What Happens When We Dream?

Because of my profession often I asked about dreaming: whether dreams have any ulterior significance, whether we all dream every night, whether we will come to any harm if we don’t dream, whether having nightmares means that we are psychologically disturbed, what happens when we dream and so on.

As we will be showing in this chapter, scientific research has provided answers to many of these and other common related questions.

What happens when we dream?

Your dreams may be fascinating, frightening, or puzzling, though most often just plain dull; but whatever they are, they soon melt into thin air.

A dream is a fantasy, a living in an unreal world, seeing things that are not really there, experiencing emotions, mingling with people, right there in the middles of a living fantasy world, and not being a passive who have been blind from birth see nothing in their dreams, but still dream as vividly as you or I while living in their fantasy world.

what happens when we dream

The central area of Fuseli’s The Shepherd’s Dream (1973) shows the dreamer in the middle of his supernatural fantasy world.

This fantasy world, which we all share, has been the subject of speculation and superstition from the earliest times.

As far back as records go, and all around the world, there have been beliefs linking dreams with the supernatural; dreams have been considered prophetic; and right down the centuries to the present day, people have used dreams as a means of fortune-telling.

It was not until the turn of this century, however, that dreams were considered in a more scientific and analytic way.

In 1901 Sigmund Freud published The interpretation of Dreams, the book that he always believed to have been in the greatest work. In it, he described the history of ideas about dreams and set forward his own, which was very much in keeping with the beliefs of many other writers of the late nineteenth century.

Freud added a particular belief in sexual symbolism and came to believe that dreams were the ‘royal road to the unconscious’ by which the dreamer’s basic personality traits might best be understood.

His contemporary and sometime follower, Carl Gustav Jung (a man of gentler and somewhat mystical outlook), was no less impressed by the importance of dreams.

He saw us as striving in our waking world to be tough and successful, and at the same time repressing the need we all feel to express our artistic and more visionary selves it was through our dreams, Jung believed, that this other half or ‘shadow’ could find expression.

When and how often do we dream?

Laboratory research into dramas really established itself during the 1950s and 1960s. Dr. Nathaniel Kleitman in Chicago with his research students, Drs Aserinski and Dement, had noticed the jerking movements of the eyeballs that we now recognize to be part of the picture of paradoxical sleep.

Perhaps, they thought, these are the eyes looking around at the visual events of the dreams. Kleitman and Dement tried waking people up from sleep when their eyeballs had just been jerking around and asked if they had just been dreaming.

In 80 percent of cases, yes was the answer; whereas when the awakenings were made from times of sleep without the jerking eyeballs, in other words from orthodox sleep, only 7 percent said they had been dreaming.

You may be one of those who say they never dream, but laboratory research has shown that everyone does indeed dream, that some people rapidly forget, and that’s only if questioned almost immediately after awakening from paradoxical sleep will the dream be remembered.

Some people who say that they never dream will say that they have been ‘thinking’ during their sleep, and when asked what they have been thinking about (‘I was thinking that I was sitting on an elephant on the top of a yellow bus’) it becomes obvious that a great deal depends upon what the word ‘dream’ means to different people.

Realizing this, Dr. Daivdfoulkes, in the United States, stopped using the word ‘dream’ in his questions. Waking volunteers up from sleep, he simply asked, ‘Was anything passing through your mind? Again the thoroughgoing dreams with wild fantasies were almost always described after awakenings from paradoxical sleep, but many awakenings from paradoxical sleep also yielded dull and prosaic accounts related to waking life that differed little from the accounts given after awakenings from orthodox sleep.

The early days of laboratory dream research revealed how quickly the memory of a dream is lost if it is not immediately recalled.

When it was also discovered that the periods with rapid eye movements lasted almost two hours every night, there was a mistaken tendency to equate dreaming with periods of rapid eye movements and to assume that dreaming did not occur at other times, although it had really been known for a long time that dreams could also occur when first falling asleep, long before the first episode of paradoxical sleep of the night.

The subsequent work of David folks confirmed that many adventurous dreams with rich fantasy can occur during the time when we first fall asleep at night, though generally, the time is not such a rich mine of experiences as the later period of paradoxical sleep.

