Sophia Mattera blogs about the science of dreams

Dreams: the science and other things you didn’t know about the phenomenon

Coronavirus. Lockdown. These are words that have been circling the news and other media outlets for what feels like forever. You may be thinking that while this lockdown takes place that you’re safe from the effects of the virus in the comfort of your own home, but you couldn’t be more wrong. If you’ve been experiencing frequent and vivid dreams during this pandemic, would it surprise you to know that you’re not alone? What is the science behind dreams? What causes them? Why do I dream about the things I do? These are questions that have been studied by humans for as far back as 5,000 years and can be traced back to the Ancient Egyptians though pictures painted of ‘out of body experiences’, and have been studied by scientists since the discovery of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep in 1953 by Aserinsky and Kleitman. As to the theories behind why we dream, there are many.

Probably the most interesting and infamous theory is that of Sigmund Freud. Freud theorised dreams as a road to the unconscious, and that our dreams are merely wishes that we desire to fulfil in our waking life but are simply repressed in our conscious minds. This is because these desires may seem unacceptable to us and to society to carry out, such as aggressive impulses. These are supressed by the conscious and manifest themselves in strange ways in our dreams from our unconscious. Freud published much of his theory in his book The Interpretation of Dreams at the start of the last century. However, in recent years, much of Freud’s theory has been debunked by modern scientists, since there is little to no solid evidence to support it. But, if you’re not one for science then take what you like from this theory. I think it’s pretty cool.


For the more scientifically inclined, there are many theories that have been devised by psychiatrists and neurologists alike. While there is no concrete evidence to suggest why we dream or to the purpose of dreams, we can only speculate. Some theorise that dreams are an extension of our waking lives, and is a way for the brain to process the emotions, memories and stimuli that we encounter while we are awake. Another theory suggests that dreams are a method used by the brain in response to biochemical changes that occur in the brain as we sleep. A theory that runs along similar lines to the Freudian theory is that dreams are a way of helping our brain sift through unpleasant emotions and experiences in order to achieve a psychological balance.

Continuing on from Freud, let’s delve a bit deeper into the darker side of these unconscious hallucinations. Nightmares. They probably kept you awake many a time in your younger years, but how much do you really know about them? Similarly, to their lighter hearted counterpart, nightmares are much like dreams in the way that they have a range of causes and triggers, some more serious than others. For example, if you like a good late-night snack, this can increase your metabolism as you’re trying to sleep, triggering brain activity to increase. On a more serious note, mental health can immensely affect nightmares. Anxiety and depression can greatly attribute to nightmares alongside PTSD, where an individual may relive traumatic events in their nightmares as they sleep. Additionally, drugs associated to mental health such as antidepressants have also been linked to nightmares, as they act on the chemicals in the brain. However, no matter the cause of these unpleasant nightmares, Dr Deirdre Barrett who is a psychologist at Harvard University argues that nightmares are a trait passed through evolution. They may be a way for the brain to focus on issues that the person needs to address in their waking life. Either way, beneficial or not, they’re called night terrors for a reason.

This is all well and good, but you may be wondering how all this may be affecting you now, and the question of what part this pandemic has to play on your dreams remains. It’s simple. The lockdown that has been imposed for weeks has forced most, if not all people, to adopt new routines, and with new routines comes new sleeping patterns. A large 62% of people in the UK have gotten more sleep during the lockdown than they did prior, according to a survey conducted by King’s College London. Dreams occur in the REM stage of sleep, which typically occurs in the early hours of the morning. With many people sleeping longer hours, they are experiencing increased amounts of REM sleep. The result? More frequent and vivid dreams unlike anything you may have experienced before. As mentioned earlier, anxiety is also a contributing factor to dreams and in particular nightmares, so if this pandemic is causing you any anxiety (which you have every right to feel, by the way) this may also be why you are experiencing such vivid dreams.

So, after all the theories and speculation, dreams still remain one of the most interesting and least understood aspects of psychology today. With a better understanding of our dreams and what they might mean, we have a better insight into our psychological and emotional needs, and perhaps use them to explore the deeper and darker side to our psyche.