Why aren’t all our dreams happy?

Nothing is better than a goodnight’s rest. Feeling refreshed and ready to go because of a solid 10 hours of sleep is the best feeling in the world. Most nights, I sleep fine, with dreams or unicorns and rainbows floating through my mind. Occasionally, however, my sleep is rudely interrupted by a bad dream, or nightmare. I am awoken and don’t get the sleep that science has proven I need to survive. So why, if nightmares interrupt my sleep pattern, why do we have them every so often?

First, I want to look into why we dream in general. The jury is still mostly out for why we dream, but one of the leading philosophies on dreams is Freud’s understanding of the psychodynamic and subconscious, as described in his book The Interpretation of Dreams from 1900. In this book he describes that dreams come from our desire to express our deepest and most hidden secrets in a way that is acceptable to society. A more scientific approach to dreams is summarized by J Allan Hobson, who believes dreams come from the random firing of neurons and neurochemicals in our brain.

The descriptions I found to describe why we dream offer no insight to why we have nightmares despite the harm that it does to our body by limiting the amount of sleep that we get. After looking into studies on brain activity during nightmares and failing to find any significant data, I began to instead look at what causes nightmares on a less biological level. This is when I found Michael Rodio’s Axis of Fear. Described in his brief article, Rodio describes how the Axis of Fear, or the region of the brain occupied by the amygdala and anterior cingulate cortex, comes to the forefront when we dream, amplifying our negative thoughts during dreams, causing us to remember what we dreamed. Dr. Ross Levin elaborates on the idea of negative emotions coming to the forefront saying that bad memories “get thrown into a room together and get jumbled around”, resulting in a bad dream. His analysis is that most of our dreams are bad dreams, but many aren’t traumatic enough to wake us or even startle our nervous system in the least. In a study conducted by Dr. Genevieve Robert and Dr. Antonio Zadra, it was found that the content of nightmares widely varies based on the person, giving no real explanation as to why the dreams occur. This is interesting because it included self-reporting reasons for what type of dream the participant had, our interpretation of dreams mattered. Like dreams, there is no real way to study the subconscious as it relates to nightmares and a result, no real information exists as to why we have them.

Although my initial question could not be answered based on available studies, I still wanted to delve deeper into the idea of dreams and nightmares. In doing so, I realized one very strange fact. For some reason, I always remember my nightmares in vivid detail, but I can never recall my good dreams. Even the most basic ideas, I cannot remember in my dreams no matter how hard I try. Meanwhile, I am still able to remember some of the worst bad dreams I had as a little kid, and could recall them to someone easily, even 10 years later. If I were extend my research, I would want to look into why we can remember nightmares but not dreams and what this says about the human subconscious (I think this plays a big part in Robert and Zadra’s study because the participants might have not remembered a good dream and could only recall and a report a nightmare).


2 thoughts on “Why aren’t all our dreams happy?

  1. Matthew James Manley

    I was curious about dreams too one day and stumbled upon this website. I wouldn’t say I trust it, but its interesting how some people view dreams as more serious than other people.

  2. Caroline Schablin Mcfadden

    I was contemplating doing a post on why we dream and if our dreams are linked to reality in some way, this drew me into your post. It is really true that nightmares stick out in our minds much more clearly than good dreams do. I have a tendency to remember my dreams, but only in parts and only if I am awoken at a specific point or on my own due to something traumatic. All my nightmares from basically my whole life I remember in much detail, I even have had some of the dreams multiple times. I would love to know if more studies were available as to why we dream and why we remember what we dream about. My initial instinct is that in real life we remember the traumatic experiences much better than we remember minor regular events. I couldn’t tell you what I ate for breakfast a week ago, but I could easily describe the room where I got blood drawn (I am terrified of needles) the link between fear and memory is strong so I would assume that link would allow for nightmares to be remembered more vividly. As for why we have them, I would love to know so that maybe they could be stopped!

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