We spend a third of our lives sleeping, so it’s only natural that we’re curious about what our bodies go through while we’re sleeping. Dreaming is of the most mystifying sleep-related processes, and there are many questions scientists have yet to find the answer to. If you’ve ever asked yourself questions like “Why do we dream?” or “At what stage of sleep do we dream?”, this article will help illuminate the mysteries behind sleep and answer some of those questions.
We’re going to go over the five stages of sleep and explore at which stage dreaming occurs. In addition, we’ll also go over some common dilemmas such as what happens when we dream and why we dream. Since nightmares are a common reason why our sleep cycles are disrupted, we’ve also included some tips on how to deal with nightmares, as well as an FAQ section.
With that said, let’s start by going over the five different stages of sleep.
What Are the Five Stages of Sleep?
Before we explore at what stage of sleep dreams occur, let’s quickly lay out all sleep stages and find out exactly what happens during each one of them.
First things first, it’s important to establish how the stages of sleep are divided. They fall under two categories: the first four stages belong in the non-REM sleep category, whereas the last stage is the stage where we experience REM sleep.
The first stage of sleep occurs right after we fall asleep. It’s considered to be the lightest stage of sleep when we’re most prone to being woken up. During this stage, our muscles stop moving (although some muscle twitches might appear) and the EEG brain frequency slows down. Additionally, our breathing and heartbeat also slow down, but not to a substantial degree.
This stage usually lasts around 10 minutes before we move on to the next stage of sleep.
This is considered to be the longest sleep stage by sleep experts. We spend approximately half of the total time we’re awake in this stage. Unlike the first stage, during this stage we experience deeper sleep and we’re less likely to be woken up. This sleep stage is characterised by either complete cessation or the slowing down of eye movements. The breathing continues to slow down, whereas our body temperature goes down to prepare our brain for the subsequent, deeper stages of sleep.
In terms of brain activity, the waves start to become quicker. This stage is important for memory since our brain starts to process all the information and events that occurred during the previous day.
Just like the previous stage of sleep, this stage includes slower breathing, while the brain waves also slow down in preparation for REM sleep. At this stage, we officially enter deep sleep and it’s quite difficult to wake us up.
This stage of sleep is by far the deepest. The brain waves and breathing are even slower, and the body temperature is lower. If someone wakes us up during this stage of sleep, we’re most likely to wake up groggy and tired (this is one of the reasons why you might feel tired in the morning despite getting enough hours of sleep). It’s also interesting to note that muscle building occurs during this stage of sleep.
Last but not least, we reach the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of our sleep. Your body doesn’t experience any movement since your muscles are completely relaxed, but your brain is incredibly active. Unlike the previous stages, our blood pressure and heart rate start to increase, and we start to breathe more rapidly. Just like the name of this stage suggests, this is when our eyes start to move very rapidly. If you’ve ever seen someone sleep during the REM stage, you’ve likely noticed that their eyes move extremely fast.
Just like stage two of sleep, our brain filters out the memories of the previous day and retains the important information.
This stage is crucial for repairing any tears in the body, warding off illnesses, and overall having a healthy body and immune system. Unfortunately, those who have sleep disorders are less likely to reach these deep levels of sleep since they’re more prone to waking up during this stage, which is one of the reasons behind their tiredness.
In terms of the length of each REM cycle, different REM cycles have different duration. It’s estimated that the first REM cycle of the night lasts around 5 minutes, whereas the subsequent REM cycles tend to be longer in duration.
What Are Dreams?
Prior to explaining at which stage of sleep we dream, let’s define what dreams are.
Dreams are a collection of narratives, images, and emotions created by our mind during our sleep. Not all dreams are the same – some evoke positive feelings, whereas others can leave us scared and disturbed. What they have in common is their revelatory nature – many psychoanalysts believe that dreams reveal our hidden, subconscious desires and fears.
There are several different types of dreams such as lucid dreams, regular dreams, nightmares, and daydreams.
Normal dreams are self-explanatory – they’re typical dreams that occur frequently and are prone to being forgotten.
Lucid dreams are dreams in which we have control of the events in the dream and can dictate the direction of the dream.
Unfortunately, all of us are familiar with nightmares – these contain disturbing sequences of events and leave us feeling frightened.
There are also false awakening dreams which, as the name suggests, leave us to believe that we’re awake when, in reality, we’re still dreaming.
At What Stage of Sleep Do We Dream?
Now that we went over the different stages of sleep and explained what they entail, you’re probably wondering during which stage sleeping occurs.
We dream mostly during the REM stage of sleep, when our brain activity reaches its peak while sleeping and when memories start to form. The heightened brain activity leads to extremely vivid dreams. The memories and feelings we experience during the day can have a significant impact on the content of our dreams.
As we established earlier, during this stage our body is completely immobile and our muscles are paralyzed, all the while our breathing starts to speed up.
Can Dreams Occur During any Other Sleep Stage?
