03/16/2009 02:57 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

What's in a Dream?

Apparently, a lot. An intriguing article posted online summarizes studies exploring how much people value--and heed--their dreams. In short, most of us put a lot of significance on our dreams and believe they speak the truth to us.

What do you think? Ask yourself:

Let's say you're about to embark on a plane trip and the night before you take off, you have a vivid dream that has you in a terrible plane crash. You wake up the next morning to learn that security has been "heightened" at airports. Which bothers you more: the heightened terror alert or the dream (ahem, nightmare) of you crashing to earth from thousands of feet in the sky?

If you're like most people who answered a similar question, the dream bothered you mightily and now you don't want to walk onto that plane. The anxiety you feel is chiefly from the dream, as if it were a warning.

Dreams are indeed wondrous events (minus the occasional nightmare), and we don't have a full understanding of them yet. Most of us remember our dreams on a regular basis, especially during times of acute stress or psychological mayhem. There's been a surge in the study of dreams lately, fueled by an increased interest in understanding them as meaningful representations of our deepest concerns and emotions.

So when do dreams happen, and why do they seem to be tied to our feelings?

I get these questions a lot, and I start by explaining that the most memorable and emotionally powerful dreams happen during the REM (rapid-eye movement) phase of sleep, which is the stage of sleep when our brains are most similar to a wakeful state.

It is during REM that the hippocampus and amygdala, two organs in our heads responsible for memory and emotions respectively, and areas in the frontal and prefrontal lobes near the forehead responsible for attention and coordination, work together in dream production.

If, for example, you have a fear of flying and it's literally on your mind, you're more likely to produce an associated image of that fear, which then emerges during REM as those emotionally-charged areas of the brain become activated.

Exceptionally vivid and memorable dreams occur just before we wake up, but it's possible that we've been dreaming similar themes all night long during the four or five phases of REM that we go through. So even though we recall just what we dreamed about in the last cycle, it could be reflective of the night's cumulative dream content. Like a single television show with one theme interrupted by unrelated commercials, which are the other phases of sleep where we don't dream.

I've heard all kinds of stories from people who claim they work out their emotions in their sleep, or how they've come to rely on dreams as an important "survival strategy." Indeed, I think dreams do serve a role in our survival--otherwise, what would be the point?

This doesn't mean that I believe dreams are to help us avoid plane crashes or catastrophic events. But, I think there's something to be said for taking dreams seriously once in a while when they do touch us in a deeply mysterious way. They are, after all, part of what make us human.

What I'd like to know is whether other animals dream, too. Or is this just a human experience? Ever asked a rat or reptile what he dreamed about last night? Science has yet to find a way to capture the dreams of animals. Maybe that's best left to Mother Nature.

Same goes for future events, however good or bad.

Sweet Dreams,

Michael Breus, PhD

The Sleep Doctor

This article on sleep and dreaming is also available at Dr. Breus's official blog, The Insomnia Blog.