Does dreaming cuts our sleeping hours?

Does dreaming cuts our sleeping hours?

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If I am dreaming a lot at night, how many effective hours am I sleeping at night? After dreaming heavily at night, when I wake up in the morning I feel sluggish as if I haven't slept properly.

Does dreaming cuts our sleeping hours?

One small study (2015) in otherwise healty subjects, found no correlation between nightmares and the quality of sleep measured using widely used objective methods, or more precisely

sleep measures obtained by ambulatory polysomnographic recordings revealed no group differences in (a) overall sleep architecture, (b) sleep cycle duration as well as REM density and REM duration in each cycle and (c) sleep architecture when only nights with nightmares were analyzed.

Nonetheless the subjects who experienced nightmares reported worse self-reported sleep quality. Granted, in a study like this, there's always a chance the authors failed to consider some objective sleep measure not commonly known/used today. Anyhow, the author's' conclusion was that

nightmares result in significant impairment which is independent from disturbed sleep architecture

And thus they suggest one seek specialized treatment for nightmares… which are correlated with quite a few psychiatric disorders, PTSD, anxiety, depression, or borderline personality disorder, to name a few.

Another caveat of this study is that the authors deliberately excluded people with diagnosable psychiatric conditions from the sample. So this study does not exclude the possibility that subjects with (say) PTSD actually do have worse objective sleep… owing to nightmares.

14 Common Dreams and What They Really Mean

Three dream experts fill you in on what your subconscious is really trying to tell you.

You&rsquore falling. Your teeth fall out. You're constantly 10 minutes late to your big work presentation. We&rsquove all had those dreams that've made us wake up in a full panic, only to realize they&rsquore, well, just dreams. But what do they actually mean&mdashand why do we still think about them after we wake up?

"For vivid dreamers, our body can often experience what is happening in the dream," says Eliza Boquin, a licensed psychotherapist, sex therapist, and owner of The Flow & Ease Healing Center. "As we begin to transition back into a state of alertness, it can take a few moments or even hours to get fully grounded into the present moment."

Turns out, dreams do matter. &ldquoDreams are your subconscious thoughts. They&rsquore a continuation of your thoughts of your day,&rdquo notes certified dream analyst and speaker Lauri Loewenberg. While you&rsquore sleeping, your brain is conjuring up around five dreams per night (yes, even if you don&rsquot remember them). That&rsquos a lot of subconscious thoughts to unpack. And although every dream is unique, but they do tend to follow certain symbolic patterns. We asked Boquin, Loewenberg, and psychologist Dr. William Braun to explain the deeper meanings behind these 14 common dreams. Find out what yours means below.

The Dream: You&rsquore going about your regular day.

The interpretation: A common dream that can be surprisingly puzzling? "Boring" real life events, such as going about your normal work day or picking the kids up from school. "Because our brains are limited to what we know, the way we work through stressors is by referencing how we live day to day. Perhaps you went to sleep thinking about everything you had to do the next day, maybe you have been arriving late to pick up your child and you&rsquore feeling guilt about it," says Boquin, who recommends exploring the emotions you felt in the dream. "What was the theme and is that a theme you&rsquore facing currently?"

Know that it's common to construct dreams using real-life thoughts and sights, as well&mdashso there might not be some deeper meaning unless it feels like there is one. "This is a great example of 'Day Residue,'" explains Braun. "Often, what happened the day prior to dreaming is used in our dreams."

The Dream: You&rsquore back in school, taking a test.

The interpretation: Usually this dream is connected to work, says Loewenberg. &ldquoSchool was our first job ever,&rdquo Loewenberg points out, adding that this dream is common when a work challenge is on the horizon. &ldquoWhether you&rsquore trying to get a new client, it&rsquos evaluation time, you&rsquore trying to get a promotion&mdashanytime you&rsquore feeling tested and you&rsquove got to prove yourself.&rdquo The takeaway? &ldquoHow did you feel in the dream? Were you prepared? It&rsquos kind of like a mirror,&rdquo says Loewenberg.

The Dream: You&rsquore hanging out with a celebrity&mdashany celebrity.

