Dreams are stories and images that our minds create while we sleep. They can be entertaining, fun, romantic, disturbing, frightening, and sometimes bizarre.
This article looks at how we dream, what nightmares are, lucid dreams, and why some dreams are difficult to remember where others are more memorable.
Sleep happens in cycles. Each complete sleep cycle takes about 90 to 110 minutes.
Most dreams happen during a phase known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. The first REM sleep period usually occurs around 70 to 90 minutes after we fall asleep.
During this phase, an amino acid known as glycine is released from the brain stem onto the motor neurons. These motor neurons conduct impulses outward from the brain or spinal cord.
This paralysis is believed to be nature’s way of making sure we do not act out our dreams and thus prevents injury.
The first sleep cycles each night contain
One study has suggested that dreaming can happen during both REM and non-REM (NREM) sleep, but that different physiological processes underlie the dreaming at each stage.
The dreams that occur during these periods
One study has proposed that the hormone cortisol plays an important role in controlling memory systems during sleep. High cortisol levels have been observed late at night and during REM sleep.
Cortisol affects the interaction between the hippocampus and the neocortex. This interaction
In NREM sleep, the interaction between the neocortex and the hippocampus is not disrupted, and typical episodic memories occur.
However, in REM sleep, dream content reflects only neocortical activation. Dreams are more likely to be fragmented and bizarre.
To discover more evidence-based information and resources on the science of healthy sleep, visit our dedicated hub.
Both adults and children can experience bad dreams and nightmares.
During a nightmare, the dreamer may experience a range of disturbing emotions, such as anger, guilt, sadness or depression. However, the most common feelings are fear and anxiety. The person usually wakes up at least once during the dream.
Causes of bad dreams include:
- emotional issues
- medication or drug use
A study that looked at 253 episodes described as “nightmares” found they
- physical aggression
- bizarre and emotionally intense situations
- failures and unfortunate endings
One in three of these nightmares contained primary emotions other than fear.
In a further 431 bad dreams, as opposed to nightmares, interpersonal conflicts were common. Just over half contained primary emotions other than fear.
In another study, 840 German athletes discussed distressing dreams that occurred on the nights before an important competition or game.
Elsewhere, a survey in which 30 women who were dealing with relationship violence described their dream experiences,
Dream events included:
- being chased
- bring killed
- killing someone else
One theory about recurrent dreams is the threat simulation theory. According to this theory, dreams are an ancient biological defense mechanism that aims to repeatedly simulate threatening events, presumably to prepare people for threats they might face in their waking life.
In one investigation, children who had undergone severe trauma experienced a
However, in a study that looked at the dreams of 190 school children aged 4 to 12 years who had not undergone any trauma, the following was noted:
- Fear featured in 75.8 percent of dreams.
- Worries featured in 67.4 percent.
- Scary dreams represented 80.5 percent.
Fears relating to scary dreams were common among children aged 4 to 6 years old, and more so among those aged 7 to 9 years. These fears became less frequent between the ages of 10 and 12 years.
Types of fears, worries, and dreams changed across age groups. Fears and scary dreams relating to imaginary creatures
In one study, dream reports from 610 teenagers
Girls who often had disturbing dreams were also more likely to show signs of trait anxiety, even at 13 years of age.
Certain conditions appear to increase the frequency of nightmares in some people.
Sleep apnea: People with sleep apnea
Depression: Frequent nightmares
Night terrors are different from nightmares.
A child who is experiencing night terrors may:
- thrash around
- jump out of bed
- fail to recognize parents trying to comfort them
Night terrors occur on waking abruptly from deep NREM sleep, while nightmares are thought to happen during REM sleep.
Around 1 to 6 percent of children are thought to experience sleep terrors at some point in their childhood. It is common in children aged between 3 to 12 years. Children are not fully awake in these episodes, even if their eyes are open, and they usually have no memory of the event the next day.
The episodes usually occur in the early part of the night and can continue for up to 15 minutes.
Night terrors are more common in children with a family history of night terrors or sleepwalking behavior.
A night terror attack may be triggered by anything that:
- increases the amount of deep sleep the child has, such as tiredness, fever or certain types of medication
- makes the child more likely to wake from deep sleep, such as excitement, anxiety, or sudden noise
Most children will eventually grow out of night terrors.
Night terrors have also been linked to enlarged tonsils and adenoids.
A recurring dream is a type of dream that occurs on a regular basis when we sleep.
A study of 212 reports of recurring dreams
- Two in three dreams contained one or more threats, which tended to be dangerous and aimed at the dreamer. When facing a threat, the dreamer tended to take defensive or evasive actions that were possible and reasonable.
