Menu
kid in autumn leaves
How to make sense of your dreams

The following article is written by happiness expert and psychologist Dr Melissa Weinberg from Deakin University’s School of Psychology.

Since the dawn of time, dreams have been a fascinating and intriguing element of the human experience. From Jacob’s dream in the Old Testament, to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, dreams have sparked curiosity that transcends time and culture.

So why are they still so mysterious? Why, when we go to sleep at night, do our thoughts, feelings and memories all have a party inside our heads?

Why do we dream?

Although it’s easy to dismiss dreams as meaningless and uninformative, various theories of why we dream and the mountain of evidence linking disturbed dreaming to psychopathology suggests otherwise.

Sigmund Freud suggested dreams represent the desires and wishes repressed from conscious thought during waking life. Accordingly, dreams provide an opportunity to live out and express thoughts that might otherwise be considered inappropriate.

A more contemporary approach to this is the idea is the continuity hypothesis; that the moods and thoughts we experience in waking life carry over into our dreams, and vice versa. This means if we’re happy when we’re awake, we’ll have pleasant dreams, and if we have pleasant dreams, we’ll wake up in a good mood. The same goes for relating anxiety and stress to disturbing dreams.

Another prominent theory is that we use dreams to cope with stress, or to work through problems experienced in waking life. We typically dream during REM sleep, while the release of stress hormones is suppressed. This allows us to explore stressful events in a dream state without the same emotional intensity that accompanies them in waking hours.

Through the process of fragmentation in dreams, a stressful event is deconstructed into smaller elements, which are then reconfigured in a different way to allow us to explore different ways to cope. The new stream of imagery our brain produces may seem nonsensical as it replays our original fears and anxieties in a new context, safely removed from the original setting.

Bad dreams and nightmares

According to the scientific literature, while bad dreams and nightmares may both be disturbing to the sleeper, the distinguishing feature between a bad dream and a nightmare is whether or not the sleeper wakes. Though bad dreams are very common, nightmares generally occur in just 4-to-10% of the population.

In both bad dreams and nightmares, emotional content can include anger, disgust and grief. But typically the primary emotion experienced is fear.

Nightmares typically signal unresolved conflict. When you have a nightmare, it will often wake you up because the emotional content of the dream is so intense that the brain mobilises the body for action. People who experience frequent nightmares typically report higher levels of anxiety and distress, and lower levels of wellbeing. If you experience frequent nightmares that might be an indication that it’s time to seek help from a psychologist or other mental health professional.

'Although it’s easy to dismiss dreams as meaningless and uninformative, various theories of why we dream and the mountain of evidence linking disturbed dreaming to psychopathology suggests otherwise.'

By Dr Melissa Weinberg,
Deakin University

Recurring dreams

Recurring dreams are believed to indicate ongoing and persistent unresolved conflict.

Imagine your brain as a librarian and every new piece of information as a book that needs to be filed systematically and placed on a shelf in an orderly fashion. When a book comes along that doesn’t fit any of the criteria you ordinarily use to sort, you just leave it on the desk to deal with later. But until you find where it belongs, or build a new shelf to put it on, the book is just going to sit there. You might hide it for a while by placing new books on top of it, but it won’t just go away on its own. As those new books get sorted, the old book will keep finding its way back to your awareness.

When we experience trauma or conflict and our brain doesn’t know how to process it, it can temporarily place it aside for later storage. But until we make sense of it, it can continue to play over and over in our minds. Since our brain is busy coping with all sorts of everyday stressors during waking life, it uses our dream state to remind us that we still need to deal with whatever unresolved issues we’ve been avoiding.

Lucid dreams

Lucid dreams are a specific type of dream in which the dreamer is aware of the fact that they are dreaming, and so are able to exert control over the dream and manipulate the dream content.

In one interesting study, researchers proposed that it was possible for athletes to train their brain to execute specific actions by practicing them via lucid dreaming.

Many athletes use visualization to mentally practice a technique they use in their sport, based on the idea that the same neural pathways are activated when we imagine performing an action as when we actually execute it. If athletes can train themselves to practice a technique through lucid dreaming, they can expedite their mastery of a new strategy and strengthen the neural networks that will allow them to perform the action automatically in waking life.

Why you should listen to your dreams

Whether you dream of falling, being chased, being attacked, flying, or being late, dreams can tell you a lot about what may be bothering you in waking life – so it’s worth paying attention to them. With the economic burden of sleep problems currently estimated to cost the Australian economy in excess of $5 billion, we simply can’t afford to sleep poorly.

Interested in learning more about the psychology of sleep and dreams? Check out Deakin’s range of psychology courses.

this. featured experts
Dr Melissa Weinberg
Dr Melissa Weinberg

School of Psychology
Deakin University

Read profile

explore more