Where Do We Go When We Fall Asleep? How Much Should We Read Into Our Dreams?

For centuries we have pondered the meaning of dreams; these strange worlds we visit at night, filled with wonder, surreal images, and bizarre plot twists. While beliefs vary throughout history, and from culture to culture, many ancient civilizations shared the belief that dreams are sacred; a place where messages would be received, meetings with ancestral spirits would take place and our futures foretold.

Dreams were usually considered a means of seeing into other worlds. Ancient Egyptians believed dreams connected us with the gods, allowing divine messages to be passed on. For this reason, they were meticulous about recording their dreams and their interpretations, I guess this is what we now call dream journaling.

Of course, dreams are not always good; sometimes they have a sinister side which people have feared for millennia. In Slavic folklore, it was thought that the soul leaves the body when we sleep and wanders the world, visiting the places and the people we’re dreaming about. In both Slavic and Germanic folklore, it’s also believed that a malicious entity (called a mare) sits or rides on people’s chests while they sleep, causing bad dreams — which is where the word “nightmare” comes from.

Crescent moon in night sky above cloud

Why Do We Dream?

There has always been this great fascination with dreams, yet we still don’t know why we dream. Science knows what dreams are: in the most literal sense, dreams are patterns of sensory information that occur when the brain is in a resting state (so, when we sleep), but there is still no consensus on why we visit this peculiar place in our minds at night.

It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that some of the most widely-known modern theories on the topic were put forward. Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, the most influential figures in the history of psychoanalysis, both had profound theories on why we dream.

Freud believed that dreams performed important functions for the unconscious mind and offered valuable clues as to how it operates. His theory focused on repressed longing and wish-fulfillment, suggesting that dreaming allows us to file and sort unresolved repressed wishes. Carl Jung also believed dreams were messages from the unconscious mind but had different thoughts on their meaning. Jung proposed that dreams are the psyche’s attempt to communicate internal conflicts and to help us solve problems we may face in our conscious state. I’ve oversimplified profound work here but hopefully, you get the point. Recent studies cast doubt on their claims, particularly Freud’s, but the general notion of both theories are still widely supported.

We’ve advanced scientifically quite a bit since then and though dreams are still fairly elusive, dozens of theories about why we dream have since been developed: from helping us to process our emotions and strengthening new memories to rehearsing social or threatening situations.

For example, the evolutionary function of dreams suggests that we dream to learn how to deal with challenging or threatening situations. Whereas another theory relating to memory consolidation suggests that we dream to consolidate information that has bombarded our brain all day. This process of filing, sifting, and sorting what we have learned throughout the day helps to optimize cognitive function, so that we may wake up feeling mentally focused and alert.

How Dreams Affect Our Mood

Have you ever noticed that your dreams seem more vivid when you’re stressed or anxious? Both of the above theories could help to explain this; it’s a way of coping with challenging circumstances and new information. There’s also a link concerning emotional or bizarre dream content. It’s thought that dreams that arouse strong emotions, either positive or negative, are more memorable and vivid come morning.

We’ve all had one of those dreams that make us feel a bit weird the next day. We wake up feeling confused, sad, angry or even slightly disturbed that our own mind would even go there.

Events that occur, the conversations we have and the things we learn during the day usually feature in one way or another in our dreams, particularly if these events are negative.

Yes, a heated conversation with your boss could replay as a discussion with a talking leopard in your grandma’s kitchen, but that’s not the point. Research by Dr. Christopher Barnes suggests that negative events that occur during the workday are especially prevalent in our dreams that night and may carry over into the emotional tone of our dreams, affecting our mood the next morning as a result.

Negative events and stressors certainly impact our sleep quality, and now that we know they influence the emotional content of dreams, it explains those vivid dreams we’ve been having during the pandemic. This we can’t control, of course, but thinking about the theories we’ve mentioned, perhaps vivid dreams relating to other events, positive or negative, could offer a way of coping with challenging circumstances we encounter in our waking lives.

Dreams are now widely thought to offer a window into a deeper understanding of ourselves, our connection to the world and the people around us. Many people believe dreams contain insights into what we truly care about and long for; that they uncover hidden messages and meanings for us to decipher and act upon and, as we’ve discovered, research suggests this could be true. Paying attention to our dreams could help us to identify stressors that we need to tackle. It goes back to those divine messages being sent to us from another world; important messages to help us solve problems in our waking lives.

Sleep tight!

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