The interpretation: If the celeb cameo feels random, there&rsquos still a reason they're hanging around your subconscious. Ultimately, there&rsquos something about that person&mdashand it could be deep in their IMDb history&mdashthat&rsquos relevant to you right now. &ldquoAsk yourself what is it about this person that relates back to you,&rdquo explains Loewenberg. "It could be a movie they&rsquore in, a song of theirs&mdashthe message will be in the title of that movie or the lyrics to that song.&rdquo

The message could also be something related to that celebrity&rsquos persona. &ldquoIf you&rsquore friends in the dream, whatever it is in that celebrity you like is something you like about yourself too,&rdquo says Loewenberg. &ldquoIt&rsquos something you want to be recognized for, too.&rdquo


  • Siegel JM. 2005. Clues to the functions of mammalian sleep. Nature. 437:1264-1271.
  • Porkka-Heiskanen T. 1999. Adenosine in sleep and wakefulness. Annals of Medicine. 31:125-129.
  • Frank MG. 2006. The mystery of sleep function: current perspectives and future directions. Reviews in the Neurosciences. 17:375-392.

This theory and the role of sleep in learning are covered in greater detail in Sleep, Learning, and Memory.

Although these theories remain unproven, science has made tremendous strides in discovering what happens during sleep and what mechanisms in the body control the cycles of sleep and wakefulness that help define our lives. While this research does not directly answer the question, "Why do we sleep?" it does set the stage for putting that question in a new context and generating new knowledge about this essential part of life.

For more about why we sleep, watch the video Why Sleep Matters and explore Consequences of Insufficient Sleep.

This content was last reviewed on December 18, 2007

A resource from the Division of Sleep Medicine at
Harvard Medical School

Produced in partnership with WGBH Educational Foundation


As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.


thanks for the posting, very fully picture…i don’t believe with all this things ..i am a small businessman and i love to work all the day, similarly love to sleep hole night.

These tips are really very helpful to improve sleep. I will follow these.

sleeping ? i like sleeping , but i can not sleep every night beccause there arre many homework . so did you say ” sleeping helps learning ” ??

Great article on the power of sleep. I was baffled to learn so much. Will there be a updated study?

Sleep serves not only to memory also to lose weight fast.

and I agree to it as I have experienced it myself while studying for exams, when I was a teenager And fast loss yes.

Why after a nap would one feel un-rested, Nice article, I always try to get 8 hors of sleep each night.
Rich Reider

Hello, I am a tatuaggi artist.. and I agree to it as I have experienced it myself while studying for exams, when I was a teenager.

There are some country with the traditions in “taking naps”. Once upon a time my grandfather has fallen the tree and the tooked a 30 minutes nap :)–>

Management and Treatment

How are sleep disorders treated?

There are a variety of treatments recommended by healthcare providers:

  • Counseling: Some sleep specialists recommend cognitive behavior therapy. Such counseling helps you “recognize, challenge and change stress-inducing thoughts” that can keep you awake at night.
  • Medications and/or supplements.
  • Practice sleep hygiene such as keeping a regular sleep schedule.
  • Get regular exercise.
  • Minimize noise.
  • Minimize light.
  • Manage the temperature so that you’re comfortable.

Your healthcare provider will recommend treatments based on your unique situation.

What medicines may help with sleep disorders?

Your healthcare provider may recommend some of the following medications and supplements:

  • Sleep aids may be helpful in some cases of insomnia, including melatonin, zolpidem, zaleplon, eszopiclone, ramelteon, suvorexant, lamborexant, or doxepin.
  • Restless legs syndrome can be treated with gabapentin, gabapentin enacarbil, or pregabalin.
  • Narcolepsy may be treated with a number of stimulants or wake-promoting medications, such as modafinil, armodafinil, pitolisant and solriamfetol.

Should I see a specialist?

Ask your healthcare provider for a referral to a sleep specialist, if necessary.

What are some tips for getting a good night's sleep?

