#28 How do dreams work ? What happens when we sleep ?

Our minds create stories and images when we sleep and they are known as dreams. The dreams could be fun, romantic, entertaining, disturbing, terrifying and in some cases very strange.


For years dreams have become a source of mystery for scientists and psychological professionals. Many are people wonder why dreams happen, how they happen, what they mean and if they can be controlled.

The dreams we experience are a combination of verbal, visual and emotional stimuli that result into nonsensical and often times entertaining storylines.

Some people have solved their problems in their sleep and as soon as they woke up they implemented the solutions to their real waking life situation.

Mankind has for centuries attempted to figure out why he experiences these nightly scenarios.


The early civilizations actually thought dream worlds were real physical worlds which they would enter only when in their dream state.

The researchers and dream experts have different opinions on the purpose of dreams in our lives. Some will say that they are random brain impulses, others say that the brains are working through issues that we face when awake and that it is a kind of coping mechanism.

Others still say that we can find solutions to problems in our waking life by interpreting our dreams. Various theories about how dreams work have been discussed.

The dream theories

This article highlights the three famous theories that give us some insight into how dreams work.


  1. Sigmund Freud Theory

Freud’s theory leans more on a psychological explanation about dreams. The theory is based on repressed longing or desires that we feel but never express during our waking state.

According to Freud, dreams are a way for the unconscious mind to act out those desires and thoughts.

This makes his theory about dreams more focused on sexual desires and symbolism. A good example is that anything cylindrical symbolizes a penis while any enclosed opening represents a vagina.

Freud’s theory is understandable since he lived during the sexually repressed Victorian era which is why his theory focused on the sexual direction.


But it became clear with time that not all dreams are sexual and the theory was dismissed in some cases even by Freud himself.

  1. Carl Jung’s theory

Carl Jung who was a student under Freud also came up with his own theory which greatly differed from Freud’s.

Carl agreed with Freud’s psychological origin of dreams but instead of saying that our dreams were a result of our repressed desires, he stated that dreams enabled us to reflect on our waking lives and solve the issues we face.

  1. Allan Hobson & Robert McCarley theory

 In 1973  or thereabouts, two researchers named Allan Hobson and Robert McCarly came up with another theory that seemed to make more sense than Freud and Carl’s.

After great research on the brain during sleep, they established that random electrical brain impulses were responsible for forming imagery from parts of the experience that have been stored in the brain memory.

They stated that the images hardly form the stories that we remember as dreams.  Instead the waking mind, in an effort to make sense of the imagery, it creates the story even without the dreamer realizing, because, in the end, the brain wants to make sense of what it has experienced.

This theory was then called the activation-synthesis hypothesis and caused quite a controversy within the dream experts circles.

The controversy was mainly because this theory was nothing like the previous psychoanalytical theories by Freud and Carl. However, it has been there for a long time and to date, it remains one of the most popular dream theories.

 What happens  when we sleep

When we sleep, there are five sleep stages involved and they are as follows.-

Stage  1.- This is the stage where the sleep is very light and it’s easy to wake up. Actually, any distraction can cause you to wake up at this stage. It is the beginning of sleep.

Stage 2.- at this stage, the sleeper experiences a slightly deeper sleep and even the brain activity, in this case, is slowly slowing down. Unless the distraction is really loud, the sleeper can sleep through it.

Stage 3  and 4.- This is the stage where the sleep is at its deepest. Actually, brain activity at this stage has slowed down considerably. It is when we have the slowest brain waves which go up to stage 4.


Stage 5.- This occurs 90 minutes after we go to sleep which is actually after the fourth stage. REM(Rapid Eye Movement) sleep begins here. REM is mainly recognized when movement of the eyes occurs.

During REM, there are various physiological changes that occur. The heart rate and breathing quicken, the blood pressure rises and the body can’t regulate its temperature to normal.

The brain activity also increases and becomes at the same level as when we are awake and in some instances, it becomes even higher.


The rest of the body becomes paralyzed until REM sleep is over. According to REM sleep research, the paralysis is as a result of the release of glycine which is an amino acid to the neurons that are responsible for impulses from the brain or spinal cord.

Most of the dreaming takes place during the REM sleep stage but research has also proven that dreams could occur at any stage of sleep. Though the dreams that occur at the non-REM stages don’t have the same intensity as the REM dreams.

The paralysis during  REM sleep is actually nature’s way of ensuring that we don’t act out our dreams. If for example, someone dreams of flying then they shouldn’t do it lest they end up on the floor.


It has also been proven that throughout the night we go through the five stages of sleep several times.  In every cycle, there is actually more REM sleep and less deep sleep.

Dreams could occur as any of the above theories have described. The fact remains that they happen during sleep and when we remember them we always try to make sense of them by looking for interpretations.

In most cases, these interpretations also help us to make sense of our waking lives and find solutions to issues. Generally, that is how dreams work.

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