The Unknown World of Dreams

Your dreams may hold the answers to your future


Why we dream is still one of the greatest mysteries of life. For some, dreams have meaning, like a premonition, a discovery, or a solution to one’s life problems. The mystery behind dreaming has been questioned for centuries. There are many theories as to why dreams occur from scientific, philosophic, cultural and even spiritual. Some dreams can feel so real that it leaves the dreamer curious to find answers.

Some experts suggest that dreams represent the replay of the day’s events as a critical mechanism in the formation of memories, while others claim that the content of dreams is simply the result of random activity in the brain.

There are stages of sleep that lead to dreaming. During the first 15 minutes of rest, a person’s mind is in a state of Rapid Eye Movement (REM). According to Harvard Medicine, during REM sleep, the stage of sleep most associated with dreaming, there is an increase in the firing rate of most neurons throughout the brain, as compared to non-REM sleep. The brain in REM sleep can even be more active than when awake. Patterns of brain activity during REM sleep are more random and variable, similar to wakefulness. This pattern of brain activity during REM sleep probably underlies the intense dreaming that occurs during this state.

There are three phases of non-REM sleep. Each stage can last from 5 to 15 minutes. A person falls into a total of four stages of sleep which takes approximately 90 minutes to be in “deep sleep.” In the first stage, the eyes are closed, but it’s easy to wake the person up. This phase may last for 5 to 10 minutes. In stage two, the brain begins to produce bursts of rapid, rhythmic brain wave activity. Body temperature starts to decrease and heart rate begins to slow. In stage three, also referred to as delta sleep because of the slow brain waves known as delta waves that occur during this time, the sleeper becomes less responsive and it is more difficult to arouse them. This is the most common time for sleepwalking to occur. This stage also acts as a transitional period between light sleep and a very deep sleep. Finally, during stage four, the stage when most dreaming occurs, REM occurs.

REM sleep is characterized by rapid eye movements, increased respiratory rate and increased brain activity. REM sleep is also referred to as paradoxical sleep because while the brain and other body systems become more active, voluntary muscles become more relaxed. Dreaming occurs because of increased brain activity. This is the deepest stage of sleep and it requires a more intense stimulus to wake someone. Both stages three and four decline with age and many older people report that their sleep is lighter than when they were young.

Sleep does not progress through these stages in sequence. Sleep begins in stage one and progresses into stages two and three. After stage three, stage two is repeated before entering REM sleep. Once REM sleep is over, the body normally returns to stage two sleep. Sleep cycles through these stages approximately four or five times throughout the night.

On average, we enter the REM stage approximately 90 minutes after falling asleep. The first cycle of REM sleep might last only a short amount of time, but each cycle becomes longer. REM sleep can last up to an hour as sleep progresses.

Michelle Grimes-Hilman, a psychology professor at Mt. San Antonio College, said, “This is all neurological, and people want to think this has a deep hidden meaning but it probably doesn’t. It has to do with your brain switching from beta waves to another.”

Harvard Medicine reports that visually intense dreaming occurs primarily during REM sleep. However, not all dreams occur during REM sleep. For example, night terrors actually occur during non-REM sleep.

Lily Marquez, a 24-year-old, business administration major has had night terrors involving the same entity for most of her childhood.

I was a little girl when she started appearing in my dreams. At first I wasn’t so sure why, but I knew it was something evil— her smile always scared me the most. I used to live in an old house and it was probably because of the land it was built on—Old Hollywood. But who knows, I may have been so vulnerable and weak I allowed it to happen to me for so long, 10 years of my childhood.
She was a ghost of some kind; a demon? I’m not sure but I felt her evil presence trying to consume me deeper and deeper as I lay asleep. Usually I would know I’d be dreaming of her the first few seconds I noticed where I was. I would be walking alone at night down my street, no one around me. I knew it was cold because of the mist from the fog gleaming on the reflection of the street lights.”

