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Weird dreams: What do they mean?

Whether it’s falling off a cliff or public nudity, find out what may be causing those vivid, surreal dreams.
By Suzanne Wright
WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

Think about this strange dream. You're at a black-tie gala evening in a luxury hotel dining-room with lots of other people. You're all having a good time eating dinner, dancing and talking. When it's time to go, you look for your wallet, but it's gone. As you anxiously search for it, a fast-moving river appears out of nowhere, cutting through the room. Your wallet is floating on the river, but you can't reach it. It is moving too swiftly. When you wake up, you're filled with a sense of panic.

Now if you plugged the dream into an online dream analyser, you might discover that a wallet is a symbol of wealth and resources, a hotel represents transition and a river is about emotion. Because you have been living through a kitchen makeover -- with its financial stresses and upheavals -- this dream echoes and amplifies what's going on in your waking life.

What are dreams?

Human beings dream, and so do most mammals and some birds, scientists believe. On the most basic level, a dream is the experience you have of images, sounds, or other sensations imagined while you sleep. They are an internal mental process. But dreams are actually much more than that.

Sigmund Freud's theory was that your dreams are an expression of what you're repressing during the time you are awake. And Carl Jung believed that dreams provide messages about "lost" or "neglected" parts of ourselves that need to be reintegrated. Many dreams simply come from a preoccupation with the day's activities. But some offer rich, symbolic expressions -- an interface between the conscious and the unconscious that can fill in the gaps of our self-knowledge and provide information and insight.

In his book The Three "Only" Things: Tapping the Power of Dreams, Coincidence, and Imagination, Robert Moss writes, "Dreams are open vistas of possibility that take us beyond our everyday self-limiting beliefs and behaviours. Before we dismiss our dream lover, our dream home or our dream job as unattainable -- 'only a dream' -- we want to examine carefully whether there are clues in the dream that could help us to manifest that juicy vision."

Why do we dream?

Everyone dreams every night -- even if we don't remember our dreams.

Dr Tom Scammell, associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, says no one knows why we dream. "There is a strong movement in the research community to research how sleep improves memory and learning," Scammell says. "One speculative possibility is that dreaming allows you the opportunity to practise things you may or may not ever have to do, like running away or fighting off a predator."

Three or four times a night, you have a period of sleep that lasts approximately 90 minutes called REM -- rapid eye movement -- sleep. It is during REM sleep that your brain is more active. And according to Dr Scammell, it's then that conditions are right for "story-like" dreams that are rich in action, complexity, and emotion.

"You are most likely to recall dreams if you wake at the end of a REM episode," says Dr Scammell. He points out that many people are chronically sleep deprived. “This builds up pressure for REM sleep. So when you're catching up on your sleep, you may have more REM sleep with more intense dreams," he says.

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