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Do Dreams Really Mean Anything?

Weird, scary or downright fantastical, we've all had dreams that feel like they contain a deeper message. But does dreaming of falling really mean something’s wrong in your life? Or is it just your brain's way of making sense of the day?

Since ancient civilisation, people have looked to their dreams to shed light on their waking moments.

The Ancient Egyptians believed dreams foretold the future and were a way of communicating with the gods. Dream interpretation was considered a special gift and those who could analyse them were revered. Researchers uncovered an Egyptian ‘Dream Book', dating back to the reign of Ramesses II in 1279-1213 BC, which characterises certain dreams as good omens or bad omens for future events. The ancient Chinese similarly believed dreams gave a hint of the future to come. The court of the Shang dynasty employed specialised ‘dream readers' to interpret the dreams of the royal family.

In the late 19th century, renowned psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud posited that dreams provided an insight into the subconscious mind – revealing thoughts we didn't want to experience when we were awake. He suggested our dreams contained symbols that represented our latent desires, which would reveal themselves through interpretation. In 1899 he published ‘The Interpretation of Dreams' to explain the hidden symbolism contained within dreams – which largely concerned references to phallic objects – and formed much of his future research into the different levels of our subconscious.

I had a dream…

Modern theory suggests dreams are less about an insight into our subconscious or a peek into the future and more our brain's way of dealing with the activities of the day. One such theory is the “activation-synthesis hypothesis” which states dreams are merely a result of electrical brain impulses pulling random thoughts and imagery from our memories – like flashes of a giant filing system. It's only on waking that we construct dreams to make sense of those flashes, according to the theory.

Other research suggests dreaming is a way of our brain consolidating the information we've learned during the day – sort of like a play-by-play review of what we've seen, done and learned. In one experiment, subjects played Tetris over a series of days. While some were Tetris experts, others had never played the game before. As the experiment went on, more than 60 percent of participants reported dreaming of the game, reinforcing the theory that the dream state was helping to consolidate learning.

Another study suggested that vivid, bizarre or emotionally intense dreams are our brains way of consolidating memories from short-term to long-term. Subjects were monitored while they slept, and then were asked about their dreams when they woke. Those people who reported particularly intense dreams experienced activity in parts of the amygdala and hippocampus. While the amygdala plays a primary role in memory processing, the hippocampus has also been linked to vital memory functions, including moving information from short-term to long-term memory.

In your dreams…

So what does all this mean for the meaning of dreams? While there's a lot we don't know about sleep, let alone dreaming, there's a few things we can say for sure.

First, we know how vital sleep is for our health – especially REM or deep sleep, which is the same stage of sleep the majority of dream activity occurs. Dreams therefore may play a vital role in allowing us to process the events that happen during waking hours – especially emotionally intense situations – and keep a check on our emotional health when we wake.

Second, dreaming is not a unique experience when it comes to humans – which suggests it may play an evolutionary role. Harvard evolutionary psychologist Dr Deirdre Barrett has said dogs are just as likely to dream as us, and in fact it's likely they dream about their day in the same way we do. So if your dog looks like they're running in their dream, it's possible they're dreaming about your trip to the park earlier that day.

Finally, just because you dreamed about a particular object doesn't mean there are hidden messages your subconscious is trying to reveal. It's just as likely you saw it on a television show or are remembering something that happened years earlier.