When we fall asleep, our brain does not. The subconscious mind never sleeps. It is the subconscious job to keep your body functioning while leaving the conscious world and doze off into a land far away. However, one part of sleep, the subconscious, helps and is very common yet very mystifying: dreams.
For centuries psychologists, philosophers and neuroscientists have engaged in a longstanding debate fueled by a host of theories that try to explain why we dream.
Although this question remains definitively unanswered, one thing is certain: some dreams are commonplace and can tell us more than we realise about our state of mind during our waking lives.
Below is a look at the process of dreaming and some of the most common dreams people encounter.
What is a dream?
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines a dream as “A series of images, thoughts, and emotions, often with a story-like quality, generated by mental activity during sleep.”
Dreams are emotionally charged stories that play out visually in our minds while we sleep. Instead of being like reading a storybook or watching a film, however, dreams are weird, wonderful, and illogical. Often, you are the protagonist and at the forefront of the action. Every individual will experience dreams differently, but there are some general features of dreams:
- Dreams often appear as fragmented sequences of events or distorted versions of reality.
- Dreams occur involuntarily.
- Dream content can induce a myriad of feelings and emotions.
- Dreams can be purely visual or include taste, touch, smell or other senses.
- Dreams can be vivid or distant and hard to remember.
When do dreams happen?
Dreams occur most vividly during the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage of sleep, the fourth stage of the sleep cycle. Usually, we enter the REM sleep stage 90 minutes after falling asleep, and it repeats approximately every 90 minutes after that as part of the sleep cycle. REM sleep can last between 5 and 34 minutes and increases incrementally with each cycle. Overall, we spend 20-25% of our sleep time in the REM stage.
You may be surprised to hear that according to the (US) National Sleep Foundation, most people have 4 to 6 dream episodes per night, totalling around 2 hours based on an average sleep time of 8 hours – that is a lot of dreaming!
Why do we dream?
Despite being such a profound part of sleep, a question mark remains over why we dream at all. Some believe dreaming is a part of the brain’s way of processing data, consolidating memory and organising thoughts. In contrast, others believe dreams are versions of reality constructed by our subconscious that communicate our emotions.
The father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, believed dreams provide a pathway to our unconscious minds. Even though dreams can feel weird and wacky (all), dream content comes from everyday waking experiences.
Common dreams and their interpretations
The meaning of a dream varies from person to person, but Freud accepted ‘generalities do exist’, so if you experience an extraordinary dream, chances are you are not alone.
Below we discuss a handful of common dreams and their potential meanings. We have provided a few examples of different interpretations for each common dream to people share to help you better understand what your dream might be trying to tell you personally.
One of the most common dreams involves teeth falling out. Losing teeth may seem entirely unrelated to adult life, but it is something we have all experienced in childhood, and the sensation is somewhat ingrained in our memory.
Essentially, when you dream about your teeth, it usually symbolises your level of confidence and power in your waking life. Teeth are a central part of our ability to function daily, both physiologically and socially. They enable us to eat, to speak, to smile and are a significant feature of attractiveness. So, if your teeth are painful, falling out or similar, it is generally an indication of anxiety, a lack of self-assurance or the inability to process thoughts.
Teeth dreams do have their nuances, though, so let us delve a little deeper into what your tooth dream could be telling you:
- Wobbling teeth. If your teeth are wobbly or on the brink of falling out, this could suggest you feel like you are losing control in a particular aspect of your life, causing anxiety.
- Crumbling teeth. If you are speaking to someone and begin to feel your teeth crumbling, it could mean you lack confidence about what you are saying or some embarrassment about what others think of you. In some cases, crumbling teeth may suggest you have recently lied to someone and feel a sense of regret about this.
- Decaying teeth. If you experience decaying teeth, this can suggest a fear of ageing and a vulnerability to the lack of power and vitality that comes with this process.
- Missing teeth. If you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror with teeth missing, it could signal low self-esteem or that you are feeling insecure about your appearance.
- Gleaming teeth. By contrast, if you dream about having pearly whites, this can mean your confidence feels exceptionally high, although veneers, on the other hand, may suggest artificial confidence.
With all these dreams, the meaning can be interchangeable, so it is worth asking yourself about other aspects of the dream and reflecting on your life to see whether you can connect the dots and find the missing link.
Falling dreams can also vary. A fall during a dream may be relatively small and contained. You could trip over an uneven paving slab or miss a step that makes you stumble, or the fall could be far more significant and dramatic. You could find yourself tumbling uncontrollably down flights of stairs or that the ground abruptly gives way beneath your feet, leaving you hurtling into a dark abyss.
Either way, dreams about falling often signal that you are going through a particularly stressful period and may be concerned about failure or not reaching a certain standard. Falling downwards indicates that being held back by something in your waking life or that you are holding onto something and need to let go to find your feet again.