Our psychological need to dream

While the ancients thought that dreams gave opportunities to mingle with supernatural beings, the psychoanalytic writers of the twentieth century are assumed that dreams have some other important function for psychological health. In the interpretation of dreams, Freud wrote: ‘the unconscious impulse is the real creator of the dream. . . .

Just like any other instinctual impulse it can do no other but seek its own satisfaction, and our experience in dream interpretation shows us, moreover, that this is the meaning of all dreaming. In every dream, an instinctual wish is displayed as fulfilled.

Later Freud wrote that dreams are the guardians of sleep and not its disturbers. Either the mind pays no attention at all to occasions for sensation during sleep . . .  or it makes use of a dram in order to deny the stimuli.

Freud, therefore, saw dreams as serving definite psychic functions. Within the unconscious mind, in his view, were imperious, earthy urges that could not be denied; and satisfaction of these impulses, to reprehensible for waking life, could be allowed during sleep in impulses of the unconscious mind could receive disguised satisfaction without disgrace or shame.

The dream also served to disguise outside events received by the sense organs during sleep and so sheltered the sleeper from reality.

Will a lack of dreams harm you?

In the late 1950s, with these theories in mind, a New York psychoanalyst of unusually experimental bent, and with a particular interest in dreams, Dr. Charles Fisher, invited the young Dr. William Dement, who had earlier worked with Kleitman, to come to New York and conduct some new research into dreams.

As a psychoanalyst, Dr. Fisher believed there to be important psychological functions for dreaming and, with dreaming at that time mistakenly being more or less equated with periods of paradoxical sleep, Dr. dement set out to deprive people of their dreams to see what might then happen.

Normally, when people fall asleep from having been awake, they always pass first into orthodox sleep.

Therefore, by waking people up each time they entered the paradoxical phase of sleep with rapid eye movements, and keeping them awake for a couple of minutes, followed by a return always into orthodox sleep initially, Dements was able selectively to deprive volunteers of paradoxical sleep and, as he believed at the time, to deprive them of dreams.

He did this on five successive nights and, as the nights followed one another, the awakenings had to become more and more frequent, as if the volunteers were attempting more and more urgently to get back to their dreams.

When finally allowed to sleep undisturbed, the volunteers spent more time than normal in the paradoxical phase of sleep with presumed dreaming.

When the same volunteers, however, were awakened from an orthodox sleepover at a similar length of time, no subsequent increase of sleep with rapid eye movements occurred.

So it was that in 1960 the idea was put about, often through the popular media, that you actually needed to dream and that if you did not get your dreams, you would later need to have extra dreams in compensation.

Fisher and Dement wrote: ‘The dream suppression procedure appeared to bring about a dream deficit an increase in the pressure or need to dream. . . . During dream deprivation our subjects showed disturbances . . . tension and anxiety, difficulty ii concentration, irritability. . . tension and anxiety, difficulty in concentration, irritability. . . latent hallucinatory tendency . . . so it began to be said that if you did not dream you would go insane.

While many other research workers have confirmed that if you are some degree later no one has found evidence that this will make anybody go insane and the very idea could not have arisen nowadays when we know that dreaming occurs during any stage of sleep.

The newborn baby spends a very large part of its time in sleep with rapid eye movements, long before it could be said to have developed sufficient memories and understanding to construct a oxides inhibitors are given to adults in sufficient quantity (they are the drugs that give bad headaches if cheese is eaten) then all signs of paradoxical sleep disappear and will remain absent for as many weeks or months as the drugs continue to be taken.

This certainly does not cause insanity; if anything the mental state improves.

We may still have psychological needs at night. After all, most of us would accept that we have psychological needs by day: we need to feel loved needed, or admired.

Many writers have thought that dreams in some way help the mind to sort out problems to find solutions to personal problems of living or to be creative in an artistic sense.

The belief that drams can serve a unique role in helping to understand the person has become less popular than Freud would have wished but the idea remains and some psychotherapists will ask either individuals or groups of patients to recall a recent dream and then let the topics of recall serve for discussion to illustrate the problem of the daytime.

