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Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This
We all dream, but what does dream research tell us about their meanings? (CCSS Level: Grade 7, Words: 581)
Dec 7, 2016 Science & Technology

Humans, as well as most animals, have complex dreams and are able to keep and revisit long strings of events while they are asleep, MIT research shows. Studies also show that animals' brains follow the same series of sleeping states as people do.

It may be tricky to find out exactly what a cat or dog is seeing when asleep, but when we humans dream, what do the topics of our dreams actually mean? Dr. Kelly Bulkely, a dream researcher and visiting scholar at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, has built a dream database to try to find out more. He built a list of common dream topics and then collected data on what percentage of people had dreamed about each topic. It seems that we have very much in common when we are sleeping.

A short summary of Dr. Bulkley's database is shown here...

Have you ever had a dream of…

  • Being attacked or pursued 83%
  • School, teachers, studying 78%
  • Falling 71%
  • Trying again and again 64%
  • Being frozen with fright 60%
  • Arriving late 59%
  • Someone alive is dead 54%
  • Being on the verge of falling 51%
  • Eating delicious food 50%
  • Flying through the air 48%
  • Dead people as though alive 47%
  • Swimming 45%
  • Failing on examination 45%
  • Being locked up 42%

Dr. Bulkeley provided the Guardian newspaper with a short analysis of some common dreams, and we outline a few here:

Being attacked or pursued
This theme is the basis for childhood nightmares that happen again and again and people remember them throughout their lives. The theme has many possibilities. The attacker may stand for an inner fear or desire that's being pushed aside when the dreamer is awake; it could be that someone or something in the outside world is seen as a threat to the dreamer; or it could be just us reliving the fears of our ancestors, whose survival depended on being able to avoid hungry animals wanting to eat us.

Schools, teachers, studying
People who have gone through some kind of formal education or schooling often dream about it years later. The people in the survey were mostly college students, so school was a strong life concern, especially for women. School-related dreams are not only a modern event either – there's evidence the ancient Chinese had dreams and nightmares about the civil service examinations that decided one's future professional success.

Dreams of falling are much more common than dreams of flying; we are more likely to fall under gravity than fly in real life too. Such dreams may happen when there's a shift in the brain from one stage of sleep to another. Dreams of falling may reflect experiences of sudden change, disorder, loss or hurt. These dreams can, in extreme cases, turn into scenes of general disaster in which the world itself is falling to pieces.

Trying again and again to do something
Sometimes the mind in sleep gets caught in a loop of half-dreaming, half-waking usually when the dreamer is trying to deal with a stressful event from waking life. The person may have strong feelings of frustration, powerlessness and fear. It also reflects a deep human worry that we can become trapped in an endless cycle of wasted energy. People today sometimes feel that way in their jobs, their schooling or their relationships, and these kinds of dreams represent their fears of a shadow hanging over their waking life.

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real, in fact



the people from whom one is descended



very old



in addition to



keep away from something



consisting of many connected parts



delightful or very tasty



something that causes great damage or loss of life



strength needed to get stuff done



facts that show something is true



a detailed or careful check



come into contact with



the greatest amount possible, on the edge / highest, very great, dangerous



dropping, going down



annoyed because you cannot change something



time still to come    



a force that pulls towards the Earth



one of the positions a player takes in a basketball game



a frightening dream or something that is really difficult



scary unpleasant dreams 



marks or score out of 100



things that may happen



to deliver or put forward something / now, at this point in time




a person who does something for a living



think carefully about something



feel sympathy or identify with    



looking for knowledge



person who searches for knowledge



having an uneven or irregular surface; not smooth or level



a specialist in a particular branch of study, especially the humanities



a number of things coming one after another



better or greater than usual



a raised floor in a theatre for plays or a speaker



getting fame or respect, reaching a goal



a view or check on something



continuing to live or exist, in spite of accident, ordeal, or difficult circumstances



related to the study of religion



shut in, captured



a difficult problem needing care or skill    



the wave behind a boat caused by the boat moving through the water



use then throw away