  • Create an optimal sleep environment by making sure that your bedroom is comfortable, cool, quiet and dark. If noise keeps you awake, try using background sounds like "white noise" or earplugs. If light interferes with your sleep, try a sleep mask or blackout curtains.
  • Think positive. Avoid going to bed with a negative mind set, such as "If I don't get enough sleep tonight, how will I ever get through the day tomorrow?"
  • Avoid using your bed for anything other than sleep and intimate relations. Do not watch television, eat, work, or use computers in your bedroom.
  • Try to clear your mind before bed time by writing things down or making a to-do list earlier in the evening. This is helpful if you tend to worry and think too much in bed at night.
  • Establish a regular bedtime and a relaxing routine each night by taking a warm bath, listening to soothing music, or reading. Try relaxation exercises, meditation, biofeedback, or hypnosis. Wake up at the same time each morning, including days off and vacations.
  • Stop clock watching. Turn the clock around and use only the alarm for waking up. Leave your bedroom if you cannot fall asleep in 20 minutes. Read or engage in a relaxing activity in another room.
  • Avoid naps. If you are extremely sleepy, take a nap. But limit naps to less than 30 minutes and no later than 3 p.m.
  • Avoid stimulants (coffee, tea, soda/cola, cocoa and chocolate) and heavy meals for at least four hours before bedtime. Light carbohydrate snacks such as milk, yogurt, or crackers may help you fall asleep easier.
  • Avoid alcohol and tobacco for at least four hours before bedtime and during the night.
  • Exercise regularly, but not within four hours of bedtime if you have trouble sleeping.

What It Means When You Dream About Being Naked In Public

You’re at the office and everything is normal. Until you get up during a meeting to give a presentation and you realize you are totally naked.

It’s a dream many people have had in some iteration. But experts still aren’t entirely sure what it means.

Most psychologists agree it probably doesn’t represent a literal desire to be naked in public, but more likely is related to being embarrassed about something about yourself that other people don’t know about you.

Other psychologists have suggested this type of dream comes from harboring feels of guilt or inferiority ― or may be triggered by feeling neglected or deprived of attention in the past.

Of course some people think it means nothing at all. But neuroscientists and psychologists are convinced that, apart from meaning, dreams serve an important role in maintaining our mental and emotional health.

Decades of research suggest that dreams help us make memories, solve the problems we struggle with in our waking hours and process emotions ― even unpleasant ones where you accidentally expose yourself to everyone at work.

Yes, even our wildest dreams serve a purpose

Philosophers like Aristotle and Plato ― and later psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud ― are credited with laying groundwork for the theory that dreams are a way for us to act out our unconscious desires in a safe and non-real setting, rather than some place or time that would be unacceptable or harmful to us.

And a pivotal study from 1960 from the “father of sleep medicine” William Dement, professor emeritus of psychology and sleep medicine at Stanford University’s Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine, documented the detrimental effects of not dreaming.

The study revealed that when individuals were awoken just as they entered REM sleep (thus being deprived of being able to dream), they had more tension, anxiety, irritability, increased appetite, less motor coordination and more feelings of emptiness and depersonalization than when they were able to dream.

“It is possible that if the dream suppression were carried on long enough, a serious disruption of the personality would result,” Dement wrote in his 1960 paper.

When the study participants were able to sleep normally again, they spent as much as 50 percent longer dreaming than they did before the experiment began ― and they continued to dream more than usual for as many as four nights to compensate for the single night of dream deprivation.

And in the decades since Dement carried out that experiment, more studies have shown the same results and continue to provide evidence dreams do affect our emotional health, serving an important psychological function.

Watch The Telegraph’s video above to hear psychologist and dream analyst Ian Wallace’s interpretation of what it means to dream about being naked in public.

Modern hunter-gatherer groups almost never napped in the winter, and only napped slightly more often during the summer

"I think the origin of that [idea] is people have cats and dogs, and that's what cats and dogs do – they do sleep that way," he says. "But primates don't." We are but the latest in a long line of species that tends to snooze in one long, uninterrupted block of sleep each night. That's not to say that apes and monkeys don’t take the occasional mid-day nap, or that they don't wake up in the middle of the night from time to time. But, just like in our own species, that's not quite the norm.