While the majority of dreams occur during the REM stage of sleep, you could also dream during the other four stages. The difference between dreaming during the REM stage of sleep and non-REM stages is that, when we dream during REM sleep, our dreams are much more vivid and more intense.
There’s also a difference in terms of which dreams you remember more. If you woke up during the REM stage, you’re more likely to remember your dreams than if you woke up while dreaming during the other stages.
The dreams that occur during non-REM sleep usually happen after midnight, provided that our sleep schedule allows it.
How Many Dreams Do We Have Per Night?
Another interesting question you might have asked yourself is how many dreams do we have per night on average?
Just like sleep duration, the answer to this question varies from individual to individual. It’s hard to estimate how many dreams we have per night because we don’t remember a large portion of them. If we do remember them, we often can’t differentiate when one dream ends and another begins, which makes it harder for us to count the total number of dreams each night.
What we do know, however, is that we dream four to six times a night.
Why Do We Dream?
The science of dreams is quite hazy; we still have a lot of areas to explore. With that said, there are some aspects that scientists are fairly certain about, such as the reason why dreams occur in the first place.
One of the most valid reasons as to why we sleep is to store memories. In fact, many scientists believe that dreaming is a by-product of this process of storing information. Additionally, scientists believe that we use dreams to process different kinds of information and select which information is worth keeping. Apart from information, some believe that dreams also help us process emotions, especially those that have an intense nature. There’s also something to be said about the theory that we experience dreams as a result of external stimuli such as listening to the neighbours talk or hearing cars on the road.
What Happens When We Dream?
While we dream, most parts of the brain are activated, which explains the complexity of our dreams. Some parts of the brain are hyperactivated, such as the part of our brain that deals with and processes emotions such as fear, whereas other parts experience temporary suppression, like the rational part of our brain. This explains why most of our dreams don’t make a lot of sense and are logically inconsistent. The visual cortex, the part of our brain that processes visual information, also plays a big role in what kind of dreams we dream. We’re extremely affected by the visuals we see in our day to day lives, so it comes as no surprise that some of those visuals make their way to our dreams.
How Long Do Dreams Last?
We know that dreams occur in the REM stage of our sleep, but how long do dreams actually last? Do they last throughout this stage of sleep or is there more to their duration? Let’s find out.
When it comes to the duration of dreams, it’s hard to give a precise estimate because it varies from sleeper to sleeper. What’s more, we don’t dream only once during the night – as we established, dreams occur mostly during the REM stage, but they also appear in the other stages of sleep.
The general consensus seems to be that our dreams can last up to two hours in total per night.
It’s also worth mentioning that different types of dreams have different duration; for instance, lucid dreams can last anywhere from ten minutes to an hour, while nightmares usually last around ten to twenty minutes.
How to Prevent Nightmares
Apart from sleep disorders, nightmares are a common reason behind the disturbance of our sleep cycle. Here are some tips to help you prevent nightmares and enjoy deep sleep.
Avoid alcohol before bed. Drinking copious amounts of alcohol is proven to be bad for our sleep quality. Since it makes your sleep lighter, you’ll be more prone to waking up and recalling your nightmares.
Manage your stress. Include some relaxing activities in your bedtime routine such as yoga or reading to help you with stress management.
Avoid watching scary movies before bed. Horror movies are notorious for triggering our imagination, so it’s best to avoid them right before bed. The same applies to reading scary stories.
Eating before going to bed can also lead to nightmares since food amps up our brain’s activity. Try to schedule your last meal at least two hours before bed. If you’re really hungry before going to bed, try a light snack.
If all else fails and you find yourself experiencing nightmares on a regular basis, we highly recommend going to visit a specialist.
Is Dreaming the Last Stage of Sleep?
Most of our dreams occur during the last stage of sleep – the REM stage.
Does Dreaming Mean Deep Sleep?
Dreaming isn’t always indicative of deep sleep. While most of our dreams do occur during the deep and restorative stage of sleep, we also dream during the other stages when our sleep is lighter.
Is REM Deep Sleep?
Yes, the REM stage of sleep is considered the deepest stage of sleep.
At What Stage of Life Is the Amount of REM Sleep the Highest?
Adults experience the highest REM sleep, whereas the duration of REM sleep for elders is usually shorter.
A Word of Farewell
We hope we successfully answered the question of “At what stage of sleep do we dream?”, and shone a light on the different sleeping stages and the reason why we dream in the first place.
Dreams can be defined as a collection of images and emotions that our mind creates while we’re sleeping. There are several different types of dreams such as lucid dreams, nightmares, and false awakening dreams. Most of our dreams occur during the REM stage of our sleep. We also dream during the other four stages, however, those dreams are nowhere as vivid as dreams during the REM stage. We can’t know precisely how many dreams we dream per night because we forget some of them, but it’s estimated that we dream four to six times a night. Additionally, dreams can last up to two hours.
There are many theories as to why we dream, such as in order to process our memories and emotions, or as a response to external stimuli. Our brain shuts down some areas while we’re dreaming, while it heightens the activity of others, such as our visual cortex.
Can you recall the last dream you had?