How Science Helps You Decode Dreams


How to work with dreams the scientific way, with a sprinkle of extra advice for those with depression.

Richard Wiseman knew he’d need to live up to his family name when he grew up or it would be totally awkward for everyone. So he became a scientist – Professor Richard Wiseman – and studied dreams in an excellently serious way. In his new book ‘Night School: Wake Up to the Power of Sleep’, he states that whether it’s seeing your teeth fall out, being unclothed in public or fending off a zombie apocalypse, dreams are related to everyday problems.


Perhaps I could make a joke about being on daily alert for a zombie apocalypse but that would be too easy. The truth is that most days I feel so anxious that I’ll be walking down a street and I’ll need to look down to check I’ve put all my clothing on. I genuinely do worry about that. I’ll be walking down the street and going “Did I remember to put on my pants this morning? What about my feet? Did I remember to put on my feet?”

It’s not healthy, obviously, but worrying about things does give me extra incentive to look at my dreams and see if they can help loosen the knots.

Wiseman’s research indicates that the first dream of the night is often an anxious one, because it’s loaded with the fresh worries of the day, but that over the course of the night the dreams tend to become more positive. This is said to be because negative events can lose their emotional impact when they are repeatedly experienced, and dreaming about these events might lessen the trauma of them in real life. The kingdom of dreams is essentially a safe place, science tells us, however difficult it might sometimes feel, and reliving your fears there can help to set you up for a new day.

Sleep involves several stages.

Stage one, for example, is when your muscles start to relax and you might get a bit twitchy. Like the time I fell asleep watching TV on the sofa and sleep-spasmed so violently I hit my partner in the face. Awkward, you might say, and quite startling for both of us.

In stage two, says Wiseman, your muscles relax, brain activity cools off and you might snore. If you do, it will only be the purrs of an enchanting rainbow-whiskered kitten shrunk to the size of a tiny tiny pea, and this is science because that’s legit how everyone snores or at least I do and I guess Wiseman just forgot to include that bit.

During stages three and four (deep sleep), brain activity is at its lowest ebb and you are almost completely cut off from the outside world. This is my favourite place, probably. I am almost completely cut off from the outside world even when I’m awake. At least dreams provide me with an excuse.

After 30 minutes of deep sleep, however, you head into dreams. That mysterious ocean place where we all go at the same time but somehow never, ever meet. Dreams are the closest stage to waking – your brain is almost as active as when you’re awake but your brain stem stops your body from moving. As sleep cycles take around 90 minutes, you could get an average of five dreams a night. Which is hard. WORK. But at least science tells us those dreams are getting nicer as the night draws on!

So… sleep is basically good for you, as anyone with chronic insomnia will know. Deep, dreamless sleep is when you produce growth hormones and repair body tissue. And the other type of sleep, the time of dreams, which is so close yet so far from our waking state – that’s also meant to be good for you because it’s thought your brain works on problems during this period.

Worky-worky-worky. Tireless while you rest.

Dear little brain, doing what it does best.

In fact, dreaming nightly is almost like paying someone to sort your life out for you and then not even paying them, because hey, that’s just the kind of kingpin you are. And yet they still sort your life out for you. Every night. They do it because they love you, of course. But they also do it in the form of coded messages you have to solve, because otherwise the answer would be so obvious you’d wake up with the sheer shock of its obviousness and you wouldn’t get the full benefit.

Also, possibly, dreams intentionally confuse issues with symbolic weirdnesses and bats in hats as a tiny gesture of rebellion because you’re not paying them. If so, who can blame them?

At least they haven’t formed a union and gone on strike.


Summing up time? Go on, then. Take it away, Professor Wiseman:

‘Bad dreams are a serious attempt by the brain to figure out a solution to a problem in your head’, says Wiseman, and I feel he is right – dreams sound much more fluffy than they really are. ‘Nightmares, on the other hand, are the brain’s way of dealing with a serious issue. This is why nightmares can recurr. But the brain goes into panic mode if the issue is too large and this is why you often wake up in a nightmare as the brain can’t cope’.

Wiseman reveals that those with depression dream five times as often as other people – they have big problems to process, and don’t sleep quite as deeply (which is when the physical body heals itself) so they can end up feeling exhausted when they wake up.

If you’re in this situation, Wiseman suggests you to try to make the dreams more positive if you can. It’s easier said than done, but he recommends playing soothing music, or having nice smells like lavender in the room – these things, these soothing sounds and smells, have been scientifically proven to affect people’s dreams, and might help you to wake up in a more positive mood.

If you do have a nasty problem with recurring nightmares, you could (A) create a monster-free zone under your bed (not scientific) or you could also try a little bit of DIY ‘rehearsal therapy’. Basically, you run through the nightmare when you’re awake, but then you re-imagine it with a more positive ending. This can help to break the power of the nightmare so it lessens in power and eventually melts away.

This sort of approach worked with me, in fact. Although I didn’t spend my wake-time telling my dreams what to do, I did spend a fair bit of time exploring lucid dreaming. I was very keen to deal with those sharks that chased me over land, through the water, over rooftops and through shopping malls, eating my friends and nibbling at my confidence – they were such an incredible pain in the neck, those sharks. I was so sick of them. But still they came. I won’t tell you what happened, because you might think other people’s dreams are boring. But those sharks did get the message and go away.

Whether you do it in your near-sleep or when you’re awake, try having a look at your nightmares. Roll them around in your hands. Sniff them. Scratch behind their ears to see if they’ll purr, or at least stop hunching and relax, poor things. Massage and bend them a little so their endings change… and maybe over time, they will stop looming over you and go away.

Lastly, Wiseman suggests you might want to read a child’s bedtime story before drifting off. These lovely stories often have self-help messages to help children deal with difficult situations. As your dreams are influenced by the last things you see, hear and think about before you go to bed, reading a bedtime story to yourself might put you in just the right frame of mind to turn a frustrating anxiety dream into a new adventure filled with possibilities.

There are plenty of resources out there to help decode your dreams (though it never hurts to ask yourself what you think that person/animal/flower/building/biscuit/queen represents, and to consider how events in the dream make you feel).

Some people find other people’s dreams really dull, but I’ve been lucky enough to live with people who think chatting about last night’s dreams is informative and fun. We read them like newspapers. But dreams are even better than newspapers, because they’re yours. Your news. Your world. Your very own kingdom. Your past and present, and maybe even your future too.

Dreams are your invisible helpers, working on your behalf even while you sleep. Treat dreams however you wish, but they are an essential part of you, and it’s nice to know that scientists agree.

Night School: Wake Up to the Power of Sleep by Professor Richard Wiseman is out now.

Night School: Wake Up to the Power of Sleep by Professor Richard Wiseman is out now.