Have you ever had a dream where you wondered if maybe there was something more to it than the simple firing of the subconscious? Perhaps you were being chased in your dream and woke up exhausted. Or maybe you had a nonsensical dream that broke from your normal dream patterns.
Fitbit advisor Michael Grandner, MD, director of the Sleep and Health Research Program at the University of Arizona, agrees that’s a possibility. “Dreams are what happen when we watch the brain rewire itself,” he says. “They are a window to the internal workings of our brain as it processes the day’s information, plans for the future, thinks about what’s important, tries to solve problems, and goes about its business making connections among concepts and memories and emotions.”
So how can you decode your dreams? There are a couple things to consider.
Dream Recall Can Point to Disturbed Sleep
You usually won’t remember your dreams, even though you likely have several of them a night each time you’re in REM, says Grandner. It’s actually normal to forget even vivid dreams quickly.
“We cannot really form memories while dreaming,” says Grandner. “If we do remember a dream, whether it’s because we woke from it in the middle and our conscious mind was able to catch a glimpse or if it, or because it was a lucid dream where we maintained some consciousness, that memory can fade very fast.”
If you’re consistently remembering dreams in vivid detail, you might not be getting restful sleep. Try adjusting your eating, drinking, or nighttime stress-relieving habits.
“If you have something that disturbs your sleep at the end of the night,” says Grandner—like certain foods and drinks—”you might be more likely to wake up from, and thus remember, a dream.” Alcohol can even suppress REM sleep. “If you consume something that suppresses REM sleep, you can reduce dreaming or even increase REM pressure and have more intense dreams,” says Grandner.
Your Mind Has Its Own Language
Your dream might not make any logical sense—monsters, actions you’d never take, seeing people long gone. That’s because your brain sometimes uses dreams to create faux experiences. “In order to process memory, reinforce learning, and build connections, [your brain] may need to ‘experience’ these connections,” says Grandner. “The reason why dreams don’t make logical sense is that they are not an actual experience that follows the rules of reality. Rather, in order for the brain to build these connections, it needs to exist in a reality that doesn’t follow the normal rules.”
For example, in real life, a person cannot be a house. But perhaps you have a dream where you are indeed a house. Perhaps being a house allows you to watch a specific situation objectively and silently, or it allows your brain to create order out of chaos by taking you out of the action. It could be just about anything, which is why dreams can be so hard to interpret. “When our conscious mind tries to understand it, we often apply structure and rules that dreams don’t actually follow,” he says.
Although there’s no universal language of dreams, Grandner says you can glean certain insights from “your mind’s own language.” If you’re stuck on a dream you’ve just experienced, think broadly instead of specifically. “Maybe you have a dream that you are having a heart attack,” says Grandner. “Perhaps it means that you’re worried about your health, or maybe it means that you feel something bad may happen at work.”
Worrying about health or aging might also manifest in a dream where you’re stuck in a room you can’t get out of, says Grandner. “The content of the dream itself may or may not have anything to do with the actual worry or concern you’re experiencing,” he says. “Remember, the dream doesn’t have to explain itself because your unconscious mind already understands.”
Along the same lines, don’t bother cracking open a dream book. “Those books are not based on sound science,” says Grandner. “They are mostly made up and out of date. A person’s dream language is their own. There may be layers that are not immediately obvious, and it’s possible that people from similar backgrounds may have a similar dream language, but it’s really an individual thing. For example, a dream about palm trees by someone who lived their whole life in New York City (where there are no palm trees and they are unusual) will likely mean something different than if it were dreamt by someone who spent their whole life in LA (where they are everywhere).”
The Bottom Line
No matter the dream world’s content, the simple act of self-reflection about your worries and fears might cause you to identify stressors in your life—and make smart changes to improve your health, whether it’s visiting a doctor, changing jobs, or something else. In this way, thoughtfully evaluating your life through your dreams can be helpful.
This article is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.