If you experience a dream about falling, you may want to consider if and how you feel under pressure in certain aspects of your life and how you can ease these pressures. Stress can damage healthy sleep patterns, so it is also worth looking at how you can reduce stress to enable a good night’s sleep.
Dreaming about flying can be an exhilarating experience if you are soaring through the air with ease but troubling if your flight path is brimming with obstacles. Dreaming about flying is often classed as a lucid dream (where you realise you are dreaming), and, generally, your ability to fly during the dream symbolises how much or how little control you feel you have over your life.
If you feel like you are floating, soaring or swooping through the air like a bird or superhero, this symbolises freedom, creativity and boundlessness. Flying can also represent a new lease of life and renewed energy. In your waking life, you may have recently overcome a situation or reached a goal that has taken a weight off your shoulders and made you confident and motivated. High flying and admiring the landscape below, you also suggest you have a broader perspective and are on top of things.
On the other hand, if you are flying close to the ground, feel unsteady or encounter obstacles such as trees or power cables, this could suggest you are trying to overcome a situation in everyday life.
The obstacles you come across could suggest something is stopping you from moving forward and living a fulfilling life – this could be a toxic relationship, a difficulty at work or even an aspect of your personality.
Evaluating your waking life obstacles will give you a good insight into what could be holding you back from flying high.
According to a database developed by dream researcher Dr Kelly Bulkeley, being pursued or chased was the most common dream amongst men and women, with 83% of respondents reporting to have experienced this dream.
During this dream, you may be running away from a person or animal. There could be more than one, and they may be wild and fast or slow and steady in their pursuit. You may have the impending sense if caught by the pursuer, you are in danger, yet no matter how fast you run, or hard you try to disguise yourself, the pursuer continues to be on your back.
If you dream about someone or something chasing you and cannot escape, this signals avoidance in your waking life.
Indicating an avoidance of ambition or failing to acknowledge your feelings towards a particular situation. According to dream psychologist Ian Wallace, when we see people or animals in our dreams, they represent our personality traits:
- An animal is chasing you: This suggests you are ignoring an instinctive impulse in your waking life, and you are struggling to suppress it.
- A person is chasing you. Being chased by a man, woman, or several people can suggest an opportunity to pursue a passion or something you feel strongly about, but you are not taking responsibility.
- A monster is chasing you. Although it may seem scary, seeing a monster chasing you in your dream suggests you have a natural talent, but you are unsure how to develop it.
So, although dreaming about being chased is frightening, the dream attempts to bring awareness to suppressed feelings and talents that accomplished. Ian Wallace recommends confronting these feelings by stepping outside of your comfort zone to build confidence and feel less like a victim of pursuit and more of a pursuer of your feelings.
Running late for a necessary appointment, meeting, or occasion is a nuisance in daily life, but dreaming about it can be even more stressful. You may feel you are trying desperately to beat the clock and reach your destination during this dream, but things keep getting in the way and make you even later.
Dreaming about being late for an appointment often represents a self-imposed deadline you are trying to achieve. You may feel the time is running out or an opportunity is slipping away from you. It could be that you are procrastinating over a decision or feel pressure about achieving certain social milestones, such as getting married or starting a family.
If you are met with a clock face or are continually looking at your watch during this dream, this suggests you feel you are wasting time in your waking life and not taking action. Dream psychologist Ian Wallace proposes that dreams about being lateness tell you to take action and stamp ownership over your decisions.
Unprepared for an exam
We all know the nervousness and stress that comes with preparing for an exam. However, imagine an important formal exam, having had months to prepare, and suddenly realising you do not know at all. You have not revised, or if you have, you have got no memory of it.
Dreaming about being unprepared for an exam
So rather than judging yourself and perpetuating a negative thought cycle, take time to focus on the positive areas of your life and celebrate your achievements. You are critically evaluating your life concerning your expectations. You may set the bar high when it comes to success and achievement in your waking life, be a perfectionist or tend to have a plan for everything. This dream is a metaphor for self-examination. Being unprepared highlights insecurities about failure and fears about not meeting your potential in day-to-day life.
If you experience this dream, you are:
- a high achiever
- being too harsh on yourself.
So rather than judging yourself and perpetuating a negative thought cycle, take time to focus on the positive areas of your life and celebrate your achievements.
A few final thoughts
Dreams tell us a lot about how we feel, making it worth keeping a dream diary to record the dreams you remember. Then you can interpret the meaning of your dreams and reflect on what part of your life, or your ‘self’, might need a little bit of extra attention.
Only time will tell whether psychologists, philosophers and neuroscientists will ever get to the bottom of why we dream.
Although we spend a quarter of a night’s sleep dreaming, some people only remember a fragment of one of these dreams when they wake, if anything at all. We all dream each night, so if someone tells you, they do not dream. The likelihood is they cannot remember.
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