Indeed, Siegel's cross-cultural study found that modern hunter-gatherer groups almost never napped in the winter, and only napped slightly more often during the summer, presumably as a means of escaping the worst heat of the day. And even then, he says, the average person only took a daytime nap every fifth day or so.

Just because our pets spend much of their time snoozing doesn't mean our ancestors did (Credit: iStock)

But there is one tiny way in which the myth holds up. The people Siegel studied all lived fairly close to the equator. As you move to higher latitudes, the night can last up to 16 hours in the winter, so living in that kind of environment may have led Northern European ancestors to fragment their evening slumber during that part of the year. But because we have cleaved our sleep patterns from the natural cycles of the seasons, even in Northern Europe most modern-day humans sleep through the night, perhaps just waking up for a quick visit to the bathroom.

Having settled two of the most pervasive myths regarding sleep behaviour, Siegel has now turned to other, more fundamental questions about the nature of sleep. Why do we even do it?

10 theories that explain why we dream

The study of dreaming is called oneirology, and it's a field of inquiry that spans neuroscience, psychology, and even literature. Still, the plain fact is that the reasons why we dream are still mysterious. But that hasn't stopped scientists from coming up with some pretty fascinating hypotheses. Here are ten of them.

1. Wish fulfillment

One of the first sustained efforts to study dreams scientifically was spearheaded by the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, in the early twentieth century . After analyzing the dreams of hundreds of his patients, he came up with a theory that still resonates with a lot of researchers today: dreams are wish-fulfillments. Any dream, no matter how terrifying, can be looked at as a way of getting something that you want, either literally or symbolically. For example, say you have a terrifying and sad dream about your mother dying. Why would that be a wish-fulfillment? Maybe, Freud would say, you are having a conflict with your mother that would be easily resolved if she were out of the picture. So you don't want your mother to die, but you do want to deal with that conflict. By thinking of dreams in this light, Freud was able to help many of his patients unbury hidden emotions that they hadn't dealt with.

2. An accidental side-effect of random neural impulses

If you buy into Freud's idea about dreams, their subject matter is deeply meaningful. They can reveal wishes or emotions you didn't realize you had. But another popular school of thought holds that dreams are actually just a kind of brain fart, an accidental side-effect of activated circuits in the brain stem and stimulation of the limbic system that's involved with emotions, sensations and memories. J. Allan Hobson, the psychiatrist who popularized this idea, calls it the "activation-synthesis theory." In a nutshell, the brain tries to interpret these random signals, resulting in dreams.

What's particularly interesting about this theory is that it could also help to explain why humans use storytelling as a way to make sense of an often random, chaotic universe. If dreams are the meanings our brains supply to random neural firing in our limbic system, then stories are like waking dreams, meanings we use to paper over the fundamentally disorganized signals we receive from the world around us.

3. Encoding short-term memories into long-term storage

Maybe dreams are just randomly-generated stories caused by neural impulses, but perhaps there's also a reason for them, too. To explore this idea, psychiatrist Jie Zhang, proposed the continual-activation theory of dreaming, which refers to the idea that our brains are always storing memories regardless of whether we're awake or asleep. But dreams are a kind of "temporary storage" area of consciousness, a spot where we hold memories before we move them from short-term to long-term storage. They flash through our minds as dreams before we secret them away in the files of our memory.

4. Garbage collection

Dubbed the "reverse learning" theory , this idea suggests that we dream to get rid of undesirable connections and associations that build up in our brains throughout the day. Basically, dreams are garbage collection mechanisms, clearing our minds of useless thoughts and making way for better ones. Essentially, we dream in order to forget. Dreams help us eliminate the information overload of daily life and retain only the most important data.

5. Consolidating what we've learned

This theory flies in the face of the reverse learning theory, by suggesting that we actually dream to remember rather than forget. It's based on a number of studies that show people remember what they've learned better if they dream after learning it . Like Zhang's theory about long-term memory storage, this theory suggests that dreams help us retain what we've learned.

