The Two Types of Dreams and Why They Matter
Early last night, I dreamed I was at the dance studio I own, checking clients in as they walked in for class. Everything felt like a normal day at work: a typical setting along with the same stress I have each class that we will have a good attendance, and that everyone will have fun. I’ve worried a little more the last couple of weeks about this as attendance has slowed. Later that night, I had a much more vivid dream that my town had flooded. Everything proceeded as normal, except I had to swim between floating businesses and houses, which was stressful because I am not a good swimmer.
These dreams are a good example of the two broad categories of dreams, NREM and REM dreams. Dreams that occur during NREM sleep are typically more mundane, realistic, and thought-like. They occur more often in the first half of an 8-hour night of sleep. The second category of dreams are those that occur during REM sleep. REM dreams are concentrated more in the second half of a night’s sleep, and these dreams can feel more bizarre and hallucinatory. These two types of dreams are thought to serve different functions. NREM sleep functions in part as a mnemonic device, integrating and consolidating experiences into memory. This explains what was going on in my work dream: my mind was simply walking through the recent events of my day, processing its thoughts and filing away memories. REM dreams on the other hand often remove the realistic contexts of time and space, “decoupling” the emotions from the events [McNamara]. My REM dream later in the night was probably sparked by stress. The flood represents the stress of owning a business that threatens to flood my mind. My lack of swimming skills mirrors the inexperience I bring as this is the first business I’ve opened. The feeling of normalcy in my surroundings during the flood reflects the fact that I hide whatever I’m worried about from clients—no matter what the finances may look like month to month, their experience in class remain unaffected.
Some people tell me they always seem to have boring dreams or that they don’t have dreams as symbolic as the ones I write about on ID. It is true in a way—dreams may not be always full of deep meaning or unlock emotional breakthroughs. After all, dreams are a product of our minds, and our minds generate an infinite variety of thoughts. Sometimes our minds come to an epiphany, where life seems clear; other times our minds spend half an hour thinking about what to eat for dinner or staring at the ceiling. I find it is the same with our dreaming minds. This is why the dreams I explore on ID are almost purely REM dreams—I like to use dream analysis to zero in on our emotions. And while these dreams are not your therapist or fortune teller, they can still be valuable in that they help explore the questions: where do your thoughts wander when they are untethered from the guidance of consciousness? When externally imposed constraints and expectations of how to think and act break down, what emotions and desires remain?
 Payne JD, Nadel L. Sleep, dreams, and memory consolidation: The role of the stress hormone cortisol. Learning & Memory. 2004;11(6):671-678. doi:10.1101/lm.77104.