Consumer Psychology

An Introduction to Dreams

The Psychology of Dreams

The nature of dreams sits on a divided line of fantasy, futurism, reality, and spirituality. While there are many prominent theories on dreams, theories they remain. To date the origins of dreams are still a great mystery. 

Dreams come to us every night in a mix of magical realism and surrealism. Then we mysteriously forget some of the familiar details upon awakening. Sometimes we don’t remember them at all. But the dreams that you do recall often leave an impression on your mind. 

The fantastic nature of dreams have mused humanity for several thousand years. The first reported recording of a dream in cuneiform  dates back to 2700 BC in Babylon, where Sumerian priest king Gudea dreamed of men and women carrying objects overhead or in hand; leading to the dream interpretation that the gods have called on him to build a temple (Langdon, 1917).  

However, the psychology of dreams would not flourish until the end of the 19th century, when Sigmund Freud discovered that the dream—what was once a phenomena relatively inaccessible to scientific study—could be explored with the tools of psychology. 

Dream Science

Dream psychology began when Freud paved his royal road to the unconscious. The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) dawned an innovative psychological technique for interpreting dreams. Freud followed the ideas of the great Greek philosopher Aristotle, who held that dreams were not supernatural, but the psychic life of a sleeping person. 

  • Dream — the recollection of mental activity experienced consciously during sleep (Schredl and Wittmann, 2005). 

When you say that “you” had a dream, who exactly experienced that dream? Some scientists argue that dreaming and waking states of consciousness are not mutually exclusive, but related to waking fantasy style and nocturnal dream activity (Levin and Young 2002).

The “I” that you identify with in dreams is called the Dream Ego. Research has demonstrated that the Dream Ego is present in 90% of dreams (Shredl and Wittman, 2005).


Did You Know?

In the 1950s dream researchers reported that the majority of people did NOT dream in color. Their results led them to believe that most people dreamed in black and white, despite the veritable historical records of people frequently dreaming in color. Philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel points to the prominence of black and white media as an explanation. More interestingly, by the 1960s one report found that 83% of people dreamed in color.


Dreams most commonly feature visual and auditory senses, while the other three senses (smell, touch, and taste) enter our night psyche infrequently. Researchers Strauch and Meier published a book on dream research, and reported that the subjects in their laboratory experiments experienced the following kinds of dreams: 

  • 20% of dreams were bizarre and surreal, containing elements that could not be explained by everyday convention, 
  • 30% of dreams were realistic, representing everyday living, and 
  • 50% of dreams were fictional, possible in reality but not likely to occur to the dreamer (1996). 

Your dreams may commonly feature content from your everyday life, however research shows an exponential decrease between the appearance of recent events in your life and the passage of time (Shredl and Wittmann, 2005). In short, you are less likely to incorporate recent events into your dreams the more that time passes. 

Types of Dreams

When you are asleep, your brain turns on the spin cycle and toggles between REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement) cycles of sleep. For a period of time, scientists thought that you could only dream during the REM cycle. Then in 1962, dream researcher W.D. Foulkes found that dreams could be recalled from any stage of sleep. 

Dream scientists have classified dreams into categories that represent the stages of sleep that a person is in as well as the content of the dream. There are eight types of dreams. There’s REM and NREM, as well as sleep onset dreams which occur during the first phase of the NREM stage. Dreams that occur in REM cycles are reportedly longer, more visual, often bizarre, and contain emotional elements that appeal to a story arc (Martin et. al., 2020).  It is no wonder that these impressionable types of dreams are more frequently recalled than NREM. 

Nightmares occur during REM sleep when you awake from a dream that holds a particularly strong negative sensation or feeling, while night terrors—the flailing, screaming, more dramatic twin of the nightmare—occur during NREM slow wave sleep (Shredl and Wittmann, 2005). Post traumatic reenactments can occur during either stage of the sleep cycle. 

The final type of dreams, lucid dreams, were coined in 1913 by psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden. Lucid dreams occur when you are aware that you are dreaming. Not exactly a dream within a dream, but the conscious awareness that you are actually dreaming. In some cases, people can exert control over their dreams. The chances of having a lucid dream are not great, as only 50% of the population has reported having a lucid dream, while only 20% have them on a monthly basis, and a meager 1% have them weekly (Dresler et. al., 2017). 


Not all dreams are scary. In fact, many great ideas and creations were unearthed by the psychic of the night. Larry Page is said to have cooked up  the idea for Google in a dream. James Watson dreamed of a spiral staircase and went on to discover the double helix structure of DNA. Even harrowed fiction writer Stephen King was inspired to write “Dreamcatcher” based on a dream he had. 

Dreams carry the symbols of the past, the emotional weight of the present, and the limitless paths of the future. As the psychology of dreams progresses, answers to the big questions—Why do we dream?; What is their function?—become less opaque, but the mystery still trucks on. One thing is for sure, there’s yet one place to discover the answer; only in dreams.


Dresler, M., Erlacher, D., Czsich, M., Spoormaker, V. (2017). Lucid dreaming. Principles and practice of sleep medicine. 6(1). 539-545.

Foulkes, W. D. (1962). Dream reports from different stages of sleep. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 65(1), 14–25.

Kahn, E., Dement, W., Fisher, C., & Barmack, J. E. (1962). Incidence of color in immediately recalled dreams. Science. 1054–1055.

Langdon, S. (1917). A Babylonian Dream Tablet on the Interpretation of Dreams. The Museum Journal. 8(2). p. 116-122.

Levin, R., & Young, H. (2002). The Relation of Waking Fantasy to Dreaming. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 21, 201-219.

Martin JM, Andriano DW, Mota NB, Mota-Rolim SA, Araújo JF, Solms M, et al. (2020) Structural differences between REM and non-REM dream reports assessed by graph analysis. PLoS ONE 15(7): e0228903.

Schredl, M., & Wittmann, L. (2005). Dreaming: A psychological view. Schweizer Archiv für Neurologie und Psychiatrie, 156(8), 484–492. 

Schwitzgebel, E. (2002). Why did we think we dreamed in black and white? Studies in History and Philosophy of Science. 33(4). P. 649-660. 

Strauch, I., & Meier, B. (1996). In search of dreams: Results of experimental dream research. State University of New York Press.

Van Eeden, F. (1913), A Study of Dreams.  Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research.  xxvi, 431-461.

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