- Fewer than 15 percent of the recurrent dreams depicted realistic and probable situations. In these, the dreamer rarely succeeded in fleeing the threat, despite efforts.
Lucid dreaming is a rare state of sleep in which the dreamer knows they are dreaming and they gain insight into their state of mind during the dream.
Scientists have found that certain cortical areas that are activated during lucid dreaming.
A study of lucid dreams in school children and young adults
- lucid dreaming is “quite pronounced” in young children
- the incidence drops at around16 years of age
The study authors proposed a link between the natural occurrence of lucid dreaming and brain maturation.
A wet dream is when an ejaculation occurs during sleep, usually during a sexual dream. The person may not remember the dream, and it can happen without touching the penis. They may or may not wake up.
Wet dreams are a normal part of growing up and cannot be prevented. Some boys may have several dreams a week, while other never experience one. This, too, is normal.
The use of some medications can affect dreaming.
Antidepressants and SSRIs
Results showed that:
- People both with and without depression experienced a decrease in dream recall frequency when using antidepressants.
- More positive dream emotions were linked to tricyclic antidepressant use.
- Nightmares occurred after discontinuing tricyclic antidepressants and the monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) phenelzine and tranylcypromine.
- Both starting and discontinuing the use of SSRIs or SNRIs seem to intensify dreaming.
Dreams and hallucinations have long been linked to sedation under anesthesia.
Sexual hallucinations have, in the past,
The following drugs have been linked to dream experiences:
Propofol: People who have been given this anesthetic drug
Alcohol: People who were undergoing detoxification following alcohol dependence
Studies have found that subjective sleep and dream quality is strongly impaired in patients with alcohol dependency.
Marijuana and cocaine
Sleep disturbances and unpleasant dreams have been linked to cocaine withdrawal, and difficulty sleeping and strange dreams have been reported after discontinuing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), or marijuana, use.
Health conditions that affect dreams
Some health conditions can change a person’s sleep and dream quality.
Psychotic major depression
People with affective and non-affective psychoses
Narcolepsy with cataplexy (NC) is a neurological disorder that features excessive daytime sleepiness and changes in sleep patterns.
Studies have found that most people have about 85-percent dream recall, whether or not they have NC. However, people with NC have reported longer and more complex first-REM dreams.
Results suggested that those with RBD were more likely to experience violent dreams, but that neither RBD nor violent dreams was linked to testosterone levels in men with PD.
Another study involved both men and women with PD. It
Post-traumatic stress disorder
Disturbed sleep patterns, nightmares, and anxiety-filled dreams are symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
It is often said that 5 minutes after the end of a dream, we have forgotten 50 percent of its content, and 10 minutes later, we have forgotten 90 percent. Dream researchers estimate that around 95 percent of all dreams are forgotten entirely upon awakening.
Some people have no difficulty remembering several dreams nightly, while others rarely or never recall dreams. Some aspect of sleep appears to make it difficult for dreamers to remember what happened.
Most dreams are forgotten, but sometimes a dream is suddenly remembered later in the day or on another day. Writing down or recording dreams may help you remember them. This suggests that the memory is not totally lost, but for some reason it is hard to retrieve.
How does the brain affect dream memories?
Brain lesion and neuroimaging studies have indicated that the temporo-parieto-occipital junction and ventromesial prefrontal cortex play crucial roles in dream recall.
Surface EEG studies showed that sleep cortical oscillations associated with successful dream recall are
Cortical brain oscillations of human sleep appear to predict successful dream recall.
Specific cortical activity has been linked with successful dream recall after waking up from REM sleep, a finding which strengthens the theory that dream recall and episodic memory during wakefulness are linked.
A different area of the brain has been linked with successful dream recall after awakening from stage 2 NREM sleep.
Overall, these findings suggest that mechanisms underlying the encoding and recall of episodic memories
Another study using MRI techniques found that vivid, bizarre, and emotionally intense dreams — the dreams people usually remember — are linked to parts of brain areas known as the amygdala and hippocampus.
The amygdala plays a primary role in the processing and memory of emotional reactions. The hippocampus has been implicated in important memory functions, such as consolidating information from short-term to long-term memory.
Scientists have also identified where dreaming is likely to occur in the brain.
People who have a clinical condition known as Charcot-Wilbrand syndrome
A loss of the ability to dream was also noted in one person who experienced a lesion in a part of the brain known as the right inferior lingual gyrus. This is located in the visual cortex. It may be that this area of the brain, which is associated with visual processing, emotion and visual memories, plays a role in either generating or transmitting dreams.
People have speculated about dreams for thousands of years, but only recently have advances in technology make it possible to study brain activity in ways that may help us understand what really happens when we dream. However, much about the life of dreams remains a mystery.