How Dreams Work

By: Lee Ann Obringer

10 Ways to See into the Future: Precognitive Dreaming
10 Ways to See into the Future: Precognitive Dreaming
Science Channel

Our dreams combine verbal, visual and emotional stimuli into a sometimes broken, nonsensical but often entertaining story line. We can sometimes even solve problems in our sleep. Or can we? Many experts disagree on exactly what the purpose of our dreams might be. Are they strictly random brain impulses, or are our brains actually working through issues from our daily life while we sleep -- as a sort of coping mechanism? Should we even bother to interpret our dreams? Many say yes, that we have a great deal to learn from our dreams.

In this article, we'll talk about the major dream theories, from Freud's view to the hypotheses that claim we can control our dreams. We'll find out what scientists say is happening in our brains when we dream and why we have trouble remembering these night-time story lines. We'll talk about how you can try to control your dreams -- both what you're dreaming about and what you do once you're having the dream. We'll also find out what dream experts say particular scenarios signify. Finding yourself at work naked may not mean at all what you think it does!


For centuries, we've tried to figure out just why our brains play these nightly shows for us. Early civilizations thought dream worlds were real, physical worlds that they could enter only from their dream state. Researchers continue to toss around many theories about dreaming. Those theories essentially fall into two categories:

  • The idea that dreams are only physiological stimulations
  • The idea that dreams are psychologically necessary

Let's take a closer look at these theories.

Dreams: The Theoretical Divide

Sigmund Freud (left) and Carl Jung
Sigmund Freud (left) and Carl Jung
Photos courtesy Library of Congress

Physiological theories are based on the idea that we dream in order to exercise various neural connections that some researchers believe affect certain types of learning. Psychological theories are based on the idea that dreaming allows us to sort through problems, events of the day or things that are requiring a lot of our attention. Some of these theorists think dreams might be prophetic. Many researchers and scientists also believe that perhaps it is a combination of the two theories. In the next section, we'll look at some of the major dream theorists and what they say about why we dream.

Dream Theories

First and foremost in dream theory is Sigmund Freud. Falling into the psychological camp, Dr. Freud's theories are based on the idea of repressed longing -- the desires that we aren't able to express in a social setting. Dreams allow the unconscious mind to act out those unacceptable thoughts and desires. For this reason, his theory about dreams focuses primarily on sexual desires and symbolism. For example, any cylindrical object in a dream represents the penis, while a cave or an enclosed object with an opening represents the vagina. Therefore, to dream of a train entering a tunnel would represent sexual intercourse. According to Freud, this dream indicates a suppressed longing for sex. Freud lived during the sexually repressed Victorian era, which in some way explains his focus. Still, he did once comment that, "Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar."


Carl Jung studied under Freud but soon decided his own ideas differed from Freud's to the extent that he needed to go in his own direction. He agreed with the psychological origin of dreams, but rather than saying that dreams originated from our primal needs and repressed wishes, he felt that dreams allowed us to reflect on our waking selves and solve our problems or think through issues.

Photo courtesy

­More recently, around 1973, researchers Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley set forth another theory that threw out the old psychoanalytical ideas. Their research on what was going in the brain during sleep gave them the idea that dreams were simply the result of random electrical brain impulses that pulled imagery from traces of experience stored in the memory. They hypothesize that these images don't form the stories that we remember as our dreams. Instead, our waking minds, in trying to make sense of the imagery, create the stories without our even realizing it -- simply because the brain wants to make sense of what it has experienced. While this theory, known as the activation-synthesis hypothesis, created a big rift in the dream research arena because of its leap away from the accepted theories, it has withstood the test of time and is still one of the more prominent dream theories.

Let's look a little deeper into what actually happens in the brain when we dream.

