It’s the same dream every time: your old high school math teacher hands you the exam, and you don’t know how to answer a single question.
Dreams are universal; everyone has them, though they may not always remember them. On average, a person spends approximately two hours each night in REM (rapid-eye movement) sleep, the stage of sleep in which most dreaming occurs. Most people have up to four or five dreams per night, however, people typically only remember one or two dreams per week. Some dreams are recurring, like the one described above. But the dreams people most often remember are the last dreams of the night, when they are emerging from sleep or sleeping lightly, or dreams which evoke a deep or powerful emotional response, like fear.
Psychologists have long been developing theories to explain why and how dreams occur. Sigmund Freud, an early pioneer of dream theory, developed the “wish-fulfillment” theory for dreaming, based on the presumption that dreams are a means of expressing repressed sexual conflicts and desires. Other psychologists took a more scientific approach. A theory of dreaming developed by Crick and Mitchison discusses the physiological function of sleep. They believed that REM sleep was used as a means to preserve and prune neural pathways. Two other psychologists, Hobson and McCarley, believed in an activation synthesis dream theory that REM sleep causes neural firings that the brain shapes into stories. However, both of these theories do not explain the personal reported meanings of dreams.
Though there are many theories for the functions of dreams, most psychologists agree that dreams reflect people’s waking experiences. Studies have shown that dreams are often autobiographical in nature, and commonly focus on people who the dreamer has a strong, emotional attachment to, or people who the dreamer is currently in conflict with. According to a study conducted by J.Allan Hobson et al. at Harvard Medical School, 48 percent of people that inhabit a person’s dreams are identifiable by name, and another 35 percent are identifiable by a social or professional role. Only 16 percent are unidentifiable. Additionally, the setting of dreams is typically commonplace or familiar to the dreamer, such as a school or workplace.
Not only are most dreams autobiographical, but a majority of them evoke emotions or events which could be characterized as negative, according to dream researcher Antonio Zadra. For example, many recurring dreams, such as the one previously described, often involve the fear of being unprepared, chased, or attacked, and often reflect traumatic events or longstanding unresolved problems. These dreams are more common than one may think. In a 2015 meta-analysis conducted by Zadra et al., between 60 and 75 percent of adults reported having had at least one recurrent dream in their lives.
Dream content can reflect a wide variety of topics such as gender, socioeconomic status, and marital status. Moreover, dream content also varies amongst people with different mental disorders. For example, depressed people often have dreams filled with masochism, dependency needs, and self-defeating ideas, while schizophrenics’ dreams often include loneliness, bizarre imagery, danger, morbidity, and a sense of emergency. Nightmares are a characteristic feature of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), often vividly replaying the actual traumatic event over and over again, making sleep a challenge. For victims of PTSD, extensive discussions of their recurring nightmares in a supportive environment can help them reorder their memories of their experience, and their nightmares tend to dissipate.
The autobiographical nature of dreams, the apparent linkage of dreams to deep seated fears and emotional events, and the well-documented scientific theory that dreaming and waking recall utilize the same sections of the brain, suggest that a focus on dreaming can enhance several forms of therapy. Most of what psychologists know about the success of dream therapy comes from clinical evidence. Dream interpretation plays an important role in long-term therapy because it allows psychologists to chart changes in dream content over time, often reflecting changes in mental state. However, dream therapy arguably plays an even more impactful role in short-term therapy. Through the analysis of a particular dream, the patient will often openly express content that otherwise would have taken much longer for the patient to share. Additionally, it is often difficult for patients to articulate what is truly bothering them, whereas dream analysis has the potential to make underlying conflicts clear. Though the true physiological function of dreaming is still only theorized, the prospects of dream therapy are bright.