What Dreams Mean

Scientists are still puzzling over the meaning of dreaming. But they are on the trail of the importance of our nightly cinema.

The heart is racing, the lungs are burning, the legs are getting heavy. A rushed look over his shoulder reveals: The pursuer is on our tail. With each step he comes closer, while opening up before us an abyss. We’re trapped, the situation seems hopeless – until the alarm rings. Sometimes it’s wonderful to wake up and realize: it’s just a bad dream.

To be followed is a typical nocturnal scenario. For decades, researchers have been collecting dreams and exploring the images and emotions that the brain chases through our heads night after night. They are remarkably similar: as early as the 1950s, researchers developed the “Typical Dream Questionnaire” to find recurring patterns in dreams. Since then, the questionnaire has often been modified and expanded, so that today there is a kind of ranking of the most common dreams. No matter which study one considers, issues such as persecution, late arrival, nudity, falling, flying, passing a test, school and work, or the death of a loved one, always end up in the front seat.


Men and women dream differently

The research also shows that women and men dream differently. In men, money, sex and aggression are the dominant themes, while women are more likely to dream of interpersonal conflicts, people or clothes. What seems surprisingly clichéd at first sight is not surprising to dream. Dreams have to do with our waking world of experience – and we know, for example, that men have more sexual thoughts during the day, which is reflected in their dreams as well. In fact, our nocturnal cinema is not so much disconnected from reality as many believe. Most dreams are about basic topics of awake life that affect almost all people. Of course, the imaging of dreams is different, but usually a basic pattern can be recognized. To stick with the example of the persecution: Behind this is the pattern of being afraid of something and showing avoidance behavior.

In this way the meaning of many dreams can be traced. For example, that of the famous “toilet dream”, which is that you urgently need to go to the toilet and you can’t find any. Behind this is the concern that an urgent need will not be met due to the current circumstances – in reality, of course, this is usually a different need. All-time classics are also exam dreams because studies are more likely to plague people with a high level of education. This supports the assumption that the awake world of thoughts affects our dreams. Behind it are the fear of failure and the feeling of being badly prepared. Because the brain relies on cognitive experiences – all of us have already experienced exam situations – such dreams often feel very real.

How to get rid of nightmares

What we dream, according to studies also allows conclusions about the character. For example, researchers have shown that anxious and depressed people more often dream of falling than self-confident and optimistic ones. Either way, if dreams repeat themselves, this can be a kind of wink of consciousness. Maybe you did not develop or solve a problem in one thing. Test anxiety in dreams, for example, helps the repeated experience of not failing. Or the focus on the thought: I’m well prepared.

That is why it is sometimes helpful to write down dreams. In this way unresolved topics can be brought to consciousness. But because we usually forget dreams right after waking up, that’s not so easy. During sleep, other brain centers are active than during the day. Therefore, when our mind switches on awakening, information is often lost. Those who remain in the morning for a few minutes, delay the state between sleeping and awakening, and by trying to remember dreams one can learn to hold on to them.

It helps to give the dream a title or write it down directly. Incidentally, this is also a good strategy to get rid of nightmares. Who reflects on a dream awake, can think over a coping strategy. Psychologists call this approach Imagery Rehearsal Therapy. In doing so, one repeatedly concretely imagines another end to a dream, one virtually translates the script of the dream. Studies show that this strategy works amazingly well. However, if you suffer from nightmares or have a mental illness, you should contact a doctor immediately. Because a self-therapy could possibly aggravate the symptoms.

Everyone dreams – only why?

So today we know a lot about the meaning and development of dreams. In contrast, it is still a matter of dispute in science as to which biological purpose the nocturnal images serve. Some neurologists believe that dreams are nothing more than a senseless neuronal storm. Just because we forgot them immediately, we should not worry about it. Many scientists, however, believe that dreams serve the processing of daytime experiences or help solidify what has been learned.

Maybe dreams also train the brain to deal with specific situations, and thus serve for brain development and maturation. This is supported by the fact that infants and toddlers dream particularly intensively. In return, some researchers argue that in a dream we learn to deal with anxiety situations. Behind this is an evolutionary biological idea: those who avoid dangerous situations have a higher chance of survival. Whatever the purpose of dreaming, it is clear that we all dream every night. Even if we do not remember it.

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