Dreaming and the Brain

When we sleep, we go through five sleep stages. The first stage is a very light sleep from which it is easy to wake up. The second stage moves into a slightly deeper sleep, and stages three and four represent our deepest sleep. Our brain activity throughout these stages is gradually slowing down so that by deep sleep, we experience nothing but delta brain waves -- the slowest brain waves (see "Brain Waves" sidebar). About 90 minutes after we go to sleep and after the fourth sleep stage, we begin REM sleep.

Rapid eye movement (REM) was discovered in 1953 by University of Chicago researchers Eugene Aserinsky, a graduate student in physiology, and Nathaniel Kleitman, Ph.D., chair of physiology. REM sleep is primarily characterized by movements of the eyes and is the fifth stage of sleep.


­During REM sleep, several physiological changes also take place. The heart rate and breathing quickens, the blood pressure rises, we can't regulate our body temperature as well and our brain activity increases to the same level (alpha) as when we are awake, or even higher. The rest of the body, however, is essentially paralyzed until we leave REM sleep. This paralysis is caused by the release of glycine, an amino acid, from the brain stem onto the motoneurons (neurons that conduct impulses outward from the brain or spinal cord). Because REM sleep is the sleep stage at which most dreaming takes place, this paralysis could be nature's way of making sure we don't act out our dreams. Otherwise, if you're sleeping next to someone who is dreaming about playing kickball, you might get kicked repeatedly while you sleep.

The four stages outside of REM sleep are called non-REM sleep (NREM). Although most dreams do take place during REM sleep, more recent research has shown that dreams can occur during any of the sleep stages. Tore A. Nielsen, Ph.D., of the Dream and Nightmare Laboratory in Montreal, refers to this as "covert REM sleep" making an appearance during NREM sleep. Most NREM dreams, however, don't have the intensity of REM dreams.

Throughout the night, we go through these five stages several times. Each subsequent cycle, however, includes more REM sleep and less deep sleep (stage three and four). By morning, we're having almost all stage one, two and five (REM) sleep.

Let's look at what happens if you don't get any REM sleep.

Dreams and REM Sleep

­What happens if you don't get any REM sleep? Originally, researchers thought that no REM sleep meant no dreams. They theorized that dreams were a sort of safety valve that helped your brain let off steam that you couldn't let off during the day. William Dement, MD, now at Stanford University School of Medicine, did a study in 1960 in which subjects were awakened every time they entered REM sleep. His findings included mild psychological disturbances such as anxiety, irritability and difficulty concentrating. He also noted an increase in appetite. While some studies backed up these ideas, more and more studies did not.

Additional studies tried to make a connection between difficulty remembering things and lack of REM sleep, but those studies too have been disproven with more research. An indisputable snag in the loss-of-memory-function theory was a man who had experienced a brain injury that resulted in him experiencing no REM sleep. He completed law school and had no problems in his day-to-day life.


The latest ideas on REM sleep are associated with learning. Researchers are trying to determine the effects that REM sleep and the lack of REM sleep have on learning certain types of skills -- usually physical skills rather than rote memory. This connection seems strong in some respects due to the fact that infants and toddlers experience much more REM sleep than adults.

Dream Recall

Photo courtesy Morguefile

It is said that five minutes after the end of a dream, we have forgotten 50 percent of the dream's content. Ten minutes later, we've forgotten 90 percent of its content. Why is that? We don't forget our daily actions that quickly. The fact that they are so hard to remember makes their importance seem less.


Freud theorized that we forget our dreams because they contain our repressed thoughts and wishes and so we shouldn't want to remember them anyway. Other research points to the simple reason that other things get in the way. We are forward-thinking by nature, so remembering something when we first wake up is difficult.


L. Strumpell, a dream researcher of the same era as Freud, believed that several things contribute to our not being able to remember dreams. For one, he said that many things are quickly forgotten when you first wake up, such as physical sensations. He also considered the fact that many dream images are not very intense and would therefore be easy to forget. Another reason, and probably the strongest of his theories, is that we traditionally learn and remember both by association and repetition. As dreams are usually unique and somewhat vague to begin with, it stands to reason that remembering them could be difficult. For example, if someone speaks a phrase to you that doesn't immediately click with anything in your experience, you might need the person to repeat it in order to remember it or even understand it. Since we can't go back to our dreams to experience something again, details that are out of our realm of experience often escape us.

