Lady asleep in bed

Dream analysis or the interpretation of dreams dates back to 3000-4000 B.C where they were found documented on clay slates. Many ancient societies including the Egyptians and the Romans considered dreams to be direct messages from the gods and the dead. Renowned psychologist Sigmund Freud wrote a book called ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ in 1899 and described dreams as “the royal road” to the uncovering of the unconscious. He viewed dreams as a disguised or repressed wish fulfillment.

Today, dreams are still a bit of a mystery with many researchers backing conflicting theories. Psychologist G. William Domhoff suggests that dreams most likely serve no real purpose. Freud believed that the content of dreams serves to disguise the buried unconscious wishes of the dreamer. Psychiatrist Carl Jung suggested that dreams serve to compensate for parts of the soul that are underdeveloped in waking life. Despite this, dream interpretation and analysis has become increasingly popular. Jim Pagel, Managing Director of the Sleep Disorders Centre of Southern Colorado said, “If dreaming has an actual function, it really supports why we spend a third of our lives sleeping.”

While research is contradictory, most experts believe that dreams do have some sort of meaning behind them.

Why do we dream and what do they mean?

We all dream, yet the answer as to exactly why remains a mystery. Sometimes we can remember every detail and other times we forget them as soon as we wake up. Then there are times when something happens during our waking hours that triggers a memory of last night’s dream. Common dream themes include flying, falling, being chased, being naked in public, and teeth falling out. Check out this Sleep Matters Club article that lists the top 10 common dreams and the suggested meanings behind them.

In a podcast with Dr Pixie McKenna, the topic of dreams was discussed with Dr Neil Stanley who has studied dreams for over 37 years. He believes that dreams are like a pinball machine where the ball bangs around your memory: “As it hits the bumpers, different memories and visions come up.” Neil also believes that the interpretation of dreams is personal to you. “The reoccurring dream you have is usually your stress dream… That’s the one dream that we do know. You have to recognise that repetitive dream that always follows the same narrative, that is an unconscious sign that you’re stressed.”

Why do we have nightmares?

Unfortunately, not all dreams are wish fulfillment scenes. Nightmares and night terrors are also common (more so in children but can occur in adulthood too). One in every two adults has occasional nightmares. In fact, between two and eight percent of the adult population is plagued by nightmares. Nightmares occur during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and they will often wake you up feeling fearful, sweaty, and cause your heart to pound. Night terrors are more common in children aged between three and eight years old. These episodes can cause the dreamer to lash out and scream or shout. They will seem like they’re awake as their eyes may be open, but they’re in fact still asleep.

Nightmares and night terrors seem to have a pattern in families, so genetics are a possible cause. Stress, anxiety, trauma, illness, and certain medications such as antidepressants are also known to trigger nightmares and night terrors.

What is sleep paralysis?

Described as ‘a feeling of being conscious but unable to move. It (sleep paralysis) occurs when a person passes between stages of wakefulness and sleep. During these transitions, you may be unable to move or speak for a few seconds up to a few minutes.’ Sounds scary, right? The NHS recommends that you book an appointment with your GP if sleep paralysis is causing you to feel very anxious or scared to go to sleep, or if you’re becoming sleep deprived because of it.

In the following podcast, Dr. Pixie McKenna discusses sleep paralysis with sleep psychologist Hope Bastine, and journalist Jessica Barratt who has suffered from the condition for 21 years.


Does eating cheese cause nightmares?

You’ve most probably heard the theory that eating cheese before bedtime gives you nightmares, but is there any truth to this, or is it just an old wives’ tale? In the famous Charles Dickens novel ‘A Christmas Carol’, Ebenezer Scrooge blamed cheese for causing his ghostly night-time encounter with Jacob Marley.

In 2005, The British Cheese Board carried out a study in which a number of people were given a three-ounce piece of cheese to eat just before bedtime. The participants were given different types of cheese and a report was taken to record the dreams and nightmares to detect any patterns. Overall, 75% of the participants said they slept well each night, with no nightmares. However, certain types of cheeses caused patterns in the participants’ dreams. Read more about the findings here.

Dr Neil Stanley believes that dreams and nightmares are remembered more after a bad night’s sleep and this is affected by what you eat. He said, “There is nothing in cheese that will cause you to have dreams… What there is in cheese is an awful lot of fat, and in order to get a good night’s sleep, you need to lose one degree of body temperature… You’re gonna have to burn those calories off which will cause you not to sleep well, which will cause you to remember more dreams…” An article on Harvard Health Publishing backs this theory and says, ‘…nocturnal eating can interrupt your sleep in various ways, prompting the recall of disturbing dreams… For example, eating a large meal, especially a high-carbohydrate meal, could trigger night sweats because the body generates heat as it metabolizes the food. Also, gastroesophageal reflux (GERD), caused by lying down with a full stomach, may trigger symptoms that wake you up.’

Another article looks into the different types of food that can supposedly cause nightmares including spicy dishes, sugar, carbohydrates and alcohol.

To conclude, dreams and sleeping are topics that continue to fascinate us, and experts are yet to find the real reasons and meanings of them. If you’d like to read more about sleep-related topics, check out the Sleep Matters Club.

You can also view more articles in our sleeping well section. If you’re experiencing long-term sleep problems, or you’re finding that your overall health is suffering, it’s wise to speak to your GP.