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The Science Behind Dream Interpretation (Is There Any?)

Floating like a cloud, you’re sleeping soundly on your bed while your mind goes off on a journey of its own. It’s fascinating that when asleep, your mind is in an alternate world, while your body remains exactly where it is. 

Your conscious mind notices the day’s events, while your subconscious mind stores certain images and incidences in it. When you’re asleep, it triggers these images, sometimes distorting them, and shows them to you in your dreams.  

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For some people, a dream is a puzzle that needs to be solved, while for others, it’s an unconscious way of escaping reality. But what exactly are dreams, how do they occur, and is there any science to interpreting them?

dream interpretation science

What is a Dream?

Throughout history, there have been many arguments about the concept of dreams. While Egyptians considered dreams as ‘a different form of perceiving’, Greeks and Romans believed that dreams were ‘predictions’ of the future.

However, dream analyst Sigmund Freud viewed dreams in an entirely different way. According to him, dreams are expressions of repressed longings. He stated that certain wishes or yearnings people feel during their childhood have a way of coming up in their dreams. Psychologist Carl Jung also believed that dreams had psychological significance.

Some neurologists have also quoted those dreams are a different form of thinking—an unconscious approach to problem-solving. The modern perception about dreams is that they come from the subconscious mind, a dumping space for extra data. However, a slightly different view many people hold today is that dreams are live imagery woven by the human mind.

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How Long Can a Dream Last?


Over time, there has been adequate research about dreams. Some people claim to dream for a few seconds, while others describe dreams that last as long as 45 minutes. On average, a dream can last anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes.

How are Dreams Formed?

The human mind is wired to find the ‘why’ behind every action, which is why dreams have managed to occupy a large area of research. The unconscious nature of dreams has been an area of interest and curiosity for many. Scientifically as well as religiously, there have been various explanations as to why we dream.

There is some contention that dreams can maintain metabolism, blood pressure, and various activities related to the brain. However, what has also emerged over the years is the fact that dreams can be used as a form of therapy.  

Another noteworthy explanation about dreams is that they can reflect the creativity of the brain. You might have noticed different and unique things happening in your dreams, some of which may be completely unfamiliar or strange to you. This justifies the fact that the brain adds creative elements to our dreams, sometimes changing the entire dreamscape to something completely unfathomable. 

What Factors Can Influence Your Dreams?

factors influencing dreams

Though you may not realize it, there are several factors that can affect the dreams you see, turning them into either positive dreams or nightmares. These factors include the following: 

Quality of Sleep

Research has shown that how much or how little you sleep can affect the quality of your dreams. When you don’t get enough sleep, your dreams may become more vivid, and you may find it much easier to recall them. As stated in this article by the Sleep Foundation.

Stress, Fatigue, or Anxiety 

On days when you feel fatigued, both mentally and physically, you’re less likely to see vivid dreams. In fact, you may not even dream at all. The reason behind this is that an exhausted brain would take time to process the day’s events and old memories. As a result, your brain will be a lot less creative than it usually is.  

If you experience a lot of stress or anxiety, however, you could be experiencing intense dreams. Stress can cause insomnia, making it difficult to sleep peacefully. It’s also responsible for hyperarousal, disturbing the balance between wakefulness and sleep. This can trigger more vivid and frequent dreams. 


There’s no scientific proof as to how your diet can affect your dreams. However, there’s a possibility that certain foods can increase your serotonin levels, the hormone that’s responsible for stabilizing your mood and making you feel happy. High serotonin levels can cause extremely vivid dreams. 

Foods that make you feel thirsty during the day are more likely to disturb your sleeping pattern, thereby affecting your dreams. Eating too little or too much can also affect how you sleep. Some claim that going to bed hungry can increase feelings of agitation, resulting in dreams of their favorite foods. Therefore, feeling hungry can reduce the satisfaction of a good night’s sleep and negatively influence the quality of your dreams. 