In summary, we can say that you can dream at any time of the night, though the richest dreaming is during paradoxical sleep.

You can have daydreams too, that do not differ sharply from night dreams. People who think they never dream are really people who forget (we all forget by far the greater part of our dreaming anyway).

Most people no longer believe in prophetic dreams, but dreams still form interesting talking points, whether for psychotherapy or for the amusement of your friends and dreams will surely go on providing them for creative writing painting music, and religious experience.

We ourselves do not believe it matters whether you remember dreams or not, but if you do then we hope that you enjoy them. Unfortunately, there are dreams that you have probably experienced at some time or other which are far from enjoyable. 

The two types of a bad dream

The night terrors area shorter and simpler dream experiences that occur during orthodox sleep especially slow-wave sleep early in the night whereas nightmares are really anxiety dreams that occur during paradoxical sleep hence the feeling of paralysis and are generally a feature of the latter part of the night. 

Night terrors

These are often immediately followed by sleepwalking whereas the nightmares of paradoxical sleep are not. Both night terrors and sleepwalking run in families and a tendency to both is almost certainly inherited.

They occur especially during childhood and are less common among adults. They do not signify serious psychological disturbance. Any more than doing occasional nightmares.

However, like nightmares night terrors and sleepwalking do occur more frequently if you are predisposed to them when your waking life has lately become more anxious.

An illustration of this is to be found in the battle dreams of soldiers who recently returned from the combat zone. The soldier may suddenly scream rise from his bed and dive for shelter shouting orders in his sleep.

Much common is the three-year-old who shrieks in the night and sits up wide-eyed as if shocked by some unknown horror.

He may stumble out of bed perhaps sobbing and may need to be coaxed back by his distressed parents. By the age of four for five such events are much less common.

The night terrors of adults have been investigated in New York by Dr. Charles Fisher and his colleagues.

They invited people who commonly experienced night terrors to sleep in their laboratory and then vigorously woke them up immediately after they began to cry out in their sleep.

Mostly this occurred in the first couple of hours of sleep and the mental experience described by those woken up was always simple elemental terrors a feeling of being entrapped in a smaller area of being left alone or abandoned or of being about to be crushed or swallowed by a monster.

There was a tremendous acceleration of the heart rate and a gas aping for breath. Interestingly the longer the deep orthodox sleep with EEG slow waves had just lasted the more intense appeared to be the terrors.

There is no known way of avoiding night terrors but as they are usually forgotten on waking they are not a source of anxiety to those who experience them. 


These are instead protracted dream adventures, involving changing situations, which often feature people who persecute the dreamer. In the story, they are altogether more elaborate than the night-terrors.

The nightmare could be called an anxiety dream. Most of us have had a nightmare at some time in our lives, and many people have one every now and then; some people, though, are less fortunate.

Those who have frequent nightmares often describe themselves as people with nervous trouble, or as having tension in the family, depression, loneliness, or problems with alcohol.

What happens when we dream
The Nightmare (1781) by Fuseli captures well the oppressive atmosphere of this type of bad dream.

In one London study, twenty women patients who were regarded by their family doctors as particularly anxious were asked to keep a note of all their dreams.

The same twenty women were further classified into those who were very anxious and those who were only moderately anxious.

The two sub-groups differed sharply in that the highly anxious patients reported having far more dreams in which people were aggressive or unfriendly towards them.

If you are anxious or depressed and having nightmares unusually often, it would be sensible to try to tackle the underlying problems, perhaps with the help of your family doctor. Success may well be accompanied by a reduction in the frequency of your nightmares.


It’s a popular misconception that eating cheese before bedtime causes nightmares. They are much more likely to result from drinking alcohol to excess.

What about the belief that eating cheese before sleeping will cause nightmares? We are not convinced. Alcohol is a more important cause of nightmares than cheese.

A drink in the afternoon or the evening may temporarily relieve daytime anxiety, but later on, in the night there is a rebound, and bad dreams become more common as a consequence of the increased anxiety brought about by the withdrawal of the alcohol, which is broken down in the body.

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