The 11 Different Types of Dreams

an illustration of different types of dreams

There are several types of dreams, each offering a unique glimpse into our subconscious mind and cultural backdrop. From standard dreams that weave intricate narratives to distressing nightmares and self-aware lucid dreams, our nocturnal adventures are as varied as they are profound. Other experiences like daydreaming, epic dreams, and false awakenings blur the lines between wakefulness and slumber, while night terrors and vivid dreams evoke powerful emotional responses.

Moreover, dreams serve multifaceted roles in diverse cultures, acting as spiritual guides, societal reflections, and even potential harbingers of the future. Dive into this comprehensive exploration of the dream world, its significance, and the mysteries it holds for our psyche.

What is a Standard Dream?

A standard dream, which occurs after you have fallen asleep, is typically composed of a series of images that coalesce into a narrative. This narrative, however, doesn’t necessarily adhere to the characteristics of other classified dream types, making it distinct in its own right​.

What is a Nightmare?

A Nightmare, frequently termed as a bad dream, is a distressing dream resulting in intense emotional reactions from the mind, such as fear, as well as despair, anxiety, revulsion, or intense sorrow. The dream might involve scenarios of unease, mental or physical dread, or sheer panic. Upon waking from a nightmare, an individual usually finds themselves agitated​​.

Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D., who holds the position of assistant clinical psychology professor at Cambridge Health Alliance and also serves as the editor of the book “Trauma and Dreams,” released by Harvard University Press, has conducted research offering deeper understanding about why nightmares occur and what causes them. Dreams, nightmares included, are components of the brain’s default network – a network consisting of linked regions that stays operational during relatively calm phases like REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep​​.

There are various triggers for nightmares such as stress, anxiety, inconsistent sleep patterns, medications, and mental health issues, with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) being an extensively researched cause​​. Nightmares following trauma frequently contain elements reminiscent of the traumatic event. In these nightmares, the brain area responsible for fear responses, which includes the amygdala, might be hyperactive or extremely reactive​​.

What is a Lucid Dream?

A lucid dream is a type of dream where you are aware that you are dreaming, while dreaming.

During this kind of dream, you not only become aware of the fact that you’re dreaming but also often get back memories of your daily life, and gain the power to deliberately control what you do in the dream, which often seems incredibly real.

Initially, some scientists and thinkers were doubtful about lucid dreaming, but it’s been confirmed to be something that can be checked objectively through intentional eye movements that can be tracked using a particular kind of eye test during REM sleep, which is when you dream.

How often you have lucid dreams can vary a lot between different people. Some never have them, while others might have them multiple times in a week, or even every night. This difference makes you wonder if how often you have lucid dreams has anything to do with how different people’s brains are built or work.

Research indicates that having lucid dreams often is linked with stronger connections between the front part of your brain (called the anterior prefrontal cortex) and areas on the sides and back of your brain, which usually don’t do much when you sleep.

This implies that to start having a lucid dream, you need to be aware of the kind of dream state you’re in, hinting that how your brain is structured or how it’s connected could be tied to how often you have lucid dreams.

What is a Recurring Dream?

A recurring dream is a type of dream that keeps coming back over a long time, often with similar storylines, situations, or characters. While the details of recurring dreams can differ a lot from one person to another, usual themes are things like falling, flying, running away from something, or teeth coming loose, and more. Your life experiences and feelings can shape these dreams, and they can be quite lifelike, even if sometimes you find it hard to recall them.

People who are dealing with more mental stress are likely to have more bad recurring dreams.

What is a Daydream?

Daydreaming is when your thoughts break away from the task at hand and wander off into your own inner world. This tendency to drift into your own thoughts is quite ordinary, with a big study showing that folks spend nearly half their time awake, about 47%, lost in daydreams. Jerome L. Singer was a pioneer in delving into daydreaming and laid a solid foundation for most of what is now studied about it. There’s a variety to the daydreams you can have, and they’re not all equal. Some might sidetrack you, but others can actually be quite helpful. When it comes to what daydreams do, Mooneyham and Schooler highlighted five possible roles they play: thinking about the future, sparking creativity, cycling through different thoughts, breaking out of routine, and saving you from getting bored.

What is an Epic Dream?

An Epic Dream is a type of dream that leaves a profound impression on the dreamer long after waking up. These dreams are known for their vivid, complex, and often symbolic nature, creating a deeply immersive experience that can stir a wide range of emotions. It can sometimes take a few moments to shake off the feeling of having actually been in the dream​​.

What is a False Awakening?

