Have you ever woken up from a dream feeling terrified? You might even feel devastated. You look around and see that your partner hasn’t actually dumped you or you haven’t run through the halls of your school in your underwear. As you wake, you realize that your dream was absolutely ridiculous! Yet, everyone looked so real. Your emotions felt real. Your chest may still be tight and you might be sweating even as you get out of bed. And you might find yourself asking, "Why do my dreams feel real?"
It’s not uncommon for dreams to feel very real, even when they have a very unreal premise. As we explore how our brains process dreams, take a moment to reflect. If our emotions can run so high during a dream, what does that mean for our emotions in real life?
Why Do Dreams Feel Real?
Dreams feel real because we use the same brain to process them! Parts of the brain that process “real” sensory information in wakefulness are active in REM sleep. The more rational parts of our brain only switch on in wakefulness. This is why dreams play out like any “real” experience!
We dream in REM sleep. What does that mean? Rapid Eye Movement Sleep. It’s true! We do not just lay our heads down on the pillow, fall asleep, and wake up. Our bodies go through many stages of sleep that are essential for our growth, recovery, and cognition!
Most stages of sleep are non-REM sleep. During this time, our brain is less active than our bodies. Our internal temperatures rise and fall, our breathing rate changes, and tissues undergo critical repairs. In the deepest stages of non-REM sleep, our bodies also release human growth hormones. Sleeping helps us grow! We do not dream in non-REM sleep.
REM sleep is where all the strange, bizarre, and pleasant dreams take place. Our bodies are, for the most part, paralyzed. (This is why you can’t act out your dreams!) The only thing that is moving is our eyes. And yes, they move quite rapidly. Our eyes and brain are very active during this time of the night. It’s a good thing our brains are active! We are able to learn more efficiently, remember more, and generate proteins that help us function throughout the day.
What Parts of the Brain Are Active or Inactive While we Dream?
Even if that heartbreak in our dream isn’t “real,” we may feel the same way in our bodies and minds when we wake up. Our visual cortex, amygdala, hippocampus, and thalamus are hard at work processing information and emotions while we dream.
It’s especially important to point out that the thalamus, which processes sensory information, is active during REM sleep and nonactive during non-REM sleep. That is why we don’t dream when we are in other stages of sleep. Nothing in our brains is telling us what’s “going on!”
Our frontal lobe is not active during REM sleep. This is the part of the brain that rationalizes and uses logic. Without it activated, you can’t look at the giant marshmallow man chasing you and think, “This doesn’t make sense!”
How Do Experts Explain Lucid Dreaming?
In some dreams, maybe the prefrontal cortex is actually active. Most of the time, our frontal cortex is turned off when we dream. But have you ever had a lucid dream? If you have, you might have been using parts of your brain you don’t normally use!
Lucid dreaming occurs when the dreamer realizes that they’re in a dream. Some lucid dreamers can actually walk through their “dream world” and manipulate the situation they are in. You might realize that the giant marshmallow man is part of a crazy dream, stop running, and take a chunk out of his leg. Or, you might realize you’re in a dream and finally have the courage to call up your crush!
Experts aren’t exactly sure why we have lucid dreams. We do know they have been going on for centuries, and they are hard to pin down. Watching someone’s brain while they sleep, waiting for a lucid dream, might take months and months of research. There have been instances where a person was lucid dreaming and technology has shown parts of the frontal cortex activated, but more research needs to be done to confirm what is happening during this type of phenomenon.
Why Do We Remember Our Dreams?
There are nights when you seem to wake up in the middle of a dream. Maybe your alarm clock is part of the dream. Or, you wake up and have to take a moment to realize you’re not in your dream world! Other nights, you wake up and can’t remember if you had any dreams at all!
Why does this happen? Sleep experts believe it is because we may wake up during different stages of sleep. We cycle from light sleep to deep sleep to REM sleep to deep sleep to light sleep many times during the night. In a perfect world, we would gently ease our way from the lightest stage of sleep to wakefulness. When this happens, we are less likely to remember our dreams. Too much time has passed since the dream occurred, and our minds have simply forgotten the dream.
