Everyone dreams — every single night — and yet we tend to know so little about them. Where do they come from? What do they mean? Can we control them and should we try to interpret them? We spoke to a few dream experts who shared surprising facts about dreams. Read this before your next snooze.
1. Dreaming can help you learn.
If you’re studying for a test or trying to learn a new task, you might consider taking a nap or heading to bed early rather than hovering over a textbook an hour longer. Here’s why: When the brain dreams, it helps you learn and solve problems, say researchers at Harvard Medical School. In a study that appeared in a recent issue ofCurrent Biology, researchers report that dreams are the brain’s way of processing, integrating and understanding new information. To improve the quality of your sleep — and your brain’s ability to learn — avoid noise in the bedroom, such as the TV, which may negatively impact the length and quality of dreams.
2. Just like men, women can have orgasms during dreams.
Did you think only men experience this phenomenon? Not true, says Barbara Bartlik, MD, a psychiatrist and sex therapist in New York. Warning, further reading may produce blushing: “Women have orgasms during their sleep, just as men do,” she says. “These orgasms often accompany erotic dreams, but they also may occur during dreams of a nonerotic nature.” When women dream, she says, it’s not uncommon for their genitals to become engorged and lubricated. “This occurs during REM sleep, which happens several times during the night,” she says. A similar thing happens to men. “Men get erections during REM sleep, whether or not the man is having an erotic dream.”
3. The most common dream? Your spouse is cheating.
If you’ve ever woken up in a cold sweat after dreaming about your husband’s extramarital escapade with your best friend, you’re not alone, says Lauri Quinn Loewenberg, a dream expert, author and media personality. “The most commonly reported dream is the one where your mate is cheating,” she says. Loewenberg conducted a survey of more than 5,000 people, and found that the infidelity dream is the nightmare that haunts most people — sometimes on a recurring basis. It rarely has anything to do with an actual affair, she explains, but rather the common and universal fear of being wronged or left alone.
4. You can have several — even a dozen — dreams in one night.
It’s not just one dream per night, but rather dozens of them, say experts — you just may not remember them all. “We dream every 90 minutes throughout the night, with each cycle of dreaming being longer than the previous,” explains Loewenberg. “The first dream of the night is about 5 minutes long and the last dream you have before awakening can be 45 minutes to an hour long.” It is estimated that most people have more than 100,000 dreams in a lifetime.
5. Even bizarre dreams can be interpreted.
While it can be hard to believe that an oddball dream about your mother, a circus and a snowstorm can have any bearing on real life, there may be symbolism and potential meaning to be mined in every dream — you just have to look for it, says Harvard-trained psychotherapist Jeffrey Sumber. “The meaning of our dreams oftentimes relates to things we are needing to understand about ourselves and the world around us,” he says. Instead of shrugging off strange dreams, think about how they make you feel. “We tend to dismiss these dreams due to the strange components, yet it is the feeling we have in these dreams that matters most,” he explains. “Sometimes the circus and the snowstorm are just fillers that allow us to process the range of emotions we feel about our mother and give us the necessary distraction so we can actually experience that spectrum of emotion.”
6. Recurring dreams may be your mind’s way of telling you something.
Do you have the same nightmare over and over again? Loewenberg suggests looking for underlying messages in recurring dreams so that you can rid yourself of them. For example, a common recurring nightmare people have involves losing or cracking their teeth. For this dream, she recommends that people think about what your teeth and your mouth represent. “To the dreaming mind, your teeth, as well as any part of your mouth, are symbolic of your words,” she says. “Paying attention to your teeth dreams helps you to monitor and improve the way you communicate.”
7. You can control your dreams.
The premise of the movie Inception is that people can take the reins of their dreams and make them what they want them to be. But it may not just be a Hollywood fantasy. According to the results of a new survey of 3,000 people, dream control, or “lucid dreaming” may be a real thing. In fact, 64.9 percent of participants reported being aware they were dreaming within a dream, and 34 percent said they can sometimes control what happens in their dreams.
Taking charge of the content of your dreams isn’t a skill everyone has, but it can be developed, says Kelly Bulkeley, PhD, a dream researcher and visiting scholar at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkley, California. The technique is particularly useful for people who suffer from recurring nightmares, he says. Dr. Bulkeley suggests giving yourself a pep talk of sorts before you go to sleep by saying: “If I have that dream again, I’m going to try to remember that’s it’s only a dream, and be aware of that.” When you learn to be aware that you are dreaming — within a dream — you not only have the power to steer yourself away from the monster and into the arms of Brad Pitt, for instance, but you train your mind to avoid nightmares in the first place. “Lucid dreaming enhances your ability to learn from the dream state,” says Dr. Bulkeley.
8. You can linger in a dream after waking.
Have you ever woken up from such a beautiful, perfect dream that you wished you could go back to sleep to soak it all up (you know, the dream about George Clooney?)? You can! Just lie still — don’t move a muscle — and you can remain in a semi-dreamlike state for a few minutes. “The best way to remember your dreams is to simply stay put when you wake up,” says Loewenberg. “Remain in the position you woke up in, because that is the position you were dreaming in. When you move your body, you disconnect yourself from the dream you were just in seconds ago.”
9. You don’t have to be asleep to dream.
Turns out, you can dream at your desk at work, in the car, even at your kid’s soccer game. Wakeful dreaming — not to be confused with daydreaming — is real and somewhat easy to do, says Dr. Bulkeley; it just involves tapping into your active imagination. The first step is to think about a recent dream you had (preferably a good one!). “Find a quiet contemplative place and bring a dream that you remember back into your waking awareness and let it unfold,” he says. “Let the dream re-energize.” Wakeful dreaming can be used as a relaxation tool, but Dr. Bulkeley says it can also help your mind process a puzzling dream. “It creates a more fluid interaction between unconscious parts of the mind and wakeful parts of the mind,” he says.