How to Improve Your Dream Recall

Photo courtesy Morguefile

There are many resources both on the Web and in print that will give you tips on how to improve your recall of dreams. Those who believe we have a lot to learn about ourselves from our dreams are big proponents of dream journals. Here are some steps you can take to increase your dream recall:

  • When you go to bed, tell yourself you will remember your dreams. (Author's note: In researching this article, I found that thinking about dreams before I fell asleep actually made me remember having them, so this step did work in my experience.)
  • Set your alarm to go off every hour and half so you'll wake up around the times that you leave REM sleep -- when you're most likely to remember your dreams. (Or, drink a lot of water before you go to bed to ensure you have to wake up at least once in the middle of the night!)
  • Keep a pad and pencil next to your bed.
  • Try to wake up slowly to remain within the "mood" of your last dream.


Controlling Dreams

Lucid Dreaming

There is a lot of research being done in dream control, particularly in the areas of lucid dreaming and dream incubation. Lucid dreaming is a learned skill and occurs when you are dreaming, you realize you are dreaming and you are able to then control what happens in your dream -- all while you're still asleep.

Being able to control your dreams would be a very cool thing to be able to do, but it is a difficult skill that usually takes special training. It is estimated that fewer than 100,000 people in the United States have the ability to have lucid dreams.


Although lucid dreaming is mentioned throughout history, it was not until 1959 at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University that an effective technique for inducing lucid dreams was developed, and true research into the phenomenon began taking place. In 1989, Paul Tholey, a German dream researcher who had been involved in the research at that university, wrote a paper about a technique he was studying to induce lucid dreams. It was called the reflection technique, and it involved asking yourself throughout the day if you were awake or dreaming. More research has indicated the need to practice recognizing odd occurrences, or dream signs, that would be a sign that "this is a dream" rather than reality.

Stephen LaBerge of Stanford University, founder of The Lucidity Institute, Lynne Levitan and other current dream researchers have studied lucid dreaming techniques extensively. They refer to a technique similar to Tholey's reflection method that they call "reality testing." This technique and one called MILD (Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams) have been among the most successful techniques for lucid dreaming.

The MILD technique involves similar reminders to the reality testing method but focuses those reminders at night rather than throughout the day and night. MILD begins with telling yourself when you go to bed that you'll remember your dreams. You then focus your attention on recognizing when you are dreaming and remembering that it is a dream. Then, you focus on reentering a recent dream and looking for clues that it is indeed a dream. You imagine what you would like to do within that dream. For example, you may want to fly, so you imagine yourself flying within that dream. You repeat these last two steps (recognizing when you're dreaming and reentering a dream) until you go to sleep. Using this technique, Dr. LaBerge has been able to have lucid dreams at will. Because this type of technique takes such mental training, however, LaBerge is now doing research using external stimuli to induce lucid dreams.

While lucid dreaming may just seem like a cool way to enter fantasy land, it also has several applications outside of recreation. According to LaBerge, for instance, lucid dreaming can help in personal development, enhancing self-confidence, overcoming nightmares, improving mental (and perhaps physical) health and facilitating creative problem solving. LaBerge also states on the Lucidity Web site:

"Lucid dreaming could provide the handicapped and other disadvantaged people with the nearest thing to fulfilling their impossible dreams: paralytics could walk again in their dreams, to say nothing of dancing and flying, and even experience emotionally satisfying erotic fantasies. Such sensorimotor practice could conceivably facilitate recovery from stroke."

Finally, lucid dreaming can function as a "world simulator." Just as a flight simulator allows people to learn to fly in a safe environment, lucid dreaming could allow people to learn to live in any imaginable world; to experience and better choose among various possible futures.

