What are dreams? The ultimate guide to understanding dreams

Dreaming is a universal human experience.

Despite this, however, they still remain widely misunderstood.

What dreams mean and why we even have them are questions that have fascinated humanity since time immemorial. To date, there is still no singular answer to these questions.

That said, after the emergence of science and more sophisticated technology, scientists and psychologists alike were able to form a bit of consensus to answer these questions.

Wondering what these answers are? Read on to learn more!

Different types of dreams

Lucid dreams

Imagine this: being able to fly like a bird, breathe underwater like a fish, and ride fire-breathing dragons like a Targaryen.

It would be so cool if humans could do this in real life, wouldn’t it?

Well, lucid dreaming can give you a taste of how this feels.

If you’ve been on the internet for a while, you probably know about lucid dreams. A quick TikTok search takes you to a whole page showing you how to lucid dream.

But what is lucid dreaming, and what makes it so special?

Lucid dreams are dreams that you can control. While lucid dreaming, the person is aware that they are in a dream, but everything still feels very real, nonetheless.

Think of it like directing your own movie, where you’re the main character, inside your brain.

This type of dream doesn’t occur often, though. It is estimated that only around 55% of the population experience lucid dreaming.

However, you can actually induce lucid dreams. There are different techniques you can use to lucid dream, such as keeping a dream journal, practicing reality checks, and more.

Be careful, though. While lucid dreaming can be fun, some of the techniques used to deliberately lucid dream can cause sleep problems, sleep paralysis, derealization, and even depression.

Recurring dreams

Unlike lucid dreams which can be fun, recurring dreams can be scary.

I myself have frequent, recurring dreams about being lost in unfamiliar places.

But what are recurring dreams, and why do we have them?

Simply put, recurring dreams are dreams that occur repeatedly. They often have themes such as grief, humiliation, or losing control, among many others.

Usually, recurring dreams show us our deep-seated fears. Most of the time, this type of dream is personal, and may reflect your own issues in real life.

Here are some common examples of recurring dreams:

  • Falling
  • Flying
  • Losing teeth
  • Being naked in public
  • Being chased or hunted
  • Being frozen in fear

Some of these recurring dreams are more common than others. It was recorded that around 53% of people have recurring dreams of falling, while only 13.5% have dreams about falling teeth.

However, note that it is perfectly normal to have recurring dreams that are not on this list. In that case, your dreams probably have a personal meaning, as previously discussed—and it might do you some good if you can try to see what’s causing such dreams.

False awakenings

False awakenings are dreams where the person believes they have woken up, when in reality, they are still dreaming.

Personally, I find this type of dream to be very terrifying.

A common fear is that a person can keep having false awakenings in a series of dreams, but never wake up. The thriller film False Awakening (2022) is based on this premise.

Unlike regular dreams, false awakenings are more realistic.

They might feature your house as it looks in real life, with very minor changes. This is why they are so believable, and why the dreamer usually believes they have already woken up, even while they’re still dreaming.

A common example of a false awakening is a person believing they had woken up and prepared for school or work—having already eaten, bathed, dressed up, and all ready to go, just to realize in the end that they are still dreaming and are actually running late in real life.

Have you ever had a false awakening? Did you find it scary?

If you felt it was disturbing, this kind of dream can also sometimes be considered a nightmare.


Have you ever dreamed about being chased by someone or something, yet you were unable to run fast, as if frozen to the ground? Were you shot and killed, causing you to wake up in a cold sweat?

If you did have dreams like these, then you know how it feels to have a nightmare.

Nightmares are dreams that can be scary or disturbing. While everyone experiences nightmares every so often, it’s not always sure why. These are some of the possible reasons:

  • Lack of sleep
  • Eating before bed
  • Watching or reading something scary before going to sleep
  • Sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea or narcolepsy
  • Side effect of medication
  • Being ill or having fever

Now that you know these, it’s probably best not to have a midnight snack or binge watch true crime YouTube videos before bed.

