In Your Dreams: Understanding What Happens While You Sleep

In Your Dreams: Understanding What Happens While You Sleep

By: Molly Maczik

March 16th, 2022

There’s no feeling like waking up after a crazy dream. Some people are very familiar with this feeling; others, not so much. Some people swear they don’t dream. Some experience very realistic, mundane dreams while others have strange, fantastical ones. The concept of dreams prompt many questions that researchers are still trying to answer.

Everyone dreams, but not everyone remembers it, which is why some people believe they do not dream. Some dreams are very memorable or remembered first thing in the morning and forgotten about later in the day. 

According to the Sleep Foundation, dreams are based on memories, emotions and activity happening in everyday life and in the brain. People tend to have their most intense dreams during the rapid eye movement stage, even though these dreams may still include elements of waking life. Dreams outside of the REM stage revolve around thoughts or memories grounded to a specific time or place.

Unfortunately, there is no proven way to understand the meaning of dreams. Researchers have gathered different hypotheses but have not come to a final conclusion. Some believe that dreams and waking life are combined with one another—this is known as the continuity hypothesis. On the other hand, the discontinuity hypothesis asserts that dreams are structurally distinct.

Dreams can be categorized into different types as one step toward better understanding them. The five most common dream categories are ordinary dreams, lucid dreams, telepathic dreams, premonitory dreams and nightmares. Ordinary dreams are just dreams that are triggered by activity that happened during the day or even the past years. Some individuals believe dreams can guide an individual in their waking life via spiritual communication. 

Lucid dreams are dreams that can be controlled because the person is conscious during their dream. During lucid dreaming, an individual is aware they are dreaming and can often decide what to dream about before falling asleep. The dreamer may be able to change the dream’s people and environment, allowing them to reduce the occurrence of anxiety and nightmares.

Telepathic dreams can further be broken down into three levels. An individual may experience mental communication between two living people, with themselves and someone who is dead during their waking, or even communication between two worlds. Psychic Gillian Kemp describes it as  “the nighttime world of the soul and the daytime world of the body.” 

Premonitory dreams are similar to lucid dreams. What makes them different is that they predict the future and allow the dreamer to see things that they wouldn’t in waking life. Psychics advise the dreamer to use these as guides in waking life.

One of the most common forms of dreaming—and the least favored—is nightmares. Most nightmares are linked to early childhood, but some may relate to an unsolved problem the individual is scared to face in their waking life. Frightening dreams can be caused by sleep deprivation, stress, scary movies or even certain medications or substances. 

Although dreams can be random and inexplicable, there are certain activities that influence the dreams of an individual. Sleeping on one’s stomach can often lead to sexual dreams. “The theory is that having your breasts and pelvic area pressed against the bed causes stimulation that can often result in sex dreams,” said Lauri Loewenberg, dream analyst and author of “Dream on It: Unlock Your Dreams, Change Your Life,” to journalist Mary Grace Garis of Well + Good. Vitamins can also affect dreams—B6 can help an individual remember a dream and have a clear memory overall. 

There is a strong connection between smoking and dreams. Whether it is cannabis or cigarettes, smoking can affect dreams. According to Loewenberg, cannabinoids suppress REM while nicotine suppresses serotonin. If someone quits smoking, they may experience a high increase in dreams.

Dreams may also increase intensity after ovulation, according to a 2019 study published in Medical Sciences. After ovulation, the hormone progesterone is released; with it, women have better luck remembering their dreams. 

Spicy foods also can affect dreams and make them more upsetting; so spicy-loving foodies may want to steer away from hot foods before bed. Hot sauce can increase your blood sugar level, but these levels will dramatically drop when someone enters REM. This plunge can cause uncomfortable activity in the body, resulting in an unpleasant dream. 

There are outside factors that affect dreams, but dreams have their own effects on sleep. Dreams indicate healthy sleep patterns. According to the Sleep Foundation, studies have shown dreams lead “to effective thinking, memory, and emotional processing.” High creativity levels, better mood and better overall health are common expectations of healthy dreams, or those free from stress, over-stimulation or fear-inducing content.

However, nightmares can negatively impact a person’s sleep, especially if it wakes the dreamer and makes it hard to fall asleep. When it happens once, its effect on sleep quality is minimal, but recurring nightmares can be a barrier to sleep and lead to fatigue. Nightmare disorder can develop, causing restless sleep. Someone experiencing nightmare disorder can have an increased risk of insomnia and sleep deprivation. All these factors can affect one’s life day-to-day, and in that case, they may need professional help from a doctor. 

By practicing different relaxation techniques and setting time aside to wind down before bed, dreamers can suppress the occurrence of bad dreams. Factors like screen time, alcohol and anxiety affect REM sleep. Dreams still remain mysterious, and the meanings behind them are unknown. However, if one wants to have positive, consistent dreams, some lifestyle habits may need to be changed.

Molly Maczik is a fourth year undergraduate majoring in professional and public writing. She currently works as an online fitness coach and hopes to continue her fitness business post-college while integrating the writing and editing techniques she has learned in the past 4 years. When she’s not at the gym, she likes to spend time with friends and family and be outside. You can follow her fitness account on instagram @mgfiiit for all things fitness, nutrition, mindset and lifestyle.