How We Carry Our Dreams With Us Into Our Waking Lives

Psychologist Olivia Kuhn explains how dreams have an important role to play beyond sleep.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | July 11, 2022

A new study published in Dreaming explains how dreams that visit us at night can help us in our waking lives. The study suggests that bad dreams and nightmares can actually play an emotionally integrative function for someone going through extreme distress.

I recently spoke to Psychologist Olivia Kuhn (O. H. Tousignant) of the Haffey Center for Attention and Memory to understand how nightmares can be a way for our brain to look out for us. Here is a summary of our conversation.

While you do mention that the function of dreams is still being researched, do you have a working theory on the purpose of dreaming that you may have developed over the years?

Yes, there is a distinction between biological theory showing that dreaming occurs during the rapid eye movement (REM) phase of sleep and psychological theory of dreaming as the memory of dreams.

Prior research has shown that REM sleep is instrumental for emotional processing from day-to-day, and my current work focuses on testing whether the psychology of dream memory, beyond REM biology, has a purpose for emotional processing.

The dream research I have conducted with colleagues began by testing a fear network model of dreaming and has evolved into a broader emotion processing model.

Currently, my theory is that experiencing a dream's emotional tone, and the way the mind responds to the dream, impacts the dreamer's psychological pattern of orienting to and framing their waking experiences.

What was the methodology of your current study? What would you say was your most important finding?

The methodology is ecological momentary assessment (EMA).

It is a valuable methodology because it mirrors a naturalistic environment and thus its results are often considered more generalizable to a real-world experience, compared to a laboratory-based methodology that might be considered more artificial.

In the current study, the pairing of the methodology with a specific type of person-centered analysis allowed us to detect novel nuances of the relationship between dream emotion and wakeful emotion. There were several notable results, some notable because they are important for the public and others because they are intriguing to delve into when conducting future research.

My current opinion is that the most important finding for people to know is that routine experiences of dreaming have distinct patterns of psychological impact.

There is not a uniform "dreams are good" or "dreams are useless" size that fits all dreams.

When we parsed dreams into different emotional tones and whether the dreamer woke up during the dream, as with a nightmare, we found different patterns of changes in waking emotional experience depending on the dream type and whether they remembered the dream at all.

Could you walk us through the concepts of non-disturbed dreams and disturbed dreams and how they affect our waking emotions?

Certainly. Dreams is the umbrella term that includes non-disturbed dreams and disturbed dreams, both which occur while asleep (i.e., not daydreaming). Dreams are characteristically bizarre because they occur in the dreamer's sleep-dependent imagination.

  • Nondisturbed dreams contain a relatively pleasant or neutral emotional tone. They do not result in the dreamer feeling upset, and the dreamer stays asleep during them. Morning memory of nondisturbed dreams seems to result in decreases in negative emotion that day.

  • Disturbed dreams is its own smaller umbrella term that includes any combination of bad dreams and nightmares:

  • Bad dreams include unpleasant emotional content or images that the dreamer processes while staying asleep. Morning memory of bad dreams does not seem to change negative emotion in either direction.

  • Nightmares have unpleasant emotional content or images that the dreamer wakes up from.

Different forms of nightmares include posttraumatic, recurrent, and idiopathic:

  1. Posttraumatic nightmares are where the nightmare onset begins following a traumatic experience of potential threat to one's life or witnessing of potential threat to someone else's life. Posttraumatic nightmares are often intensely vivid and distressing.
  2. Recurrent nightmares are where the dream content is repetitive during one's lifetime; they may occur without being preceded by a traumatic experience.
  3. Idiopathic nightmares are the type of nightmares we examined in the current study. They often include content related to fear, aggression, and death and usually arise during periods of increased life stress.

My research found that:

  1. Morning memory of idiopathic nightmares resulted in decreases in negative emotion that day.
  2. Comparatively, the morning memory of the combination of bad dreams and idiopathic nightmares in a given night resulted in increases in negative emotion that day.

Why do you think that the different kinds of disturbed dreams affect our emotionality differently?

This is a great question that we are exploring. Emotional tone is a factor that keeps us interested in our daily experience.

For example, if someone feels angry their attention may focus on their reason for anger in order to resolve an injustice.

Another example, if someone feels satisfied their attention may focus on savoring the experience in the moment in order to feel fulfilled.

