Why are dreams weird?

We dream to process our waking life experiences, so why are so many of our dreams completely weird, apparently nothing like waking life?

You might think that processing a relationship breakup while you sleep might manifest as a dream about your ex, or some recognisable scenarios from the final days. Instead, you have a dream that seems totally unrelated, a dog with wings jumping off a cliff, or finding a rare delicate flower growing in a secret meadow, or choking on spaghetti while talking to a work colleague.

It would make life easier, from a dream interpretation point of view, to have a sensible dream with a storyline about how to resolve some of the relationship issues, or forgiving your partner or yourself, or seeing the relationship and yourself in a new light, a light that reveals a grave mismatch, time for you to acknowledge why you were attracted to your ex and what might make a better match in a future relationship. If this were the case, dream interpretation wouldn’t be needed: nice, clear, logical dreams that deliver fresh insight, potentially solve a problem or two, and leave you with clear guidance. Wouldn’t that be helpful!

But that’s not the way your dreaming brain and mind work.

You might notice that some of your dreams are more logical, or at least look more like your waking life, while others are totally surreal and vividly emotional. There’s a reason for this. Our vivid dreams occur during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, and our more logical ones happen during non-REM (the rest of our) sleep. And here’s the key: the prefrontal cortex, which is situated at the front of your brain and is responsible for logical thinking, controlling your thoughts, creating order, and planning, is relatively functional during non-REM sleep but very inactive during REM sleep.

So your more logical dreams, the ones that you probably have during non-REM sleep, are edited by your active prefrontal cortex to make them appear more logical, to fit in with how your awake mind might see life, or to tidy it up a bit, create some order from your more chaotic or emotional experiences. But with the editing machine in doze mode during REM, your dreams reveal the full extent of your unregulated – and unconscious – experiences. Your dreams process the flipside, you might say, of your tidy, conscious, waking life experiences. The emotions, thoughts, and behaviour patterns you prefer to keep under control while you are awake, or of which you are unaware.

Your dreaming mind is busy trying to make sense of these without the help of your prefrontal cortex, your sense-making machine.

Your dreaming mind is also releasing your more suppressed emotions, exploring your unconscious behaviour patterns and limiting beliefs (deciding whether to keep them or rewire them), and tinkering with some serious problem-solving possibilities.

While all this processing during your dreams helps to keep you mentally and emotionally sane, and build (and rebuild) your personal picture of the world and your place in it, being able to interpret your dreams gives you an enormous added benefit. Dream interpretation enables you to cut through the weird symbols and weird narratives of your dreams to gain insight into your conscious and unconscious mindset. It shows you how your mindset is influencing the way you experience (and process) your life. It also shows you the building blocks of your mindset – the experiences that led to the construction of your unique mindset. All of this gives you deep personal insight and the opportunity to shift your perspective, take different actions in life, respond to life in healthier ways.

During REM sleep, as well as your prefrontal cortex being relatively inactive, the part of your brain that processes your emotions – the amygdala – is very active, which is why your weirder dreams are often intensely emotional. The visual area of your brain is also very active, as are the other areas of your brain that process and interpret the incoming information from your sense organs, which is why your weirder dreams are more sensually vivid.

You’re probably still thinking about the examples I gave for weird relationship breakup dreams, aren’t you?

That’s because stories – a dog with wings jumping off a cliff – create a more lasting impression than a few sentences about the neurobiology of dreams. Our weird dreams stick with us because they create a more lasting impression than a mundane replay of an actual relationship break up. Add emotional content and that’s a plus for weird dreams! They give us memorable material to explore through dream interpretation.

I made up the examples, but my thinking behind them was that the dog might picture an instinct to take a leap of faith, to discover wings, or might represent a loyal part of yourself that tends to jump into relationships and ‘wing it’. These are contradicting interpretations: when you interpret a real dream you explore all the other details of the dream to discover what the dog accurately represents about your mindset.

Finding the rare and delicate flower growing in a secret meadow, in my fictitious example, might open your eyes to your own rare and delicate nature that you keep hidden, and help you to reconsider what kind of relationship would be more nourishing for you.

A final word about weird dreams.

If you look at a dream as an allegory for what’s going on in your life – a dream about choking on spaghetti at work reflecting your feelings of choking on a culture you’re being ‘fed’ at work, perhaps – they lose some of their weirdness. They begin to make sense.

Oh, and a final, final word about weird dreams. They often picture the things we say or think, and since we often see life in terms of metaphors, your weird dream about a cat with a human tongue between its teeth might reflect a situation you describe as ‘the cat’s got my tongue’. Or your weird dream about an elephant taking up space in your bedroom might reflect the ‘elephant in the room’, why it’s there, and how you’re dealing with it, or not.

The best way to make sense of your weird dreams is to learn about the art and science of interpreting them. You can begin with my online course, How to Interpret Your Dreams Step-by-Step.

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Jane Teresa Anderson

Graduating with an Honours degree in Zoology specialising in developmental neurobiology from the University of Glasgow, dream analyst and dream therapist Jane Teresa Anderson has been researching dreams since 1992, and developing and teaching dream alchemy practices that shift perspective and reprogram unconscious limiting beliefs. Jane Teresa is a multi-published author (her latest book is her debut fiction, NINTH LIFE), and is a frequent guest in the media. She is also host of the long-running podcast, 'The Dream Show with Jane Teresa Anderson', and offers her online study and certificate courses through The Dream Academy.