The theory is bolstered by recent studies on trauma , which suggest that when people go to sleep right after a traumatic experience that they are more likely to remember and be haunted by the trauma. So one form of triage for traumatized people is to keep them awake and talking for several hours, even if they are exhausted, to prevent this traumatic memory consolidation from happening.

6. An evolutionary outgrowth of the "playing dead" defense mechanism

Based on studies that revealed strong similarities between animals who are playing dead and people who are dreaming, this theory suggests that dreaming could be related to an ancient defense mechanism: tonic immobility, or playing dead . When you dream, your brain behaves much the way it does when you're awake, with a crucial difference: chemicals like dopamine associated with movement and body activation are completely shut down. This is similar to what happens to animals who undergo temporary paralysis to fool their enemies into thinking they've died. So it's possible that dreams began as a defense mechanism which our bodies retained — in a different form — as we evolved into creatures who no longer experienced tonic immobility.

7. Threat simulation

The "playing dead" theory of dreams actually fits in nicely with another evolutionary theory of dreams, developed by philosopher-neuroscientist Antti Revonusuo in Finland . He suggests that "the biological function of dreaming is to simulate threatening events, and to rehearse threat perception and threat avoidance." People who have these kinds of dreams will be better able to face threats in their waking hours, because they've already run through these nighttime simulations. As a result, people who dream in this way will survive more often, to pass on their genes. Unfortunately, this theory doesn't explain my recurring dream of eating brownie sundaes.

8. Problem solving

Building on ideas like Revonusuo, Harvard medical researcher Deirdre Barrett suggests dreams are a kind of theater in which we're able to solve problems more effectively than when we are awake — partly because the dreaming mind makes connections more quickly than the waking mind does. This idea is based in part on experiments she did where people were asked to solve problems while "sleeping on them." The problem-solving outcomes were better for the subjects who dreamed.

9. Oneiric Darwinism

Maybe the idea of solving problems in our sleep is itself a kind of Darwinian process. Psychologist Mark Blechner says the reason we dream is:

[To] create new ideas, through partial random generation, which can then be retained if judged useful… Dreams introduce random variations into psychic life and internal narratives. They produce ‘thought mutations.’ Our minds can then select among these mutations and variations to produce new kinds of thought, imagination, self-awareness, and other psychic functions.

Basically, dreams are natural selection for ideas. This can extend to the level of emotions, too. One group of researchers suggest that dreams are places where we run through situations and try to select the most useful emotional reactions to them. Psychologist Richart Coutts suggests that this is one way we figure out the best way to react to situations emotionally , and why we often feel better about painful issues the morning after a night of dreams.

10. Processing painful emotions with symbolic associations

While a Darwinian model of dreaming suggests we are aggressively mutating our ideas, or weeding out maladaptive emotions, a new model of dreaming suggests that the process is more like therapy than evolution. We aren't aggressively selecting for the most adaptive idea or emotion — we are just running through those ideas and emotions and placing them in a broader psychological context. Often, the brain does this by associating an emotion with a symbol.

Psychiatrist and sleep disorder expert Ernest Hartmann calls this simply the Contemporary Theory of Dreaming . He writes:

When one clear-cut emotion is present, dreams are often very simple. Thus people who experience trauma—such as an escape from a burning building, an attack or a rape—often have a dream something like, "I was on the beach and was swept away by a tidal wave." This case is paradigmatic. It is obvious that the dreamer is not dreaming about the actual traumatic event, but is instead picturing the emotion, "I am terrified. I am overwhelmed." When the emotional state is less clear, or when there are several emotions or concerns at once, the dream becomes more complicated. We have statistics showing that such intense dreams are indeed more frequent and more intense after trauma. In fact, the intensity of the central dream imagery, which can be rated reliably, appears to be a measure of the emotional arousal of the dreamer. Therefore, overall the contemporary theory considers dreaming to be a broad making of connections guided by emotion.

He speculates that this kind of association between emotion and symbol helps to "tie down" the emotions and weave them into our personal history. Possibly, this kind of symbolic association was an evolutionary adaptation that helped our ancestors cope with trauma in a world where they would have dealt with far more life-threatening events on a daily basis than most of us do today.