Dream Incubation

Dream incubation is learning to plant a seed for a specific dream topic to occur. For example, you might go to bed repeating to yourself that you'll dream about a presentation you have coming up or a vacation you just took. Those who believe in problem solving through dreams use this technique to direct their dreams to the specific topic.

While somewhat similar to lucid dreaming in that problems can be solved, dream incubation is simply focusing attention on a specific issue when going to sleep. Several studies have shown this method to be successful over a period of time. For example, in a study at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Diedre Barrett had her students focus on a problem before going to sleep and found that it was certainly possible to come up with novel solutions in dreams that are both personally satisfying and reasonable to an outside observer. In her studies, two-thirds of participants had dreams that addressed their chosen problem, while one-third actually came up with solutions in their dreams.


What do our dreams mean?

Those on the physiology side of the "why we dream" argument see dreams as only nonsense that the brain creates from fragments of images and memory. For centuries, however, people have looked at their dreams as both omens and insights into their own psyches. Many think dreams are full of symbolic messages that may not be clear to us on the surface. But, if we dig deeper and think about what is going on in our lives, we can usually come up with an interpretation that makes sense. Let's look at the most common dream themes and how dream experts interpret them.

Common Dream Themes and Their Interpretations

Being naked in public

Most of us have had the dream at some point that we're at school, work or some social event, and we suddenly realize we forgot to put on clothes! Experts say this means:


  • We're trying to hide something (and without clothes we have a hard time doing that).
  • We're not prepared for something, like a presentation or test (and now everyone is going to know -- we're exposed!).

If we're naked but no one notices, then the interpretation is that whatever we're afraid of is unfounded. If we don't care that we're naked, the interpretation is that we're comfortable with who we are.


You're falling, falling, falling... and then you wake up. This is a very common dream and is said to symbolize insecurities and anxiety. Something in your life is essentially out of control and there is nothing you can do to stop it. Another interpretation is that you have a sense of failure about something. Maybe you're not doing well in school or at work and are afraid you're going to be fired or expelled. Again, you feel that you can't control the situation. 

Being chased

The ever-popular chase dream can be extremely frightening. What it usually symbolizes is that you're running away from your problems. What that problem is depends on who is chasing you. It may be a problem at work, or it may be something about yourself that you know is destructive. For example, you may be drinking too much, and your dream may be telling you that your drinking is becoming a real problem.

Taking an exam (or forgetting that you have one)

This is another very common dream. You suddenly realize you are supposed to be taking an exam at that very moment. You might be running through the hallways and can't find the classroom. This type of dream can have several variations that have similar meanings. (Maybe your pen won't write, so you can't finish writing your answers.) What experts say this may mean is that you're being scrutinized about something or feel you're being tested -- maybe you're facing a challenge you don't think you're up to. You don't feel prepared or able to hold up to the scrutiny. It may also mean there is something you've neglected that you know needs your attention.


Many flying dreams are the result of lucid dreaming. Not all flying dreams are, however. Typically, dreaming that you are flying means you are on top of things. You are in control of the things that matter to you. Or, maybe you've just gained a new perspective on things. It may also mean you are strong willed and feel like no one and nothing can defeat you. If you are having problems maintaining your flight, someone or something may be standing in the way of you having control. If you are afraid while flying, you may have challenges that you don't feel up to. 

Running, but going nowhere

This theme can also be part of the chasing dream. You're trying to run, but either your legs won't move or you simply aren't going anywhere -- as if you were on a treadmill. According to some, this dream means you have too much on your plate. You're trying to do too many things at once and can't catch up or ever get ahead.

Your teeth falling out

Many people have dreams that they lose all of their teeth. In this dream, they may feel something strange in their mouth and then spit teeth into their hand, eventually losing all of their teeth. According to some, our teeth are related to our sense of power and our ability to communicate. Losing our teeth not only makes us embarrassed by our appearance, which hinders our communications, but it also lessens our power because we may not speak our minds. It's also associated with feelings about our appearance.