A False Awakening is an unusual kind of dream where you think you’ve awakened, but actually, you haven’t. These moments usually happen during the stage of sleep known as Rapid Eye Movement (REM), which is intimately connected with dreaming. It’s important to mention that false awakenings are not deemed harmful, though they may sometimes result in feelings of fear, discomfort, or worry. There isn’t a lot of research on this topic, but many individuals can confirm having gone through it. During a false awakening, typical dream activities consist of:

  • Getting up and preparing for the day ahead
  • Rising in the middle of the night to use the bathroom or visit the kitchen, and then getting back to bed
  • Roaming or examining the surroundings within the dream
  • Contemplating a dream you just experienced, under the impression that you are now awake

As opposed to ordinary dreams that can be filled with fantasy, false awakenings generally have a realistic feel. You might be convinced that you’ve awakened in your own room, or that you are somewhere you know well. It’s usually only later on that you come to understand that you were, in fact, still snoozing.

What is a Night Terror?

A night terror, also known as a sleep terror, is a sleep disorder that typically involves feelings of intense panic or dread. This phenomenon usually occurs during the first hours of stage 3-4 non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep and can last from 1 to 10 minutes, though it can be longer, particularly in children​​. The frequency and severity can vary among individuals, with intervals between episodes ranging from minutes to weeks​​. It’s worth noting that night terrors can sometimes be mistaken for confusional arousal​​.

A key characteristic of night terrors is the person’s state of inconsolability, very similar to that of a panic attack. During these episodes, individuals might be described as “bolting upright” with a look of fear and panic, often screaming or attempting to speak. They may also exhibit physical symptoms such as sweating, rapid breathing, and rapid heart rate. Complex motor activity, like thrashing of limbs, and behaviors suggestive of escape attempts are not uncommon. Most people do not remember these incidents the next day​​.

Night terrors are most commonly seen in children, and their prevalence generally decreases with age. However, they can be influenced by factors such as sleep deprivation, medications, stress, fever, and intrinsic sleep disorders​​.

What is a Progressive Dream?

A Progressive Dream is a unique type of dream where a sequence of dreams continues over a period of nights, essentially continuing where you left off the previous night​​. These types of dreams are often regarded as problem-solving dreams, helping you to explore different options and various approaches to a problem, situation, or relationship. The process of dreaming progressively allows for the gradual building and exploration of scenarios over time, which can potentially offer solutions or insights that you may not have achieved in a single night’s dream. One perspective on progressive dreams suggests that they might tap into a particular memory system that is exclusively accessible to the dreaming brain. Dreams might be able to reach certain memory systems that are generally not accessible when you are awake, which contributes to the distinctive cognitive experiences you have in dreams. Studies of successive dreams from a single individual provide evidence for memory systems that are specific to dreaming. Themes, ideas, episodes, characters, images, and emotions repeatedly appear across these dream series, implying that dreams can accumulate content over time that is not solely tied to your day-to-day waking life​.

What is a Prophetic Dream?

A prophetic dream, also known as a precognitive dream, is a type of dream that is believed to foretell future events. Across cultures and throughout history, these visually intense, future-oriented dreams have attracted both positive and negative attention from religious authorities due to their perceived power of anticipation and the human mind’s capacity to generate such spontaneous visionary experiences during sleep​​.

From a psychological perspective, understanding whether a dream is prophetic can be quite complex. Renowned author and Jungian analyst Dr. Murray Stein explains that one can’t know if a dream is precognitive until after the event. Anecdotal instances of such dreams include Carl Jung’s visions of a devastating flood in Europe before World War I and President Abraham Lincoln’s dream that seemed to predict his own assassination. However, the occurrence of prophetic dreams during periods of collective crisis and their potential relationship to historical turning points remains an area of ongoing investigation​.

What is a Vivid Dream?

A vivid dream is a dream that feels so real that it can be clearly recalled upon waking. These dreams can be positive or negative, and their content can be influenced by your real-life experiences or be completely fabricated​​.

According to experts, the reason some dreams are so vivid is that they are emotionally charged. Dreams, especially the most vivid ones, often carry important messages for us, serving as subconscious reactions to our current circumstances, behaviors, goals, struggles, and relationships. In a way, a vivid dream could be compared to sending a strongly worded letter of concern to oneself, highlighting issues that need attention​​.

What Are Some Common Dream Themes?

Four common dream themes identified in studies include being chased or pursued, falling, school or studying, and sexual experiences. These themes were found to be prevalent in both men and women, transcending cultural boundaries​​. Moreover, these themes often express a predominant emotion, such as embarrassment or failure, offering a unique window into our subconscious emotional state​.

Roles of Dreams in Different Cultures

Dreams serve diverse cultural roles, often reflecting and responding to societal influences and personal identities. In Tibetan Buddhism, practices like dream yoga foster self-awareness and transcendental consciousness, paralleling the Western concept of lucid dreaming. The Asabano people of Papua New Guinea use dreams as spiritual guides, impacting their waking behaviors and beliefs. In contemporary Germany, dreams can echo societal anxieties, such as resurgent nationalism. Dreams can also illuminate cultural models, like gender norms in American society, influencing identity formation. The Africentric perspective asserts dreams can originate beyond the self, potentially carrying messages for others, contrasting with the Western individualistic view. Overall, dreams are dynamic, culturally embedded phenomena, shaping and reflecting personal and collective experiences​​.