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Why Do We Dream? The Role of Dreams and Nightmares

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Everyone dreams at night whether you remember them or not, but why do we dream? And can they have an impact on how rested we feel when we wake up?


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Don’t you hate it when you wake up from a good dream, but as soon as do you forget the details? Isn’t it weird when you wake up from such a random dream that really makes no sense or there a deep sense of relief when you wake up from a nightmare?

Dreams have been an elusive mystery for centuries with dream interpretation still widely sought out today. Dreams can seem meaningless but very important other times. The Bible mentions several dreams people had that played a unique role throughout the scriptures. Yet, the details of dreams—why, how and when—are still a wonder.

Why do we dream?

The National Institute for Health (NIH) suggests while the purpose of dreaming isn’t fully known, one of the main practical functions of dreaming is to help process emotions you feel when you are awake—like is overnight therapy.

Like water and food, we need sleep to survive. Since dreaming is a part of sleep, could dreams play a role in our health and survival?

Jim Pagel, MD, director of the Sleep Disorders Center of Southern Colorado states in a National Sleep Foundation article, “If dreaming has an actual function, it really supports why we spend a third of our lives sleeping.”

How do we dream?

How dreams happen in the brain may relate to the cycles you have while you sleep.

While you sleep, you naturally cycle between rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. During REM sleep, your eyes move rapidly (hence the name), heart rate and breathing are also quicker. The brain is also considered more active during REM sleep.

During NREM sleep, heart rate slows, body temperature drops and repairing of cells occurs throughout your body. Throughout your hours of sleep, you cycle for varying lengths between REM and NREM.

How dreams happen—the details of how you process a dream and what you remember when you wake up—are not well understood.

When do we dream?

Scientists suggest dreaming can occur at any point during sleep. Vivid dreams occur most commonly during REM sleep, but dreams can also happen during NREM sleep.

Dreams happen across all stages of life, but remembering dreams can change from childhood to late adulthood. As we age into late adulthood, it is likely dreams are not as well remembered upon waking. Interestingly, some research suggests dream recall frequency decreases significantly around ages 25-35 years old.

How dreams affect our sleep

The content or feeling of your dreams often relates directly to what is happening in your life. You are more likely to have pleasant dreams when you are feeling generally low stress and happy. On the other hand, you are more likely to have unpleasant dreams when you feel stressed. This can lead to a vicious cycle: unpleasant dreams may increase anxiety/stress which can lead to more unpleasant dreams.

While we can’t control what happens to us, the National Sleep Foundation suggests working on your state of mind during the day to help increase having pleasant dreams at night.

The National Sleep Foundation also points out that dreams “won’t necessarily change how much time you spend in the different stages of sleep or the number of times you awaken.” However, they continue by explaining that dreams “can affect how long it takes to fall asleep at night and how challenging it is for your body to switch between non-REM and REM stages of sleep, which may leave you feeling less rested.”

God using dreams

Sometimes dreams are profound and even divine like when Joseph was warned in a dream he, Mary and baby Jesus should flee to Egypt or in Genesis with Joseph’s many vivid dreams giving him the nickname “The Dreamer.” There are many, many more examples where God chooses to use dreams as a way to shape decisions, events and direct His people.

Job 33: 15-18 (NIV) states:

“In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falls on people as they slumber in their beds, He may speak in their ears and terrify them with warnings, to turn them from wrongdoing and keep them from pride, to preserve them from the pit, their lives from perishing by the sword.”