Dreams have played multiple different roles throughout history. Early kings of ancient times hired special interpreters to decipher their dreams in order to assist them in their rule, and today many still believe dreams hold predictive and interpretive qualities that can shine credence on real life situations. Prophetic dreams are often the most commonly thought of, but many dreamers experience an array of visions that can range on a scale from arousing to terrifying, be seen in color or black and white, and can either be remembered vividly or vaguely, with only specific images being recalled during waking hours.
On average, you will dream three to five times during the night, even if you do not remember them. If you can remember your dreams, you may have been tempted to decipher a hidden meaning among the images. Can you recall any specific dreams you have had recently? Do the nightmares stick out more vividly than the pleasant dreams? Anxiety dreams and nightmares, are often more likely to occur when going to bed stressed. If this is a typical practice for you, you may have the same, recurrent dream or nightmare. Recurrent dreams can be easier to interpret as you are more likely to remember and recognize images and trace them back to which events or emotions could be triggering them. Recurrent nightmares have the capacity to be modified as the stress is resolved, giving you more pleasant and healthy sleep patterns. Lucid dreaming is another experience that can be related to nightmares, or even just general dreams where you are aware you are dreaming and can control the environment around you. This can manifest in forcing yourself awake to escape the terror or even fighting back, which may give you the confidence to tackle your stress in real life.
Regardless of what types of dreams you experience, they are all influenced by daily events and experiences. They can even be altered by night events you are not consciously aware of. According to Dr. James B. Maas in his book Sleep for Success, volunteers in a sleep study were surrounded by different odors as they slept, with the pleasant smells generating better dreams than the foul odors. Because of findings like these, scientists are convinced that dreaming is less symbolism and more physiological reactions from within the sleeping brain. Dreaming only occurs during REM sleep, the final and deepest stage of the sleep cycle that is responsible for building and maintaining memory. In his same book, Dr. Maas quotes Harvard Professors J.Alan Hobson’s and Robert W. McCarley’s “activation-synthesis hypothesis,” stating that during REM nerves in the lower brain stem randomly activate the parts of the cerebral cortex where ideas and memories are stored. This means that, when you dream, the brain is pulling from its memory banks, generating images that contain familiar locations or people. You may dream about acquaintances, work, ex-lovers, or friends interacting with people whom they have never met in real life, supporting the theory that the characters and settings of dreams are just memory traces.
If you are interested in deciphering your dreams, it is important to keep these findings in mind. Instead of looking for symbolism, consider what each character, setting, and interaction means to you and your individual memories. Present stresses and emotions influence your brain’s performance during sleep and may shed more insight on your present emotional state rather than predict the future.