Night terrors

Night terrors are similar to nightmares. These are episodes where the person experiences intense fear while asleep, causing them to scream or flail around. It often ends up with the person waking up terrified.

The scariest thing? You might not even know you’re having it unless someone sees you in an episode.

However, if you’re older than a child, fear not: night terrors are more common in children than they are in adults.

Just like nightmares, the cause of night terrors is unknown, although there some very common reasons thought to cause them include stress, having fever, experiencing periods of emotional distress, and lack of sleep.

But what’s the difference between night terrors and nightmares?

Nightmares happen during the REM stage, or the Rapid Eye Movement stage where a person is in very deep sleep, causing rapid eye motion, faster breathing, and greater brain activity. People of all ages can experience nightmares.

On the other hand, night terrors occur during non-REM sleep, and, like previously mentioned, are more common in children. They are also easily forgotten, while nightmares are commonly remembered vividly.

Prophetic dreams

Prophetic dreams, also known as precognitive dreams, are dreams believed to foreshadow future events—much like a prophecy.

If you dream of something that occurs later in real life, you may feel you’ve had a prophetic dream.

This type of dream is significant in many cultures across the world. Prophets are believed to have knowledge about the future, most of which they access through prophetic dreams.

The late former US President Abraham Lincoln was thought to have had a prophetic dream about his death days before he was assassinated, but this story has never been proven.

You can think of prophetic dreams as deja vu in reverse.

While deja vu happens when you experience something that reminds you of a previous dream, prophetic dreams happen when you dream of something that comes true later on.

Now that you know some of the most common types of dreams, let us now delve into the scientific theories that attempt to explain why we dream.

Scientific theories

The question of why we dream has fascinated multiple generations of scientists and philosophers.

To date, there is still no definite answer to why we dream, but there are several compelling theories that attempt to answer this question.

Traditionally, dreams are analyzed on the individual level. In other words, people try to decipher what dreams mean for them personally.

Recently, however, scientists have been attempting to uncover what our dreams could mean objectively.

The general consensus as to why we dream has been narrowed down to four reasons:

  1. To consolidate our memories
  2. To process our emotions
  3. To express our deepest desires
  4. To practice facing potentially dangerous situations

Interested to learn more about why we dream? Below are several theories that attempt to answer this question.

First, we’re going to discuss Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung’s theory about the unconscious mind, and then we’ll delve into the other, more recent theories that attempt to explain why we dream.

Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung

Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung were two of the most renowned psychologists in the world. They both had an interest in the unconscious mind and why humans dream. Below, we’ll discuss Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and Jung’s Collective Unconscious.

Sigmund Freud’s interpretation of dreams

In Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, he wrote that dreams happen because the unconscious mind tells us what the conscious mind cannot. Simply put, our dreams help us navigate the map of our unconscious desires.

Following this Freudian theory, if you have desires that you are too ashamed to explore in real life, such as socially unacceptable sexual desires, these will manifest in your dreams.

The scientific community has since debunked Freud’s theory, though. However, a similar one has since emerged.

This is called the Dream Rebound, which suggests that suppressing thoughts lead to dreaming about it.

So if you’ve ever suppressed thoughts of a romantic interest just to end up dreaming about them several times, the Dream Rebound theory might explain it!

Carl Jung’s collective unconscious theory

In Carl Jung’s Collective Unconscious theory, he explained that all human beings have similar dreams because there is a portion of the human mind that is inherited from ancestors, rather than developed.

This part of the mind is responsible for deep-seated beliefs and instincts, such as religious beliefs and phobias. According to him, this trait is common to all human beings.

What’s unique about this theory is it looks at the phenomenon of dreaming at the objective, rather than subjective, level. It analyzes dreaming as a phenomenon for the whole of humanity.