Recurring Dreams and Nightmares

Many people have the same or a similar dream many times, over either a short period of time or their lifetime. Recurring dreams usually mean there is something in your life you've not acknowledged that is causing stress of some sort. The dream repeats because you have not corrected the problem. Another theory is that people who experience recurring dreams have some sort of trauma in their past they are trying to deal with. In this case, the dreams tend to lessen with time.

Nightmares are dreams that are so distressing they usually wake us up, at least partially. Nightmares can occur at any age but are seen in children with the most frequency. Nightmares usually cause strong feelings of fear, sadness or anxiety. Their causes are varied. Some medications cause nightmares (or cause them if you discontinue the medication abruptly). Traumatic events also cause nightmares.


Treatment for recurring nightmares usually starts with interpreting what is going on in the dream and comparing that with what is happening in the person's life. Then, the person undergoes counseling to address the problems that are presumably causing the nightmare. Some sleep centers offer nightmare therapy and counseling. Another method of treating nightmares is through lucid dreaming. Through lucid dreaming, the dreamer can confront his or her attacker and, in some cases, end the nightmares.

Premonitions in Dreams

The science of dreams is obviously not a clear-cut one. While many believe our dreams mean something, there are also many who don't. But what about dreams that have foretold future events? Has this simply been coincidence? Below are some examples of dreams that have reportedly done just that.

  • In "Lucid Dreaming," Stephen LaBerge reports that a man took his small son camping near a lake in a small valley near their home. He took the son to the water's edge to take a bath but realized he had forgotten the soap. He left the boy standing by the edge of the water and saw him picking up pebbles and throwing them into the water. When he returned with the soap, his son was lying face down in the water, dead. The man awoke and immediately realized this was only a dream. A while after that, some friends invited him and his son to go camping. Although it didn't occur to him immediately, the setting was similar to the setting he had seen in his dream. At one point during the camping trip, he took his son to the lake to take a bath but realized he had forgotten the soap. He sat the boy down and was leaving to get the soap when he saw the boy reach down and pick up pebbles to throw into the water. His dream immediately jumped into his head, and he snatched the boy up and took him with him.
  • There is an investment group made up of people who have precognitive dreams about stocks. Phenomena Magazine: Precognitive Stock Market Dreamers (November 1, 2004) reports that Dr. Arthur Bernard, a psychologist who teaches dreamwork and a member of the group, had a very successful experience. He had a recurring dream about an obscure biotech stock called ICOS. In the dream, he saw the stock suddenly explode in value. Because of the intensity of the dream, he felt sure that this dream was precognitive. He bought about 40,000 shares of ICOS at $4 per share. He sold his shares in 1998 at $28 each, amounting to an approximate $1.6 million profit.
  • Science Frontiers Online: Precognitive Dreams (Nov-Dec 1998) reports that M.S. Stowell, in her doctoral dissertation, interviewed several people who claimed to have precognitive dreams. Of 51 presumed precognitive dreams, Stowell was able to prove that 37 had indeed come true. One report from a woman named Elizabeth told of a dream about a plane crashing on a highway near an overpass. Elizabeth was driving her car on that highway at the time and could see that the plane was going to crash there as she drove under the overpass. In her dream, she just escaped the plane. Within a few weeks, a plane crashed on the highway she had dreamt about.

Ongoing Dream Research and Therapy

Research in various areas of dreaming is ongoing, particularly in the areas of REM sleep and lucidity. One study in lucid dreaming involves trying to get the dreamer to communicate with observers while he or she is dreaming. Stephen LaBerge, who is at the forefront of lucid dreaming research, has successfully achieved communication through eye movements, but of course this type of communication is very limited. His ongoing work involves dreamers wearing a glove that incorporates movement sensors to record hand movements during sleep. By using sign language, they hope be able to get reports of dreams as they are occurring.


One day, perhaps we'll all be able to control our dreams or even share our dreams with others while we sleep.

For more information on dreams and related topics, check out the links on the next page.