What Do Dreams Mean? Experts Explain Why Dreaming is So Important

We asked experts to explain how our dreams can guide and heal us.

Months into the pandemic, my dreams started changing. Instead of flunking my unstudied-for algebra exam, I faced a fresh horror: I was being jostled by a large crowd, panicked I had forgotten my mask. Another night, I dreamed I was building a house alongside Dr. Fauci.

My friends were sharing similarly themed nocturnal escapades. And sure enough, #quarantinedreams became a hashtag. "People reported unusually active dream lives, and those dreams were especially vivid and bizarre," says Deirdre Barrett, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of Pandemic Dreams. The uncertainty of the COVID crisis not only charged our days with anxiety, it infected our slumber, too: Nightmares about hazmat suits and crawling bugs indicated our brains were working around the clock to process a rapidly changing world.

INTO THE LAND OF NOD
KATE DEHLER

Though our COVID-inspired visions may be receding as the world tiptoes toward normalcy, they've piqued our fascination with dreams—which, it turns out, may be far more useful than we realize. "Dreaming is thinking in a different biochemical state," Barrett says. "The preoccupations of our day make their way into our dreams. It's just a different mode of making sense of them. It's more visual and more intuitive." And if we can learn to discern the meaning in our dreams, we can apply it to the issues that matter to us most.

Spinning Stories

Most dreams occur during the REM (or rapid eye movement) stage of sleep, says Jade Wu, PhD, a sleep researcher at Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, North Carolina. While narratives build, your closed eyes dart back and forth, and the rest of your body lies immobilized (so you don't actually run away from nightmare tigers).

"Your dreams get more elaborate as the night goes on," says Michelle Carr, PhD, a researcher at the University of Rochester Sleep and Neurophysiology Laboratory in New York. "REM periods last longer, the storylines themselves get more vivid and more emotional, and associations become more bizarre." Your whiny neighbor may take the form of a yowling cat, for example.

These strange mash-ups materialize because the prefrontal cortex—the part of your brain in charge of logic—is less active while you're dreaming. "You don't have a censor saying, 'This does not make sense,' " explains Barrett. At the same time, the visual cortex ramps up its activity. These shifts in the brain set the stage for surreal scenarios to unfurl.

Some people suspect they don't ever dream, but dreams are universal, says Rebecca Spencer, PhD, a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. "Everyone dreams. The question is, Do you remember them?" Dreams are stored in our short-term memory and typically dissipate quickly, which means you're more likely to remember them if you wake up right in the middle of them. (This could be another reason it seemed as if we were dreaming more during the pandemic, experts say: Anxiety may have caused more frequent wee-hour awakenings.)

Why We Dream

Scientists are still debating the biological purposes of dreaming. One leading theory is that it plays a part in storing important memories. In our dreams, we connect meaningful events from the day—say, a kind gesture from your spouse or an argument with a friend—to prior experiences, which helps the brain figure out where to stow these fresh occurrences. "It is like your brain is saying, 'Where should I file this? Have I felt something like this before?' " says Spencer. For example, if you are disoriented by a friend's out-of-character behavior, you might dream you are wandering through the woods, hopelessly lost.

Experts also believe dreams may help us work through our emotions. Matthew Walker, PhD, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California Berkeley, has called dreams "overnight therapy." According to his research, dreams allow us to relive the days' stings when our stress hormones are naturally low; the next morning, the events feel less upsetting than they did yesterday.

Perhaps most intriguingly, our dreams may trigger aha insights and creative breakthroughs. (Paul McCartney has famously said the lyrics to "Let It Be" came to him in a dream.) During our uncensored nocturnal imaginings, full of loose associations, our minds can wander in new directions. Barrett points to one of her early studies, published in 1993 in the journal Dreaming: When she asked participants to contemplate a personal problem before bed for a week, about a quarter of them went on to have a dream that they felt provided a good solution to that problem.

"Dreams both reflect our waking lives and help us improve them, if we pay attention," says Carr. She herself had a dream-inspired epiphany not too long ago that actually changed the course of her career. "I was wrestling with whether to take on a huge professional responsibility," she recalls. "I felt unprepared and indecisive.

"One night, I had a dream I was being engulfed by a tidal wave and was terrified. Just as the wave was about to crash on top of me, a trusted colleague took my hand and showed me how to dive and come up the other side safely." She woke with a feeling of calm—and decided to take the leap.

This article originally appeared in the December 2021 issue of Health Magazine.

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