Throughout human civilisation, dreams have always been regarded as a mystery. We have them every night and yet they are full of the strangest, most vivid imagery. Just as quickly as they’ve come upon us, they slip away when the sun comes up, taking their secrets with them. What can it all mean? Anna Barnes, author of The Dream Journal: Track Your Dreams and Work Out What They Mean, helps unravel their mysteries.

Some believe that dreams are a neurochemical process, whereby the brain fires random neurons or attempts to sort and file memories. However, the prevailing theory is still that dream interpretation can have enormous value in helping us resolve issues in our waking lives and can even be used as a form of therapy.

The mind has a way of delving into memories and experiences within our dreams that allows us to safely explore them, helping us to connect with the more hidden aspects of our psyche. By interpreting the symbols in our night-time adventures, we can apply the information they reveal to our daily lives.

Dreams Explained

Dreams are images, thoughts and feelings that occur while we’re asleep. Our night-time reveries are usually made up of visual imagery, but all of the senses can be involved.

Most people dream in colour, although some dream in black and white. Those who are blind tend to experience their dreams more in terms of sound, taste and smell.

Debate continues among experts about why we dream, and the theories about the role that dreaming plays include:

  • Building memory: Dreaming may help us to consolidate memory and information for recall at a later date
  • Processing emotions: Exploring feelings in imagined contexts might be how our brain manages emotions
  • Mental housekeeping: The mind’s way of clearing away detritus it no longer needs
  • Instant replay: Perhaps dreams provide a safe arena from which to review and analyse recent events
  • Incidental brain activity: Some believe that dreaming is simply a by-product of sleep and has no essential purpose or meaning.

Dreaming could be some or all these things.

How Often Do We Dream?

According to the National Sleep Foundation, we can have anything between four and six dreams per sleep.

Researchers at the Lucidity Institute suggest that the shortest dream is at the beginning of a sleep cycle (around 10 minutes), and the longest is nearing the end when dreams can last for up to an hour.

This is because our sleep patterns change during the cycle and periods of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep become longer. 

During REM sleep, the eyes dart under the lids at speed, and the brain is as active as while we’re awake. Although dreams are possible in any stage of sleep, we’re most likely to dream during this phase, meaning that we dream approximately every 90 minutes, in line with each new REM cycle.

An estimated total of around two hours is spent in dreamland, although this amount of time can be spread throughout a period of sleep.

What are the different types of dreams? 

Dreams can take many forms. 

Vivid dreams are ultra-realistic, with clear or striking images. 

Nightmares are full of distressing content. 

Psychic or precognitive dreams predict something that goes on to occur in waking life.

Recurring dreams pester you over and over with the same imagery or theme. 

Lucid dreams occur when a person is actively aware that they’re dreaming and can consciously control the dream.

Why is it Difficult to Remember Dreams?

Although there’s no definitive answer to this question, there are several possibilities. Researchers have shown that the thought processes we use to create or recall memories shut down when we sleep. 

This prevents us from being able to remember most of our dreams and allows us to tell the difference between our dream world and reality. We may perceive the dream as nonsense or irrelevant so the brain filters it out. Jumbled fragments of dreams are harder for us to remember.

We have lower levels of a hormone called noradrenaline during deep sleep, which primes the body and mind for activity. As it takes at least two minutes for the hippocampus to swing back into action on waking, this makes us a bit dopey. By the time we’re fully awake, the memory of the dream has vanished.

Creative personality types prone to daydreaming and introspection are more likely to remember their dreams than those with a more practical mindset.

Those who wake more frequently at night are also more likely to remember their dreams. Unfortunately, we’re also prone to remembering our nightmares, because any dream that causes a strong emotional reaction can jolt us wide awake.

How to Improve Dream Recall

It can be frustrating when that idyllic dream of cocktails and gently swaying hammocks on a desert island slips from our grasp! To improve your chances of recall, try these ideas:

Make a conscious decision before you go to bed that you want to remember your dreams, as research has proven that if you intend to remember them, you’re more likely to.

Research also shows we’re more likely to remember dreams when we wake up in the middle of them so if that happens, jot down what you can recall on paper.

There are also smartphone apps that can help you to create an organized and searchable dream journal. Try focusing on the emotion of the dream, an image or a couple of words. Even a few brief notes will jog your memory the next day.

Think about your dreams as soon as you wake up before you ‘break the spell’ by doing anything else, such as looking at your alarm clock. Keep your eyes closed and replay the dreams in your mind. You’re reviewing them as you enter your waking state and this should help you to remember them.

What should I look for in my dreams?


Dreams are full of symbols, giving clues to your emotional state or drawing your attention to something in your waking life that you’re not aware of.

For example, a snake might mean temptation, or that someone’s deceiving you. An apple may symbolise lust, while a bomb going off may mean that you’re feeling angry about something.

It’s important to consider if the symbol has a personal or cultural meaning to you. A snake will mean something different to a devout Christian and someone living in a Brazilian jungle.


How does the dream leave you feeling when you wake up? Happy, angry, distressed? The emotion that you experience upon waking is an excellent guide as to your emotional state, and the meaning of the dream. Waking up from your dream feeling numb may suggest that you’re feeling detached from your emotions.


Do you often find the same themes cropping up over and over in different scenarios? If you start to notice repetition in any of your dreams, it’s time to think about the common message. Your subconscious is trying to bring something to your attention that is crying out for resolution.

Who is in your dream?

The person we see in our dream – whether it’s ourselves, someone familiar or a stranger – will be reflecting back something about our own behaviour.

You may desire the characteristics of the person in the dream or see a behaviour that’s telling you something about yourself. It’s important to think about what the person in the dream means to you, and what they might be showing you.


Do the events taking place in your dream relate to something in your waking life? Dream content can hide symbolic meaning but can also have a practical purpose, where the brain is potentially trying to process or consolidate memories.

Recurring dreams

Recurring dreams are more common than you might think and are a sign that your subconscious is trying to flag up something really important. 

It may be that an unresolved issue, fear or behaviour is still plaguing you – or perhaps there are unexpressed emotions trapped inside that you’ve been so far unable to release. If a problem or situation is unresolved, you’ll need to get to the bottom of it to halt these dreams.

How do I interpret my dreams?

Psychoanalysts Freud and Jung believed that dreams are the basis of your subconscious trying to tell you something.

Dream dictionaries are useful, but so is journaling and becoming familiar with our inner psychological landscape. A small number of dreams may be prophetic, but most of the time they are reflecting something for resolution. 

Ultimately, there’s no objective way to interpret dreams and you should listen closely to your gut instinct – you’re the one who knows what’s happening in your life and who knows yourself best.

An dreamcatcher in the sunlight

Anna Barnes is a writer with a longstanding interest in mindfulness and emotional wellbeing. She enjoys coastal walks and t’ai chi.

‘The Dream Journal: Track Your Dreams and Work Out What They Mean’ is available now & published by Summersdale.

You can purchase a copy HERE


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