Jung believed that similarities in cultures can be pointed to archetypes shared by the whole human race. He identified four archetypes:

  1. The persona, which is how we present ourselves to the world;
  2. The anima and animus, which is the feminine image of the male psyche and the masculine image of the female psyche, respectively;
  3. The shadow, which represents our repressed instincts, such as sexual instincts, and;
  4. The self, which represents the unified consciousness and unconsciousness of an individual.

These archetypes seem like characters straight out of a fantasy novel, don’t they?

Well, that is largely the reason why scientists have debunked the theory.

In modern times, Jung’s collective unconscious has been criticized for being too “unscientific,” because it can’t be proven by the scientific method.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, you can’t really study these four archetypes through observation and experimentation.

Other theories

Now that we’ve discussed Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung’s theory about the unconscious mind, let us discuss some of the more recent theories about why we dream.

Dreams spark creativity

If you feel like you can’t find your eureka! moment in waking life, maybe your dreams can help!

In this theory, it’s explained that the unfettered, unconscious mind is free to limitlessly wander as compared to the conscious one, which is usually stifled by the realities of life. While in this state, creative ideas are free to enter our unstifled mind.

Research actually shows that people usually find creative inspiration from their dreams.

I personally relate with this theory. I’ve gotten several creative ideas—from simple stories to song composition—from my dreams alone. It’s wondrous, isn’t it?

Dreams prepare us for dangerous situations

If you’re reading this article, you’ve probably had dreams about being hunted, attacked, or killed. Maybe you’re even looking for the meaning behind these dreams.

Well, you’re in luck! Because this theory explains exactly what you’re looking for.

This theory explains that dreams exist to prepare us for dangers in the real world. Through this, our fight-or-flight instinct is honed, as well as our mental capacity to handle such incidences.

Why does this happen?

This happens because this is our brain’s way to mentally prepare us to face dangerous situations in waking life. So it’s kind of like having self-defense classes in your brain. Cool!

Dreams help us process our emotions

Have you ever dreamed of talking and being with deceased relatives?

This might be because dreams are believed to help us process trauma and difficult emotions in the safe space of slumber.

According to this theory, while we’re asleep, the amygdala, which processes emotions, and the hippocampus, which turns short-term memory into long-term ones, are both active during deep, intense dreaming.

If you’re thinking: what does all of these mean? Speak English! Simply put: our brain activity when we sleep helps us process our emotions.

So if you’ve dreamed about your late grandparents last night, perhaps that is your brain’s way of helping you process the trauma of losing them.

Dreams as “pre-confessions”

And finally, we’re going to discuss my favorite theory about why we dream.

This theory comes from Lori Gottlieb, a psychiatrist / famous author of self-help book, Maybe You Should Talk To Someone. In this book, she describes dreams as a “precursor to confession” or pre-confession, in short.

What is a pre-confession?

A pre-confession happens when you dream about cuddling with your roommate that you initially think symbolizes your deep friendship. However, you later realize it is a sign that you’re attracted to them.

It happens when you dream about being naked in a room full of people that you later realize signifies your deep-seated fear of being humiliated.

It happens when you dream about past lovers that you’re really not interested in anymore, which you later discover reflects your feelings of loneliness.

Pre-confessions are truths about ourselves that we do not consciously realize. They are fears. Embarrassments. Hard truths that we find hard to accept.

They manifest in our dreams because we’re too afraid to admit them in waking—and if you find yourself feeling troubled about something, perhaps you should listen to your dreams.

Now that you’ve learned about the different types of dreams and the theories that attempt to explain them, it’s time for us to dive into the most common misconceptions about dreaming.


Are dreams meaningless?

For a time, scientists believed dreams to be meaningless. However, if you’ve gotten this far in the article, you know that this is not the case.

Dreams are more than just a meaningless montage of random scenes that take place in our brain each night. As we’ve previously discussed, different types of dreams can have different meanings, even on the objective level.

Even the most ridiculous dream can mean something, so dreams aren’t really as meaningless as we previously thought they were.