If you do wake up and remember your dream, it is likely you were in REM sleep at the time you woke up. This isn’t bad! It’s not always easy to time our alarm clocks to our sleep cycles, and we have to get up to go to work or school at some point. Plus, it can be fun to remember our dreams.
Do Our Dreams Mean Anything?
If you're wondering "why do my dreams feel real," you've probably also wondered, "do these dreams mean something to my reality?" It's a great question, one that many psychologists have been trying to answer for decades. It would make sense that dreams mean something to the dreamer, right? Where else would the content for these wacky dreams come from?
The world of psychoanalysis had a particularly impactful interest in dreams and dream interpretation. In 1899, Sigmund Freud published "The Interpretation of Dreams." This book is still assigned to psychology and humanities classes today! Even though Freud's theories have largely been debunked, his work on dream interpretation was significant in the world of psychology at the time.
What Did Freud Believe About Dreams?
Freud wrote a lot about the unconscious mind and how it plays a role in our conscious decisions. The unconscious mind, to Freud, was always grappling with unconscious urges and desires that couldn't always be fulfilled. Dreams were a representation of those unconscious desires. If you had a dream about cheating on your spouse, for example, that was a representation of an urge that you had suppressed.
Not all of Freud's dream interpretations were that obvious. A body of water in a dream, Freud said, represented birth. Poles, sticks, and other phallic objects represented male genitalia. Caves, pockets, and churches represented female genitalia. Other symbols were even wackier. Have you ever had a dream that your teeth fell out? Freud believed that that specific dream represented a fear of castration. Why would you be castrated? Freud believed it was a punishment for pleasuring yourself. One can see why his theories aren't the only ones taught in school today.
Yet, the legacy of dream interpretations by psychoanalysts lives on! You can even request the Jung subreddit to interpret your dreams based on the psychologist's theories. The answers may not be entirely the truth, but they might illuminate some stress or emotions that are affecting your ability to have a good night's sleep.
Common Dreams (That Are Very Bizarre!)
If you have ever dreamt of losing your teeth, you probably know that this is a common dream. Why? That's a great question, and we might never know the answer. Losing your teeth is one of a few subjects that appear in many dreams. Go through the list and see how many of these weird dreams you've experienced.
Being Back In School
Have you ever had a dream that you were back in grade school, even though you've graduated or been out of school for many years? You're not alone! In a survey of over 2,000 Americans, over 37% of people dreamt that they were back in school! Most of these dreams aren't about the joys of school or being let out after the bell rings. Most people dream of stressful situations in school. They forgot to study for a test, have to give a speech, or show up to class in nothing but their underwear!
Whether you're falling off a cliff or falling into a pit of marshmallow goo, your falling dreams aren't uncommon. Falling is extremely common in dreams, and so is flying. Some dream interpretations suggest that falling is a sign of stress or anxiety, while others believe that free-falling could be a sign of joy or happiness. While you fall in your dreams, your body may be "falling," too! Hypnic jerks are involuntary movements that take place as the body is transitioning in and out of sleep. They're extremely common, too.
Have you ever dreamed that you've been chased by someone...or something? This is a common dream, too. A user in the Dreams subreddit posted about this:
"Like many people I had the recurring dream of being chased by a dark figure, it was a shadow in a trench coat, no facial features just shadow. I began having the dream when I was in elementary school and had it until just less than a year ago. It always went the same, I was running through my house, or my high school or my hometown and he was always right behind, the dream would either end with me falling off a building or bridge or him getting right up to me and reaching out with a shadowy claw and me waking up screaming."
The post goes on to share how making changes in his conscious life changed the interactions he had with the dark figure in his dream life. A dream about being chased by scary figures can indicate that you are going through a stressful situation in your life. As you start to come to terms with the dream (and your sources of stress,) you may find that it's easier to face what is chasing you and to banish it forever!
Other common dreams include:
- Showing up late to an important event
- Driving a car
- Crashing a car
- Being unprepared for an important event
- Meeting a celebrity
- Not being able to move
Why do your dreams feel real? That is a question many are still trying to answer. Maybe you will be the one to do it!