The stuff dreams are made of

What’s really going on when you’re sleeping and what it says about your subconscious

University of Toronto Professor Douglas Frayn, MD ’61, says artsy people are more likely to have colourful dreams.
University of Toronto Professor Douglas Frayn, MD ’61, says artsy people are more likely to have colourful dreams.

Imagine you’re having the best dream and all of sudden, the blaring beep of your alarm clock rudely startles you out of your sleep. Now you will never know how the dream ends. There’s also a lot more you don’t know about your dreams than what gets interrupted by the alarm.

“Everyone thinks they know what dreams are like, but they don’t—they only know what their own dreams are like,” said Dr. Douglas Frayn, MD ’61 and associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto.

Even for the experts, dreams are complicated to understand and knowing what causes you to dream is still being contested.

Wendy Pannier, media contact at the International Association for the Study of Dreams, said there’s still a lot of debate around what is actually happening when you are dreaming.

“There are parts of the brain that are kind of offline when you are dreaming and there are other parts that are on fast speed access,” Pannier said. “The way that different parts are or are not engaged brings up present and past … so there’s a nonsequential pattern to dreaming.”

Dr. Henry Olders, associate professor of medicine at McGill, said the majority of dreams occur during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep—the light sleep you experience about 60 to 90 minutes after you’ve fallen asleep. The body needs REM sleep so badly that people whose REM sleep is consistently interrupted begin to experience REM while awake.

This REM cycle occurs about every 90 minutes throughout the night. And you’re not the only one having sweet dreams during your REM sleep: All mammals have dreams, as well.

Olders said people usually only remember their dreams if they wake up in the middle.

“There’s great variability in how many dreams people remember and I suspect a lot of it has to do with the quality of the sleep,” he said.

Even though they know we’re all dreaming, experts are still trying to determine why we do it.

“One theory is that dreaming is sort of a re-enactment of emotionally important memories and the re-enactment serves to reinforce memory traces in the brain,” Olders said.

He said it’s not clear how the brain selects these particular memories or emotions to re-enact.

“Is it sort of random? Is it just things that are emotionally important? Does it connect to the events of the preceding day?

“I don’t think anyone really knows.”

Frayn said sleep studies have shown that everyone has four to five dreams per night. When woken up during REM sleep, they can all recall and discuss their dreams.

“If you wait until the next morning … some people say they never dream at all,” he said. “But you put them in a sleep lab and they’re dreaming as much as anyone else, their memories are just as good.”

Everyone has their own purpose for their dreams, though, Frayn said.

“Some musicians say their inspiration for their music comes directly from their dreams.” Others look to their dreams and the symbols in them for insight into their waking lives. But for Frayn, some of these universal symbols are highly overrated.

“You wouldn’t want to interpret a dream [based on] just one symbol,” he said.

Frayn said the subject matter of dreams can be divided into roughly three categories: wishes or urges, which often have their basis in the dreamer’s childhood; dealing with conflict and fears; and problem solving, in which the dreamer is able to come up with solutions they couldn’t devise while awake.

According to Frayn, how you dream can also provide a glimpse into your mental health or character.

“People who are very open and artistic tend to be colour-dreamers and frequent reporters of dreams,” he said, adding that people who take hallucinogenic drugs are also more likely to have vivid dreams and remember them the next morning.

In contrast, people who are physically or mentally ill are less likely to be able to recall their dreams the next day.

An inability to recall dreams is also one of the indicators of depression, Frayn said.

“People will say, ‘You know what, I’ve stopped dreaming,’” he said. “Or they still do, but … the dreams don’t have colour in them, they don’t have sound in them, they’re very bleak.”

If your dreams have been disappointing, there might be a way to turn things around. Recent studies into “lucid dreaming” have explored whether people can control their dreams or remain conscious, to a certain degree, during a dream state.

Frayn said there are workshops where people are trained to dream so that they can affect the outcomes of their dreams, or to do certain things while dreaming.

He said there are problems with that method, though.

“When you start controlling your dreams, this is the ultimate fascist tool—you can’t even dream freely anymore.”

So lie back, hit the snooze button and keep dreaming.

—With files from Anna Mehler Paperny

Dream Journal

Some believe that keeping a dream journal next to your bed and recording your dreams in it as soon as you wake up can provide insight into what your psyche is telling you in your sleep. Check out these dream analyses from Journal staff and analyze your own bizarre dreams using the dream dictionary at

“I dreamed about being a duck flying in a house. These four guys, my brothers (I have none in real life) are trying to shoot me. Eventually, I fly out the window and away.”

—Yingwei Liu

A flying duck in a dream can mean spiritual freedom, but the duck may also refer to a “sitting duck,” which indicates that you’re setting yourself up for the kill. The image of being shot at also suggests that you feel you’re a victim in some confrontation in your conscious life.

“My most common dream is that falling dream, which always ends with some sort of landing that jerks my whole body and makes me wake up.”

—Meghan Sheffield

A dream about falling in which you are frightened may signal that you feel a lack of control or insecurity in your waking life. This might refer to a struggle, an overwhelming problem or a failure to achieve some set goal in your life.

“I was skating in an arena … being coached by Ian MacEwan [Scottish novelist] … . Then it was the next day and Ian MacEwan had sent me a book. It bore a striking resemblance to his own latest book called On Chesil Beach, which I read this summer. The book was a rough draft that I had written the day before and the words in the book were the product of my skating the day before.”

—Erin Flegg

Dreaming about a book can symbolize knowledge, intellect, information and wisdom, while the type of book might represent a calling into a specific field of work. The image of skating in your dream symbolizes your ability to maintain balance in your life. And as for Ian MacEwan? According to Dream Moods, to see an author in your dream signifies that your mind is preoccupied over some literary work that you or your associates is working on—perhaps even a certain Queen’s news publication.


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