Throughout history, all psychologists and even philosophers have theorized about dreams. Sigmund Freud started the study of dreams as having a specific purpose, but even today, researchers have yet to uncover the underlying nature of dreaming while we sleep. Freud even determined what the various dreams could mean, and his theories and research still hold up in studies regarding the nature of dreaming.

The study of REM sleep started in 1953 by Aserinsky and Kleitman. They determined that REM sleep was based on the eye movements of the person sleeping and also the time when people would recall the dreams they were having. 74.1 percent of people recalled their dreams during the REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, and only 17 percent called their dreams in the non-REM sleep stage. After a significant focus on research on dreams, researchers also discovered that during REM sleep, the focal point within the dream, where the eyes were looking, correlated with where the participants’ eyes were actually looking. If, in the dream, someone was looking down and to the right, their actual eyes would be pointed in that direction. Also, during Lucid dreaming, the brain’s neural activity would be the same as if the person were awake.

What do our dreams mean? There are many different theories on the meaning of dreams. Freud, of course, took the dreams to the unconscious desires or underlying unconscious fears that people were experiencing. Whereas Freud’s mentee, Jung, believed that there was more than just underlying passions and desires, and the symbols in the dreams were specific to that person. Freud focused on the particular sign in the dream, and Jung took that further to recognize the theme of a series of dreams, which focused on the patient’s unconscious and subconscious. All of the research that Freud, Jung, and thousands of psychologists have conducted has led us to the current belief that dreams are essential to mental, emotional, and physical well-being while also potentially serving no purpose at all. One of the more recent theories on dreams is called the “activation-synthesis hypothesis,” which states that dreams do not have any meaning but are just the electrical brain impulses that use our experiences and thoughts to create random imagery.

How are dreams studied? Participants for dream research are placed in soundproof, temperature-proof rooms to sleep, and their brain wave activity is then gathered. More recent research regarding sleep stages shows that people have increased activity in the frontal lobe while dreaming. The fascinating part behind this discovery is that the frontal lobe is where we retrieve memories when awake. Thus, the findings show that dreams activate the same area of the brain where memories are stored, and dreams are really just based on our memories and experiences. Not only is the frontal lobe activated during dreaming, but the amygdala and hippocampus can also get going when the dreams are more emotionally intense. The amygdala is in charge of the processing of the memories that we make, as well as our emotional reactions to the experiences that we had. In contrast, the hippocampus sorts out and consolidates the information we store in short-term memory as it is transferred into long-term memory.

The takeaway. While the study of dreams started before the 1900s, it is still as much of an enigma as ever. The research has uncovered where dreams come from, how the dreams are made, and when we dream, but we still need to figure out the why behind the dreams. As Cinderella once said, “A dream is a wish your heart makes when you’re fast asleep,” and I feel that is one the best interpretations of dreams yet. If you have confusing dreams or feel overwhelmed by the content, try changing what you read, watch, or eat before you sleep. All of the theories on dreams have different cause-and-effect scenarios, so do some research for yourself and see what you can come up with.