Life Events

Research has shown that most of what happens in a dream is unique to that particular dream. However, events from your day can sometimes be incorporated into your dreams. At some point in your life, you may have dreamed of something that you saw, heard of, or did during the day. 

If you experience something that stands out in your conscious mind, it’s likely your subconscious mind will make you see it in your dreams. This is because the conscious mind is linked to your subconscious. 


Exercise has numerous benefits and is known to affect your dreams in a positive way. It does this by reducing stress, resulting in a better quality of sleep with less vivid and frequent dreams. 

Your Surroundings

The presence or absence of sounds and scents can also have a profound impact on your dreams. If you usually sleep in a quiet room with some specific scent you like, you may find it hard to sleep in a noisy room that smells different. 

In the same way, if you listen to music while sleeping, it’s more likely that you’ll sleep well and dream about something pleasant. Therefore, the things you surround yourself with can impact your sleep and the quality of your dreams. 

The Last Thing You Did, Heard, or Watched

Dreaming about something you did, watched, or heard just before you fell asleep is extremely common. For example, watching a horror movie before bed can increase the possibility of having a nightmare. Reality often makes its way into your dreams, which is something that almost everyone experiences in their life. Much of our dream’s contents come from our waking experiences. 

According to sleep researcher and associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Robert Stickgold, who says to NPR “When we sleep, the brain does a lot of work, taking what we’ve learned, what we’ve encoded as new memories in the last day, and trying to figure out what they mean”. 

Sleeping Position 

For most people, sleep position is just a matter of preference. However, it’s much more than that. In fact, the position you sleep in can affect how much and how well you sleep, impacting your health in positive or negative ways. 

Research suggests that those who sleep on the left side are more likely to have bad dreams, while those who sleep on the right side tend to remember the emotions of their dreams. Sleeping in a position that you’re not entirely comfortable with can cause you to have nightmares and you might also find it more difficult to recall your dreams. 

Do People Always Remember Their Dreams? 

remembering dreams

Sleep passes through about four to five stages, each lasting for around 90 minutes. On average, one person can have 5-7 dreams every night and each of these dreams belongs to a different sleep stage.

It’s not possible to say exactly how much of a dream you’ll remember when you wake up. However, studies indicate that people tend to remember 80-90% of their dreams when they awaken from rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. 

The chances of remembering your dreams in the non-rapid eye movement (NREM) stage are almost nil. It’s noteworthy that NREM sleep consists of 3 more phases – each varying from light to deep sleep.

Those who actively practice placid dreaming can often remember their dreams. Most can even recognize the altered reality and be passive or unaffected by the events that take place in their dreams.

How is Meaning Assigned to Dreams?

meaning of dreams

Even though there hasn’t been enough scientific evidence on the authenticity of the meanings assigned to dreams, people continue to assign their own meanings for specific dream scenarios.

Psychologists have argued that dreams bring out deeper aspects of our being and that we should pay special attention to the elements in the dream. Psychologists Ruben Naiman also adds that dreams are more important than our conscious state. According to Naiman, it’s important to recall the context of our dreams and all the elements in them. Most often, the dreams would alert the dreamer of potential problems in their waking life. 

In Brief

Alerting us at times, dreams can bring back memories of the past and remind us of our hidden fears and fantasies. From regulating our metabolism to redefining how we perceive certain events that occur around us, they continue to hold meaning as well as significance in our lives. Dreams are a strong bridge between conscious and unconscious. They are the explorations of our mind and give a sense of creativity our mind holds.

Humans have always been intrigued by their dreams and have always attempted to decode them. However, while there are some factors that we know impact dreams, there is still much that is still mysterious about how dreams work.  

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Apsara Palit
Apsara Palit

After completing her post-grad in Values, Ethics and Indian Culture, Apsara is sharing her knowledge of symbolism, mythology, history and culture through her blogs. Apsara lives in India and believes in getting a first-hand understanding of culture through travelling.