Why Do We Dream? Or How I Learned to Get Over My Gnarly Nightmares

I didn't know where these terrible, vivid images were coming from.
Publish date:
December 18, 2014
dreams, science, sleep, Nightmares

When I used to tell people that I frequently have nightmares, I never meant for it to be poetic, like my imagination was so dark, or that my subconscious was inherently violent. I simply wanted to know where these terrible, vivid images were coming from.

My dreams were often disturbing. Think: Slitting a man's throat, him coming back to life and trying to knife my guts out, and me having to slit his throat again. Not something you want to listen to your friend talk about at lunch, right? Of course, no one could tell me why I was experiencing them.

I sought solace in interpreting the symbols I remembered or writing in a dream journal next to my bed soon after waking. My teeth falling out meant I was stressed about money. Death meant anxiety about major life changes. (Like that aforementioned throat-slitting dream that was recurring whilst cohabitating with a then-ex as we attempted to figure who was going to be the one to move out.)

Everything else meant I was thinking about dongs. (Thanks, Freud.)

Seriously, though: Mulling over meanings never helped me feel better. When someone suggested maybe my dreams were literal -- I probably dreamt about a flood because it had just rained -- or perhaps I should stop watching so many horror movies, I was equally frustrated.

Maybe I did want my dreams to mean something more profound and poetic.

I tried to eliminate the anxiety that accompanied thinking I was a subconscious murderer, spinning the images that played in a loop in some strange corner in my noggin as super-creative ideas my waking self couldn't get out.

That thought stemmed from this quote I came across from Alexander McQueen’s interview with Björk (neat) in 2003:

“I get my ideas out of my dreams… If you're lucky enough to use something you see in a dream, it is purely original. It's not in the world it's in your head. I think that is amazing.“

It took a hippie therapist living in the mountains of Southern California to convince me that dreams are just a healthy way for our brains to deal with things our conscious brains didn’t have time to process during the day, and that I should just let go of ALL OF THE MEANING and to just experience them for what they were (a drug-free acid trip!).

And, funny enough, once I stopped worrying about having nightmares, I suddenly had fewer of them.

Most researchers agree that dreams happen during the sleep cycle called rapid eye movement (or, REM -- not to be confused with Jane Pratt’s BFF’s band).

Researchers came to this conclusion in the early 1950s when a series of sleep studies revealed that sleepers in the midst of REM were experiencing neural activity that mimicked waking life, complete with darting eye movements -- hence, the name.

All subjects woken up during this phase reported vivid dreams.

Later, in 1960, William C. Dement, MD, PhD, studied the effects of depriving individuals of REM by waking them up right as they hit REM. Subjects reported increased tension, difficulty concentrating, an increase in appetite (and therefore, weight gain) feelings of emptiness, a lack of coordination, and hallucinating.

Researchers agree that all humans dream (although many of us can’t remember what we dreamt about), and studies show dreaming, for the most part, happens during REM, which is essential to our physical, mental, and psychological well-being.

Despite decades of sleep research that prove dreaming is necessary and good for us, WHY we dream is still a mystery.

Science has proposed many theories. Here are some popular ones:


Some researchers believe our dreams happen for physiological reasons. They think dreams are a mere byproduct of the neural activity that evolved during the caveman days (don’t you love when theories start like this?) when we had to be prepped to defend ourselves against attacks from scary beasts that lurked about ready to eat our innards in our waking lives.

So, those whose brains were more prepared for survival ultimately bred highly-evolved individuals like me, who dreamt about fighting off evil with the Wu-Tang Clan last night.


Back to those dongs: Freud pioneered the theory that dreams were the “map to the unconscious,” and that what we dream symbolizes what we want -- and repress -- during our waking lives. He said that dreams acted as a form of “wish fulfillment.”

So me battling evil with the Wu-Tang Clan last night means I have an unfulfilled wish of wanting to shoot murderers and rapists and a demonic Mini Mouse with the best rap group ever? Well, no. (I mean, maybe…)

Using Freud’s theory, the symbols in dreams can be latent, or not literal, and you need to know the specific dreamer’s circumstances to be able to deduce what the imagery means.

As in, maybe the sort of traumatizing break-in that happened in my house a few months ago still freaks me out. And MAYBE, I’d feel safer with a man in the house. Who has a gun. And who may or may not be a member of the Wu-Tang Clan.


This one’s kind of a mash-up of popular theories and was written about by Ernest Hartmann, a professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine and the director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Newton Wellesley Hospital in Boston and his team. It goes like this:

When we dream, we’re in a state where our brains are tying together loose connections that we’ve been grappling with. That process, in whatever form it might take, is guided by the dreamer.

The team’s statistics showed that individuals who experience trauma have dreams where one overwhelming emotion is present, such as anxiety, stress, or fear. The brain produces these emotions so those who recently experienced trauma will be more prepared to cope with similar feelings in the waking life -- sort of going back to our caveman theory.

Right after our break-in, I had recurring dreams where one or two guys were standing over my bed, and I tried to reach for my pepper spray (that I now keep next to my bed, naturally). I was never successful, and always woke up, dripping in sweat.

When one clear-cut emotion isn’t present, connections are still being made, but the emotions and distinctive meaning are a bit more muddled.

Perhaps my nightmare months ago turned into a more, not-so-obviously terrifying dream, a.k.a. fighting off evil with the Wu-Tang Clan. I'm still a bit riled up about the break-in. And also, yesterday, I was listening to Wu-Tang.

Welcome to my psyche! Tell me, sleeping beauties: Do you remember your dreams? Do you have recurring ones? What do you think (if anything) they mean?

Follow me on Twitter: @caitlinthornton