It’s one of those mornings: when the alarm snapped you out of sleep, you were dreaming, and all through breakfast you’ve been trying to piece together your dream or wondering why it was so weird. Let’s unpack the mystery of our dreams and dive a little deeper into the role they may play in our well-being.


Most mornings, we wake up without remembering our dreams. Did we even dream at all? The answer is that we dream for around two hours per night. It’s just that we forget up to 95% of them. Researchers have found that dreams last anywhere from five seconds to 20 minutes. So, during your lifetime, you’ll spend about six years dreaming!


Why do we remember some dreams and not others?

We’re most likely to remember our dreams if we are woken up during the REM (rapid eye movement) phase of sleep. Although dreaming sometimes occurs during the non-REM phase, REM is a reliable trigger for a dream state. Dreams fade quickly after waking, though. Sometimes, you’ll remember elements of a dream later in the day. This may be because an experience has triggered the same area of the brain that created the dream.

So, why do we dream?

Scientists are still not quite sure why we dream. Some suggest that dreaming helps us to consolidate memories, process emotions, express our deepest desires and/or practise confronting potential dangers. Some experts believe dreaming is important for our mental, emotional and physical well-being, while others suggest that dreams serve no purpose at all.

Why do we dream about the things we do?

If there’s something you really care about in the waking world, you’re likely to dream about that more often than other people do. Dreaming offers a surprisingly accurate portrait of our emotional preoccupations – try to find elements from your dreams that you can relate to your current worries or mood.

What a nightmare!

Nightmares are very realistic, disturbing dreams that cause us to wake in fear – often with a pounding heart – and they’re not just something children experience. The causes of nightmares are varied, and include having a late-night snack, which may signal the brain to be more active; side-effects of medications (or withdrawal from them); anxiety and depression; PTSD; sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome. For most of us, nightmares are simply unpleasant; for others, nightmares are more frequent and can lead to significant sleep deprivation and/or a sleep disorder, in which case professional treatment is recommended.

When you’re “in” your dream

Have you ever been aware that you’re in the middle of a dream? This state even has a name: lucid dreaming. About half of us remember experiencing at least one instance of lucid dreaming, and some regularly have these kinds of dreams. In a lucid dream you can often control yourself and the environment – this can even be improved with practice!

Do we all dream about the same things?

Falling? Being chased? Feeling frozen with fear? Yep, the research that there are definitely some common themes to our dreams. Since 2009, the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb) has gathered tens of thousands of dream reports and sleep data from people all over the world. They also found that while most people report dreaming in colour, some of us dream only in black and white. If you’re interested, sift through this database yourself, to see if other people share your dreams. Even though our dreams are not usually exactly the same, you might find familiar aspects, like certain emotions, colours, characters, or social interactions.


But what about all the bizarre things that pop up in our dreams – things that have no relation to fact? Making sense of this remains a challenge for dream researchers. We do know that a good night’s sleep, along with eating well and regular exercise, contributes to our health. As for dreams, they remain fascinating both to those who have them, and to the researchers who study them…


With thanks to Linda Rinn for her contribution to this article.


Tell us more about your dreams! Do you keep dreaming the same dream? Do your dreams help you to understand what’s bothering you? Do share below.


Photo: Zhang Kaiyv/Unsplash