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Why do we dream and what does it mean? Sleep experts explain

How to make sense of the nighttime adventures your mind takes you on.

Maybe you dream that you’re flying, or that you show up for an important event unprepared, or that your teeth are loose or rotting. You might wonder what sex dreams mean, what dreams about death mean, or what pregnancy dreams mean. Your dreams must mean something, right?

Could be.

“We spend one-third of our lives sleeping, and we’re still trying to figure out what we’re doing in that 30% of our lives,” Dr. Rajkumar Dasgupta, a member of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and assistant professor of clinical medicine at Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, told TODAY.

An early theory was that dreams played out unconscious desires you couldn’t express during the day. Later, people thought dreams were just your brain randomly firing while you sleep. “Now there’s sort of a middle ground,” Adriane Soehner, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh and the director of the Pitt Sleep, Affective Neuroscience, and Development Lab, explained.

“We’re increasingly thinking that dreams are functional, and even if you don’t remember them, chances are you’re having them,” Soehner said. “Dreams might be helpful for memory, emotional processing, and sensory processing — deciding what’s important from what we’ve experienced during the day versus what’s not.”

Your brain takes in so much information, and it can be overwhelming to make sense of it all. When you dream you can preserve what’s meaningful and eliminate what isn’t.

“I believe we dream to solve problems,” Dasgupta said. He also said you dream to express creativity, and that dreaming can be a type of therapy. “We dream because it helps us deal with stress. Dreams and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep make us heal mentally and physically.”

How dreams can help you process emotions

“From a scientific perspective, we have pretty good evidence that daytime residues appear in your dreams,” Soehner said. That means what you experience during the day can show up in your dreams, that night or within the next few nights.

Imagine that in the last week you worked in your garden, shopped for groceries, did something embarrassing on a Zoom call, and sent an awkward email you regretted afterward. You’re not going to remember the gardening or shopping. You’re going to remember the call and the email.

“Dreaming can help us remember those events, but in a less pronounced emotional tone,” Soehner said. “They help you retain that memory, but not the negative emotion attached to it.”

How the pandemic is changing our dreams

People are having more vivid dreams and nightmares during the pandemic. There are a few reasons for that. We’re sleeping more — some research found almost 20% more. “More time to sleep means more time to dream,” Dasgupta said.

And we’re going to bed later and waking up later. “Dreams tend to occur closer to morning so if you’re waking up later there’s more chance to dream,” Dasgupta said.

And the nightmares? Dasgupta says the stress and anxiety of the pandemic are triggering them.

What do your dreams mean?

If you want to try dream interpretation, keep a journal by your bed and write down what you remember when you wake up. Then you can look for patterns and themes. Your dreams might be meaningful to you individually — with your analysis you can gain insight about what your brain is trying to process. But there’s no scientific evidence that your dream about, say, flying, has the same meaning as someone else’s dream about flying.

You need the journal to help you remember — you’ve probably noticed that dreams fade quickly after you wake up. “We forget about 90% of the dreams we have,” Dasgupta said.

Some people are naturally better at remembering their dreams than others. But what you remember also depends on what sleep stage you’re in when you wake up. Dreaming is most prominent and vivid in REM sleep. “If you wake people up from REM sleep, over three-quarters are probably going to recount a dream,” Soehner said. REM sleep happens more in the second half of your sleep period, so you’re more likely to remember dreams that occur closer to the morning.

The reason we forget our dreams might have to do with the types of brain circuits that support dreaming. Dreams mainly activate brain regions that have to do with mind wandering, memory and emotion, not regions that have to do with cognition.

“One of the possibilities is that all of these things seem so vivid and real because you have all these really important brain regions involved,” Soehner said. When you wake up, the parts of your brain that support short-term memory engage, and those other regions become less engaged, so the dream fades.

“Dreams are a way of letting the higher functioning parts of your brain realize what the subconscious is doing,” Dasgupta said.

Whether you remember your dreams or not doesn’t correlate with how well you are sleeping. Soehner said waking up feeling distressed from your dreams can be worrisome, though. Nightmares can make it hard to fall back asleep since you’re scared or amped up.

One health note: If you have dreams where you feel like you’re choking, gasping or suffocating, talk to your doctor. They could be a sign of sleep apnea.