As previously said, dreams contain unconnected memory fragments: places we've gone, faces we've seen, and somewhat recognizable scenarios. Early-night REM dreams frequently mirror recent waking events, although they are more fragmented than non-REM counterparts. Also worth mentioning is that dreams reflect our current mental state. If you're feeling sad or anxious, it's not surprising that you will also find these emotions in your dreams.
Dreams are simply parts of our sleeping brain's attempt to make sense of our daily lives. The more active you have been during the day, the more memories and thoughts will need to be stored for future reference. This is why people who experience many stressful events during the course of a year or two tend to report having more nightmares later on. It is also why people who suffer from anxiety or depression often report having disturbing dreams as a side effect of their condition.
In addition to reflecting our current mental state, dreams also include wishes that were not fulfilled in life, perhaps because they were meant for another person. For example, if you love someone and they break your heart, you might have a dream where you see them with someone else. This does not mean that you will eventually end up alone; it's just another way your mind is trying to process this new information.
Finally, dreams can also be messages from your subconscious mind.
Even while they may contain elements of daily life, dreams during REM sleep are often more vivid, fanciful, and/or weird. Non-REM dreams, on the other hand, tend to have more cohesive content, such as ideas or memories rooted in a certain time and location. During NREM sleep, your body is still and ready for rest, but your mind is busy planning tomorrow's activities or worrying about problems at work. When you wake up in the morning, it is likely that some of the things you dreamed will have changed or even been resolved.
Some researchers believe that our brains resolve conflicts or issues that arise during sleep. For example, if you were to fight with someone before falling asleep, then your brain might use that conflict as a source of inspiration for future dreams. This could explain why nightmares sometimes feel so real: Your brain is trying to process or understand what is happening in your life at the moment.
Other scientists believe that dreams are simply mental projections that allow us to explore new situations or characters. During NREM sleep, the part of your brain that controls imagination - the limbic system - is activated, so it makes sense that we would occasionally experience thoughts without any connection to reality. During REM sleep, when the limbic system is also active, we would therefore expect dreams to be more imaginative and creative.
Yet others think that dreams reflect our emotions and feelings from the previous day or even years ago.
According to studies into the secret realm of sleep and dreaming, these kinds of memories are occasionally recreated in sleep, although it is extremely unusual (around 2 percent of dreams contain such memories, according to one study). When this happens, you may think that you're watching a movie in your head while you sleep. The memory might make you feel emotional when you wake up.
Our brains produce many different hormones during sleep. One of them is called serotonin. When our bodies don't get enough of this hormone during sleep, we often feel depressed the next day. But too much of it can cause problems with mood and anxiety. The scientists think that perhaps when you experience a memory in your dream, your brain produces some of this hormone as if it were awake. This could explain why you can sometimes remember your dreams later when you're feeling happy or sad.
It's also been suggested that our souls travel through other dimensions during sleep, and that they use our dreams to communicate important information about ourselves and our world. Perhaps they use the same mechanism we do: by making us feel something when we wake up.
Finally, some people have reported memories in their dreams that weren't experienced consciously. If you had a traumatic experience as a child, for example, you might unconsciously react to things that remind you of it when you sleep.