Ultimately, this hypothesis brings us back to the storytelling component of dreams. We seem to use these bizarre images and ideas to make sense of the day's events, to turn random neural firing into something coherent, and even to figure out how we should feel about what's happened to us. There is no doubt that dreams play a major role in our thought processes. The question remains, however: Are they an evolutionary adaptation, or just an uncanny accident?

All images taken from The Fountain. Sources linked in the text.

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How usual is it to dream every night? Because I dream every single night, and it's awesome, but sometimes a little tiring depending on the dream and there's mostly a story or plot that are ten times better than most movies and games I've watched/played. Sometimes I can take a little control and direction of what happens in the dreams, but only minor and superfluosly.

Also, when I had exams at college I used to read as much as I could and then fall asleep dreaming, immediatel. Worked wonderfully. Additionally, when working at my BsE project, I had a dream where I would be in an infinite space with nothing much there, and I would program and construct the world around me, and my body, with a holographic interface in front of me. That was awesome.

I've also had an entire dream in french, at least I identified it as such. I don't speak french. It was a scene play with an orchestra, outdoors, in the dream, and as stuff happened, I would dream that I slumbered and dreamt of a medieval time in a village, and people in the audience around me would appear and interact in these backflashes with lots of drama and tension. There was only pieces, and back and forth, and nothing continuos.

So for me dreams would be #1 through #5 and then #8, but I'm not ruling out #7.

The Importance of REM Sleep & Dreaming

We typically spend more than 2 hours each night dreaming. Scientists don&rsquot know much about how or why we dream.

Sigmund Freud, who greatly influenced the field of psychology, believed dreaming was a &ldquosafety valve&rdquo for unconscious desires. Only after 1953, when researchers first described REM in sleeping infants, did scientists begin to carefully study sleep and dreaming.

They soon realized that the strange, illogical experiences we call dreams almost always occur during REM sleep. While most mammals and birds show signs of REM sleep, reptiles and other cold-blooded animals do not.

REM sleep begins with signals from an area at the base of the brain called the pons. These signals travel to a brain region called the thalamus, which relays them to the cerebral cortex &mdash the outer layer of the brain that is responsible for learning, thinking, and organizing information.

The pons also sends signals that shut off neurons in the spinal cord, causing temporary paralysis of the limb muscles. If something interferes with this paralysis, people will begin to physically &ldquoact out&rdquo their dreams &mdash a rare, dangerous problem called REM sleep behavior disorder.

A person dreaming about a ball game, for example, may run headlong into furniture or blindly strike someone sleeping nearby while trying to catch a ball in the dream.

REM sleep stimulates the brain regions used in learning. This may be important for normal brain development during infancy, which would explain why infants spend much more time in REM sleep than adults.

Like deep sleep, REM sleep is associated with increased production of proteins. One study found that REM sleep affects learning of certain mental skills. People taught a skill and then deprived of non-REM sleep could recall what they had learned after sleeping, while people deprived of REM sleep could not.

Some scientists believe dreams are the cortex&rsquoss attempt to find meaning in the random signals that it receives during REM sleep. The cortex is the part of the brain that interprets and organizes information from the environment during consciousness. It may be that, given random signals from the pons during REM sleep, the cortex tries to interpret these signals as well, creating a &ldquostory&rdquo out of fragmented brain activity.

Dream Deprivation: How Loss of REM Sleep Impacts Health and Learning

Sanja Jelic, MD, is board-certified in sleep medicine, critical care medicine, pulmonary disease, and internal medicine.

Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep was first described in 1953 by one of the founders of sleep medicine, Nathaniel Kleitman, Ph.D., in his research on the mysteries of sleep. Decades later, we still have much to learn about the nature of this phase of sleep.

There is some concern that REM sleep deprivation may have important impacts on health. This may occur in the setting of insufficient sleep, the use of antidepressant medications, and with coexisting sleep disorders. How might the loss of dreaming sleep affect memory, learning, and mood?