed in during the day. When faced with challenging situations, we often dream up different ways to escape them or deal with them. Sometimes we dream of our physical health and illnesses and the processes involved in healing or getting sick. All of these are the adaptive mechanisms that make dreaming a profound necessity for human beings.
As you become more experienced with dream recall and exploration, you can use your dreams to help you with challenging issues in life. This is known as ‘incubating’ a dream: asking your dreams for guidance or answers to whatever you are facing in life.
Dreams are so powerful in this regard because they show us what we would never have thought of and challenge us to look beyond what we think we know or believe. When we are stuck in life, don’t know what to do, or can’t seem to move on from something, we can turn to the resource we all have within us—our dream life—for novel solutions, a different perspective, or simply for comfort and support.
Actions to take
Mastering Your Dreams
“Becoming aware of your dreams is like dipping into a well of otherwise inaccessible fantasies and fears, signs from our subconscious, and creative solutions to projects and problems.”
There is no end to the depth and intricacy of dream exploration. Those who are passionate about dreams consider dreamwork to be a lifelong journey. We sleep and dream throughout our lives and can always gain something valuable from engaging with dreams.
Beyond exploration and interpretation of dreams lies the domain of what we could call dream mastery. This stage is about asserting more control over your dream life, either through more active engagement with dreams or through the practice of lucid dreaming.
Taking an active approach to dreaming begins with incubating dreams and includes re-scripting dreams. Re-scripting is a form of imaginative practice where we re-imagine different storylines or endings for our dreams while we are awake. It is particularly useful for transforming nightmares and recurring bad dreams. Re-scripting helps us safely engage difficult dream content and make profound psychological changes through our imaginative and dream life, which trickle up into our waking life.
The next level up from re-scripting is lucid dreaming. Lucidity exists on a spectrum, beginning with simply knowing that you are dreaming while in a dream and going on to being able to control what you do in a dream or alter how a dream unfolds. Lucidity does not mean total control.
Dreams are like life, in that there are always certain unspoken rules and unpredictable elements within them. Even if you are lucid in dreams, you probably won’t be able to control what other characters in the dream do or what happens to you. But you can choose how you respond and often can do things you can’t do in waking life, like teleport, fly, or have time pass very slowly or quickly.
Some people can dream lucidly without any effort on their part at all. For most people, lucid dreaming becomes possible with some practice. Becoming lucid in dreams grants you the capacity to integrate your conscious, active self with your deep, subconscious mind—so you can react to dream situations much more precisely, with more awareness and agency. Lucid dreamers also often report that lucidity is itself a delightful and pleasurable experience. The awareness of being in a dream tends to make dream life much richer, more vivid, and full of possibility.
Once you are able to become lucid or take control of your dreams, you can use your dreams for any purpose you want. You can go on different adventures every night if you want. You can incubate lucid dreams, which are much more powerful than non-lucid dreams for answering questions, discovering new insights, or exploring your creativity.
Lucid dreaming can bring about deep and lasting transformation in mental and emotional states, especially after a loss or when dealing with trauma. Lucidity is also very helpful in dealing with bad dreams and nightmares, as you can take control and guide the dream in a certain direction, to help free yourself of the terror or anxiety of the dream situation. Those who work with nightmares through lucid dreaming often report that their nightmares are resolved relatively easily and rapidly.
Actions to take
Dreams & Society
“As our ancestors intuited, talking about dreams—whether casually recounting them to friends, analyzing them in structured groups, or even sharing them with strangers on the internet—can amplify their benefits…And the act of discussing dreams can bring people together.”
Dreams have been considered by many cultures and societies to be a rich resource and a deeply important part of life. Many indigenous cultures use dreams as omens and portends to guide their decisions. The dream life of the community was a way in which everyone felt connected to something larger than themselves, some force that was guiding how their lives unfolded.
In previous times even in Western culture, dreams were considered a valuable part of a person’s inner life. Dreams have been explored diagnostically, by the Ancient Greek healers and physicians; therapeutically, by analytical psychologists like Freud and Jung; and even as supernatural phenomena, by the paranormal societies of the 19th centuries.
In modern Western culture, however, we have lost touch with our dream life. Many people lack the inclination, the understanding, or the context in which to explore their dreams. Dreams are often dismissed as meaningless brain activity and dream analysis as New Age mumbo-jumbo. Only in recent years has the scientific community begun to show interest in dreaming as a worthwhile area of exploration, largely due to the explosion in sleep research. In many cases, these discoveries have yet to filter out into the broader social consciousness, and dream researchers or enthusiasts are still considered somewhat fringe.
However, dreams hold enormous value not only for the mental and emotional health of the individual but also for society. Many dream enthusiasts report that the power and satisfaction of exploring dreams are greatly enhanced when there is a like-minded community to support and guide the dreamer. People have set up dream societies and groups worldwide, where they gather to discuss dreams and interpret them together. Some groups are informal gatherings of friends, while others are more organized dream conventions and conferences.
A common observation by all involved is that talking about and sharing dreams brings people together. It fosters understanding, community, and connection between even wildly divergent individuals. Dreams are a simultaneously intimate yet safe topic of discussion because everyone dreams, and everyone recognizes that we are not responsible for what we dream.
Many people report becoming closer to their friends and family through discussing dreams or making friends they would never have imagined making by attending dream groups. Joining or setting up a dream group also enhances dream frequency, depth, and recall, so even novices and total beginners can get a lot out of it. Dreams have a lot to offer us on many levels if we can get past our cultural judgments and biases about them, embrace their mysterious nature and explore them more deeply, both as individuals and as a society.