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Sleeping to Dream

AriannahM's picture

Sleeping is something everyone does each day without consciously thinking about why it is so important. We know we are tired before we sleep and if we don’t sleep, but have we ever stopped to think about what our dreams do? Dreams are part of every night’s sleep whether we remember them or not. They are an integral part of our daily rest cycle.

There are five main stages of sleep. Stage I only lasts a few minutes and is characterized by the individual being somewhat awake and aware, but very relaxed. Stages II and III are deeper levels of sleep but the individual will still wake easily. Stages II and III only last for about 40 minutes before Stage IV sleep begins. Stage IV sleep is difficult to wake someone from and is characterized by decreased blood pressure, heart rate, movement and breathing. This type of sleep helps the body recover physically from the day. Stage IV sleep becomes longer if one engages in a lot of strenuous activity and is usually the type of sleep recalled in the morning. After Stage IV sleep is achieved for about 50 minutes, the individual starts to move back down through the levels of sleep back to Stage I. REM (rapid eye movement) sleep begins at this time and is distinguished by “frequent bursts of rapid eye movements…autonomic activity, muscular twitching, dreams and profound muscular relaxation” (2). Both genders experience irregular heart rate and irregular blood pressure as well as increased gastric secretions during REM sleep, while males also experience erections. The cycles of sleep do not last for the same amount of time all night; “Everyone goes through an average of four or five cycles of sleep each night, each lasting from 90 to 100 minutes. Stage IV decreases and REM sleep increases progressively with each cycle, so that most Stage IV sleep occurs early in the night and most REM sleep during the last few hours before arising” (2).

REM sleep is believed to restore people mentally and is therefore very important for memory and learning. “During REM sleep that day’s events are reviewed and important information is categorized and integrated into the brain’s storage system. Sometimes problems are solved during REM sleep, or more perspective is gained about troublesome issues” (2). Without REM sleep one can become irritable and lethargic. Although Stage IV sleep rests one physically, REM sleep is responsible for mental health and is the stage of sleep where dreams take place.

What is it about REM sleep that helps restore humans psychologically? A lot of research has been done on dreams and dream themes to try to figure out commonalities between dreams. “Although the variability of dream content is large, typical dream themes that occur quite often and are reported by many people can be identified (e.g. being chased, falling, flying, failing an examination, being unable to find a toilet or restroom)” (1). These are the most common dream themes but themes also differ across gender. “Some major findings…have been: women’s dreams contain more explicitly mentioned emotions, more dream characters, especially familiar dream characters and show a higher incidence of indoor settings, household objects and references to clothing. Men’s dreams on the other hand, are characterized by more physical aggression, sexuality, achievement themes and the occurrence of weapons. Another gender difference is the proportion of male and female dream characters. Whereas male characters dominate men’s dreams (67%), the ratio is balanced in women’s dreams (48%)” (3). This shows that men’s and women’s dreams are indeed different but are still able to achieve the same state of rest.

There are so many differences between genders in other areas, that this difference makes sense. Dreams can be thought of as a sub-conscious review and representation of daytime events therefore it makes sense that if men and women experience their days differently, they will also dream about them differently. Through the categorization of common dream themes, researchers have been able to hypothesize possible meanings. “These author’s hypothesized that one cluster of typical dreams (object endangered, falling, being chased or pursued) is related to interpersonal conflicts; another cluster (flying, sexual experiences, finding money, eating delicious food) is associated with libidinal motivations; and a third group (being nude, failing an examination, arriving too late, losing teeth, being inappropriately dressed) is associated with superego concerns” (1). This division of popular dreams helps into possible “meaning categories” helps to narrow the gap between genders and make a more general statement about human’s dreaming lives.

Dreams are so important to the human psyche. Not only do they restore the human mind, but also they help us to analyze the day’s events. The content of dreams seems to be mostly experience related, while the overall need for dreams is universal regardless of daily experience. It is amazing that with such a vast diversity of human experiences, there are common dream themes and categories. Even though we are each so different from each other awake, we all share very common dream lives. “The question about the meaning of these themes or the relationship between typical dream content and waking-life experiences remains open to future research” (1). Until there is a type of new technology that would allow researchers to “see” someone else’s dreams, they must make educated guesses and get the best research they can by self-report. It would be fascinating to see the actual differences in dreams from one person to another. Perhaps someday this fantasy will become a reality and the world of dreams will no longer be one of mystery.


Works Cited


  1. Ciric, Petra, Simon Gotz, Michael Schredl, and Lutz Wittmann. "Typical Dreams: Stability and Gender Differences." The Journal of Psychology 138 (2004): 485-493. PsychInfo. Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr. 8 Apr. 2007.


  1. Hayter, Jean. "The Rhythm of Sleep." American Journal of Nursing (1980): 457-461. Proquest. Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr. 6 Apr. 2007.


  1. Piel, Edgar, and Michael Schredl. "Gender Differences in Dreaming: are They Stable Over Time?" Personality and Individual Differences 39 (2005): 309-316. PsychInfo. Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr. 9 Apr. 2007.