Tentatively theorizing, different kinds of disturbed dreams might affect our emotionality differently because their purpose is to capture our attention onto different outcomes.

Bad dreams may not need our attention. They may solely be a by-product of REM, which occurs non-consciously and contributes to psychological assets of overnight emotional processing, creative cognitions, and problem-solving.

The combination of bad dreams and nightmares in a given night may function to focus our attention toward the mental negativity of how we orient to and frame the day. The combination may indicate distress. This may function to impel us to resolve or share (e.g., with a psychotherapist) what is contributing to increased stress so that it can be processed and released.

Idiopathic nightmares being followed by decreased negative emotion the next morning may reflect that, by having the nightmare and waking up from it at night, relativity is at play. In the morning, the individual feels better compared to the stress of the prior day that might have elicited the nightmare.

Another interpretation is that waking from an idiopathic nightmare during the night and then feeling less negative the next morning may aid in the process of emotional integration that occurs from moment-to-moment and day-to-day in psychologically healthy individuals.

Because the nightmarish emotional tone occurred during the night, once morning arrives enough integration has occurred and there is relief from emotional negativity. These are speculations; more research is needed.

What advice would you have for someone who is having repeated experiences of disturbed dreams?

Repeated experiences of disturbed dreams can be processed and elicit less distress over time.

Dream experiences reflect themes related to waking stressors, and they should be honored as such. While certain themes of disturbed dreams tend to be similar across people and often across cultures (e.g., being chased or followed, falling, being exposed or unprepared), an individual's unique stressors — particularly waking events characterized by emotional intensity —predominantly inform dream content.

Following the pandemic onset, Covid-related themes emerged in research on dream content including themes such as contagion, accidentally getting someone sick, and issues using technology.

As such, my advice for someone having repeated experiences of disturbed dreams is to pay attention to their life's circumstances in a way that feels safe and supportive.

If someone has been coping with a similar type of waking stress for a while (e.g., relational stress, combat-related stress), dream recurrence is a reminder that the stress needs to be processed at a deeper level.

For some, this might involve working with a psychotherapist who can support one's pacing and sharing about their dreams, to notice patterns over time and process related life stressors.

If someone has enough coping skills to regulate themselves and find psychological grounding, they might choose to journal the dream and/or illustrate the dream in detail. Whether verbally or visually, they could then change the dream's ending.

Next, throughout each evening before bedtime, the individual narrates the new dream aloud, not the old dream, for about 10-20 minutes. This process of recording, changing, and rehearsing is the premise of evidence-based nightmare recovery therapies.

Another intervention that I have witnessed help patients is having comfort objects to engage with (e.g., a calming voice to listen to, a teddy bear to hug, a soothing scent to smell) when they wake up from their nightmare. This can help people integrate emotions from disturbed dreams toward greater sense of emotional security and safety.

Stay curious about your mind, with compassion for its attempts to support your survival. Remember that dreams are uniquely yours. They are not reality but instead are the art on your mind's inborn canvas. Ultimately, it is the dreamer's authority to decide what their dreams mean.

How do you hope your research contributes to intervention efforts?

I hope our research signals to researchers and clinicians the legitimacy and utility of exploring dreams for framing wakeful emotional experiences. There has been a large amount of dream research testing the influence of wakeful emotion on dream symbols. There is ample room for empirical growth in understanding the other direction, how dream emotion influences wakeful perception.

My research is an initial step in quantifying emotional continuity in the dream-wake direction. The main result is that ordinary dream memories seem to function as an emotional integration mechanism, beyond the function of REM sleep, to support change toward wakeful emotional balance.

Therefore, I hope that routine intervention efforts incorporate exploration of dream memories when assessing one's perception of their wellbeing. Of course, like with any intervention, prioritizing when and how to explore dream experience needs to be carefully considered given the degree and nature of pathology.

Dreams are one of the most personal and differentiated experiences that any individual can have, and exploring them can be an emotionally vulnerable process. It is common for people to become fascinated by their dreams or feel dysphoric about their dreams.

Educational interventions that teach that dreams should neither be ignored nor feared are important for collective wellness. As dreams are appreciated as a socioemotional tool, individuals may develop more harmony and less dissonance while aging and processing the stresses and transitions of living in a world that constantly changes.