“I have dreamt this same scenario over 20 times and again I knew tonight was going to be another night that I would be fearing for my life.”

“In the distance I could see her. She would always wear a white cloak covering half her face with her long grey hair. I would always stop myself from walking further and try to wake up at this point, but I couldn’t. I would try and run in the opposite direction but I couldn’t. I knew it was her not allowing me. I knew she wanted me to fall into her presence. I felt her evil energy surrounding me as I would panicky wake. For 10 years I prayed that she would not touch me and she didn’t. I don’t know why this thing haunts me, but it does.”

Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung have studied dreams and have different theories. In Freud’s book The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud claims that dreams are coded messages of the unconscious and our repressed desires wait until we can dream to release this energy. Yet, Jungian theory claims that the collective unconscious generates the images in our mind influenced by cultural mores, religious teachings and even myths and legends. Even philosophers like Aristotle and Plato have studied the mystery of dreams.

Freud considered dreams to be the ‘royal road to the unconscious’ as it is in “dreams that the ego’s defenses are lowered so that some of the repressed material comes through to awareness, albeit in distorted form.” Freud based his theories on his own dreams, one in particular, about a patient named Irma. He worried about Irma’s therapy, which was not going as well as he’d hoped and blamed himself. This, he believed, sparked a dream that he met Irma at a party, examined her, and saw a formula for a drug that another doctor had given her flash in front of his eyes. In the dream, he realized that her problem was caused by another doctor, not him, and his guilt was relieved. Freud termed this type of dream, “wish fulfillment.”

Marco Ramirez, a 22-year-old, history major has experienced wish fulfillment in his dreams. Freud might say that Ramirez wishes to cure his stepmother of skin cancer.

“My stepmom was suffering from skin cancer and I knew it was going to be the hardest thing my father was going to go through. I wasn’t close to my stepmom because we just didn’t get along. But she made my dad happy and that’s all that mattered to me. When I was told about her disease I didn’t know what to think. I just wished her well. Six months later her condition wasn’t getting any better. My dad was suffering more and more as he spent his days and nights at the hospital. Every day was a battle. I was tired of seeing my dad like this. I felt like I needed to pray for her. I prayed, and that night an angel appeared to me in my dreams and told me it was going to be over soon. I woke up and didn’t think much of it. I actually forgot about that dream. A week went by I got a phone call from my dad and he told me the cancer was subsiding. The cancer was slowly fading from her body. She was going to be okay. I’m not sure if it was a miracle or not. I’m not sure if my prayer meant anything either. I just know my dream meant something, I knew she was going to be okay.”

For people who experience premonition dreams, it can be downright scary. According to there are numerous accounts of those who are experiencing premonition dreams- the vision from a dream or premonition of an unsettling event that will take place without evidence to support it. Legend has it that Abraham Lincoln dreamt his assassination prior to his death and warned the first lady to take precautions for what was to come.

Andy Pierce, a 27-year-old, kinesiology major, recalled a dream that he believes was a premonition dream.

“The world was coming to an end and all I can see was fires and smoke. Everything was burning— houses, buildings. I could hear people screaming. I don’t know why my house wasn’t on fire, but I knew I had to do something. Then suddenly I heard the sound of airplane engines so loud my ears were bleeding -as I looked up in the sky I saw two airplanes flying towards each other. I knew they were going to crash. I knew it.”

When Pierce woke up, his girlfriend told him he had been shaking and screaming in panic. His hands were covering his ears.

But the next day, what happened would scare Pierce even more.

“We were planning a barbecue and I was setting up the backyard. In the distance, I saw two airplanes flying toward each other. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know what to do so I just stood there and waited. I felt my heart beating faster and faster. I was living my dream. The airplanes got so close I thought they had collided. Seconds later they were flying away from one another. I don’t know what that dream meant. I’m not sure if I should ever step foot on an airplane ever again. I don’t know. All I know is feeling what I felt that day of the barbecue. It gives me chills thinking about it.”