They can signify both fear and desire; they can reflect your real life; they can even help you understand your emotions like you can’t in waking life.

So if you constantly dream about being chased, maybe it means that you’re running away or avoiding something in real life.

Does dreaming of someone mean they’re thinking of you?

You’ve probably seen one of those photos that say:

Psychological Fact! When you dream of someone, it means they’re thinking of you.

Well, this is simply not true. Dreaming of someone does not mean they’re thinking of you.

So we’re sorry to burst your bubble, but dreaming of Henry Cavill does not mean he’s thinking of you. It simply means you have fantasies about him that manifest in your dreams.

Dreams are a byproduct of our own thoughts and feelings, so it is quite impossible for your dream about someone to mean they are thinking of you, or that they miss you. It’s more likely for it to be the other way around.

So if you’ve dreamed about a loved one or a long-lost friend, maybe it’s time to call them up.

Can bad dreams kill you in your sleep?

Have you ever heard of a person dying because they had a bad dream that caused a heart attack?

In my home country, the Philippines, stories of people na namatay sa bangungot (translation: died of bad dreams) are especially prevalent.

Well, you can now breathe a sigh of relief—especially if you, too, are Filipino—because this is nothing but a big, fat myth.

This myth started when in 1981, 18 apparently healthy Laotian refugees mysteriously died.

Initially, doctors pointed to PTSD-induced nightmares for the death of the refugees, but it was later on found that this was actually caused by a rare heart disease called the Brugada syndrome.

What’s the Brugada syndrome?

The Brugada syndrome is a disease where a rare genetic mutation called the SCN15 causes sodium to flow into the heart cells and electrify them, which then causes the heart attacks.

In other words: you can’t die because of a nightmare. People who allegedly died of “nightmares” simply had a rare genetic mutation that you probably don’t. Phew.

Does remembering your dreams mean you had a good sleep?

People usually think remembering your dreams means you had a good night’s sleep.

However, this is not true. In a 2014 study in the Cerebral Cortex, it was actually found that it was the other way around: people who were sleep-deprived were more likely to remember their dreams than people who have sufficient sleep.

This is because sleep-deprived people have more “wakefulness,” higher brain activity, and greater sound sensitivity. All of these factors combined equals greater sleep intensity, which results in more vivid dreams.

So if you find yourself lacking in sleep today, your dreams might just become very vivid tonight.

If I dreamed that I died, does that mean I’m going to die soon?

We’ve talked about prophetic dreams in the previous section, but trust me: if you dreamed that you kicked the bucket, that dream probably isn’t a prophetic one.

One of the reasons this misconception/superstition is so famous is probably because Abraham Lincoln allegedly dreamed he would die right before his assassination.

This story was told by his former law partner named Ward Hill Lamon, but several historians have pointed out inconsistencies in his telling. So we can’t really know for sure if this is true.

There’s also the obvious fact: no scientific evidence shows that you’re going to die after you dream about dying.

Dreams about death are usually pointed to signifying big life changes or ending a chapter of your life, such as leaving a job, finishing university, or ending a long-term relationship.

So if you ever dream about dying, don’t go jumping to conclusions or suddenly writing your last will and testament.

Perhaps you can first look at the events in your waking life—the things you had ended, or are about to end—that might cause dreams of your demise.

Key takeaways

Dreams, truly, are an enigma.

It really is a wonder how something so mundane and normal as sleeping can create a phenomenon as mysterious as dreaming.

In this article, we’ve discussed the different types of dreams, the scientific theories that attempt to explain why we dream, and the most common misconceptions we have about dreaming.

Despite everything we’ve discussed above, there’s still no singular answer to the question of why we dream. Ultimately, no matter how peculiar, dreams are not entirely meaningless.

If you want to know what your dreams mean, it can be analyzed both at the objective and subjective level—the former directs you to the dreams and experiences of others to find the answer, while the latter shows you what your dreams might mean to you.

Can a gifted advisor help you too?

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