The mind can be a pretty weird place… and anyone who’s experienced vivid dreams can attest to just how bizarre our imaginations can be. But have you ever wondered why we have such odd dreams when we sleep, and what causes them to float into our heads?
Vivid or not, dreaming is an incredibly strange quirk of the human condition. Think about it: while you’re asleep, your mind plays out entire scenarios, characters, and possibilities that you experience in the first person. Why does this even occur in the first place? Well, to be honest, modern science — with all of its advancements — still isn’t quite sure.
The generally accepted hypotheses all primarily revolve around ideas of memory storage, organization, and synthesis. Just as your muscles need time to recover and rebuild after heavy usage, scientists suggest that your mind may require the same thing. But because our minds are so complex, visual, and social, this rebuilding process takes the form of one or more dreams during the night.
These dreams occur during what’s called “REM” sleep — or, “rapid eye movement” sleep, which is a part of your nighttime unconscious cycle that takes up about a quarter of the total time you’re asleep. Although we’re technically asleep (and can still possibly dream) in other parts of the sleep cycle, it’s during REM that especially vivid dreams start to play out.
The next question is pretty straightforward: why are some dreams more intense than others? Why do we sometimes not dream at all, sometimes have one dream a week we remember, and sometimes wake up remembering 3, 4, or 5+ dreams from the night before?
Well, just like the concept of dreams in general, modern science still isn’t exactly sure why this is. However, we do have a few theories that may explain why you had that particularly intense dream about, say… a clown chasing you through a cornfield.
Sleep experts believe that real-life stressors like anxiety, major life events, substance use, or new medications can disrupt the usual patterns of our mind to the point that the scenarios we experience during REM sleep are particularly vivid. That means that if you’re recently experiencing an unenjoyable bout of intense dreams, you may want to look at what lifestyle factors exist that could be contributing to them. Additionally, scientists believe that poor sleep habits actually tend to result in more vivid dreams — so insomnia and narcolepsy sufferers may have the most surreal dreams of all.