Re-occurring dreams are another form of dream sequence that represent a message or an idea. Dr. Daniel Condron, director and dream researcher at the School of Metaphysics, goes by his own theory that these types of dreams represent a question or message, often related to a limitation, habit, fear or doubt, to the dreamer. He believes that the dream will reach a conclusion and will not repeat again once the dreamer understands the message and resolves to make a change.

Erik Palmer, a 28-year-old, communications major, has had recurring dreams about dogs chasing him.

“They weren’t normal size dogs. They were big dogs and I knew they were after me. I’ve dreamt this same dream before, but this particular time was different. I was walking. I don’t know where I was walking to but I knew I had to walk fast because these dogs were going to attack me. Every house I passed, by more dogs were ganging up on me trying to bite me. I started running. I ended up getting in an old car and the dogs surrounded it. I knew I was stuck. I was panicking, I somehow ran out the car and tried to run as fast as I could, but I couldn’t. I felt endless punctures of pain. I knew I got bitten.”

Palmer has avoided dogs since.

These recurring dreams are often a result of a person’s fear. For example, a person who has a fear of flying may constantly dream about airplanes, flying and plane crashes.

Psychologist Bill Domhoff states in his study in “The Case Against the Problem-Solving Theory of Dreaming” that solving problems in a dream is based on age, gender, culture and personal perception. There are countless books written about the symbolism in dreams and what dreams mean. Dream Moods, a site that offers a “Dream Dictionary,” gives an A-Z on the meaning of dreams. For example, a common dream about water may mean a number of things. The site claims, “To see water in your dream symbolizes your subconscious and your emotional state of mind. Water is the living essence of the psyche and the flow of life energy. It is also symbolic of spirituality, knowledge, healing and refreshment. To dream that water is boiling suggests that you are expressing some emotional turmoil. Feelings from your subconscious are surfacing and ready to be acknowledged. You need to let out some steam.”

And then there are dreams that lead to something great. Take the Beatles hit song “Yesterday.” Paul McCartney told the Hollywood Reporter that the melody for the song came to him in a dream in 1964.

“I just fell out of bed and it was there,” McCartney told Rod Granger of The Hollywood Reporter. “I have a piano by the side of my bed and just got up and played the chords. I thought I must have heard it the night before or something, and spent about three weeks asking all the music people I knew, ‘What is this song?’ I couldn’t believe I’d written it.”

And then there’s Google co-founder Larry Page, who revealed in his 2009 commencement address to the University of Michigan that the idea for Google was based on a dream he had in college. Page told the college grads that he had a “vivid dream” at age 23 that woke him up in the middle of the night that he just had to write down.

“I had one of those dreams when I was 23. When I suddenly woke up, I was thinking: what if we could download the whole web, and just keep the links and… I grabbed a pen and started writing! Sometimes it is important to wake up and stop dreaming. I spent the middle of that night scribbling out the details and convincing myself it would work.” Soon after Google was born.

The University of Kentucky suggests on its website to keep a dream journal for academic enhancement. “Understanding your dreams may help you have a stronger view on your personal life, unlocking some hidden emotions. Your dreams are unique and can be connected to your own reality. When analyzing a dream, try to think about what’s going on in your life, how you’ve been feeling or current events that may have had an impact on you. Once you find meaning to your dreams, you hold the power to further your self-exploration. Your dreaming mind has access to information not readily available to your waken self.”

Grimes-Hillman said that keeping a dream journal can have a positive outcome. “Dream journals allow you to step back and look at your life as an outsider— it’s a growth experience.”

Who knows, that dream just might unlock a hit song, an inspiration, or the next biggest invention.

Photo illustration by Karla Mejia

Substance is a publication of the Mt. San Antonio College Journalism Program. The program recently moved its newsroom over to Medium as part of a one-year experiment. Read about it here.