Quick! True or false: Blue light can mess with your body’s ability to fall asleep. Most people need seven to eight hours of sleep to feel well-rested and energized. Sleep without dreams is the most restful sleep.

Scratching your head at the last one? No one would blame you. There’s no shortage of science-backed tips for better sleep, and about one in five people now use an app or wearable to track and improve their zzz’s. But what do our dreams have to say about our sleep quality? Do good dreams—or dreamlessness—actually equal good sleep?

The answers aren’t totally clear cut, but scientists say it’s worth taking a closer look.

Should We Really Care About Our Dreams? 

“True ‘good sleep’ means we have both non-REM deep sleep and REM sleep,” says Rubin Naiman, PhD, a sleep and dream specialist and clinical professor of medicine at the University of Arizona.

The thing is, sleep-tracking tech can’t accurately measure REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, the stage most associated with dreaming. So if we’re simply relying on data from our devices, we’re getting an incomplete picture of our sleep quality.

But years of research data suggests that “as a culture, we are at least as dream-deprived as we are sleep-deprived,” Naiman says.

And it turns out, that’s a problem: In a comprehensive review of data published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Naiman concluded that dream loss is at the root of many of the health concerns attributed to sleep loss, from compromised memory to the correlation with anxiety and depression. In that sense, “we need sleep, and we need to dream,” argues Naiman. “We need both.”

So, What Does A “Healthy” Night Of Dreaming Look Like?

Most people are healthiest with eight hours of sleep, in which we cycle through periods of non-REM sleep and REM sleep, says Deirdre Barrett, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, former president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, and author who most recently wrote Pandemic Dreams.

We go into REM sleep about every 90 minutes, following periods of light and deep sleep, and each REM period lasts longer than the previous one. In the beginning of the night, very few dreams occur (and we all dream, by the way—even people who think they don’t).

Most of our REM sleep—and in turn, most of our dreaming—happens in the latter part of the night. “So, if you only sleep for four hours, you’re just getting a very small fraction of REM time,” says Barrett.

What Can Our Dream Experiences Say About Our Sleep Quality?

The truth is, the best sign of a good night’s sleep is “feeling rested in the morning, before any caffeine or other external stimulation,” says Barrett. In other words, having sweet, pleasant dreams or not remembering your dreams at all can’t tell you point blank if you’ve had a restorative, restful night—ultimately, it’s personal.

Some people do feel a subjective association with dreams, Barrett adds. “People who are interested in dreams and enjoy their dreams might describe a night of sleep as good if they’ve had intriguing or happy dreams, or can recall their dreams.

Other people seem dream-negative and see dreams as more of a bad thing—they might say, ‘I didn’t sleep well last night, I had lots of dreams.’”

Still, there are fascinating insights that our dreams can tell us about our snooze time. Here are a few examples:

If your dreams are clear and vivid:

What it means: You might be waking up. “Usually we feel that a dream is more intense when our brain begins to show more activation as it gets closer to waking,” explains Barrett. “So it may be that your body is waking up and that’s why the dream takes on a certain clarity, vividness, and strong emotion—and is remembered clearly.”

The same goes for a dream that feels so intense that it wakes you up: It’s usually just your brain naturally waking “rather than the dream itself waking you up as the cause,” she adds.

If you remember your dreams:

What it means: You woke up during a dream. “You do have to wake up out of a dream to remember it,” says Barrett, whether it’s naturally or from something disrupting your sleep, like an alarm or someone nudging you awake. “Things like noisy environments that wake you up will result in more dream recall, but obviously they’ll also result in disrupted sleep,” says Barrett.

Even if you feel like you’ve gotten uninterrupted sleep, you might be surprised: “In sleep labs, we see that people who recall many dreams have ‘micro-awakenings’ that greatly aid dream recall,” says Barrett. “Their brain waves will show a waking state right after a REM period, but they don’t get up or even open their eyes or move.”

Recently, the pandemic has had dramatic effects on sleep, dreams, and recall. “It’s not clear why, but people have a little more dream recall during crises. It could be because anxiety is waking us up—I saw that when I collected dreams after 9/11 and other disasters,” Barrett says.

“But the pandemic is really unique because most people were sheltering at home at first, furloughed from jobs, and studying from home. People reported that they were sleeping more and recalling more dreams. And that’s thanks to those longer REM periods at the end of sleep.”

Inversely, “not recalling dreams is not a problem,” says Barrett, “unless it’s coming from being chronically sleep deprived, which is a problem in itself.”

If you start dreaming right away:

What it means: Having dreams quickly after falling asleep could mean a few things. People with narcolepsy frequently enter REM sleep within 15 minutes of falling asleep, but this is a pretty uncommon—though serious—sleep condition.

More likely, you might be experiencing hypnagogic hallucinations, which is a scary-sounding name for the imagery we sometimes see right as we drift off to sleep. These visuals—which can appear as still images or very brief bursts of a scene—don’t have the developed narrative of REM dreams and only last for a minute or two, according to Barrett.

And if you find yourself taking a nap in the morning, Barrett says it’s even natural for your body to continue its sleep cycle. “If you wake up in the morning during a stage when you were about to go into a period of REM, and then nap soon after, you’re guaranteed to go back into REM as if it were a continuation of your night of sleep,” she says.

In other words, your morning cat nap seems to be keeping track of where you were in your nighttime sleep cycle, though it becomes less likely as the day goes on.

If you never dream:

What it means: You may be sleep-deprived. In general, your brain prioritizes getting non-REM deep sleep over dreaming. “So, if you’re only giving yourself four to five hours of sleep, the brain will want to do more sleeping and do less dreaming,” says Naiman.

If you’re having nightmares:

What it means: You could be dealing with intense psychological stress. Technically, traumatic nightmares or trauma dreams are actually a different breed altogether and can even take place across all stages of sleep, not just REM.

“We tend to look at repeated post-traumatic nightmares as a symptom of a disease called PTSD—it’s actually not,” says Naiman. “There’s evidence that the dream is trying to heal, process, and digest really difficult experiences. Newer research shows that if you get people to sleep and dream in the immediate wake of a traumatic experience, it dramatically reduces the prospect of PTSD.” This makes sense when you think about how many people were talking about their crazy dreams during the pandemic.

How Can We Dream Better?

In order to dream well, you need to sleep well, the experts say. Give yourself at least seven to eight hours of rest every night, and practice good sleep hygiene: “Keep your melatonin levels normal, dim the lights an hour or two before bed, and screen out blue light,” says Naiman.

If you want to remember your dreams, wake up slowly, ideally without an alarm clock. The key is to “linger in grogginess with an attitude of receptivity.

We’re discouraged from feeling groggy—the word comes from the English word ‘grog,’ a rum drink—but those first few groggy seconds are a beautiful mix of sleeping, waking, and dreaming,” he says.

Ultimately, a lot of it comes down to what dreams mean to you. A study published in the International Journal of Dream Research showed that having a positive attitude toward dreams was associated not just with more positive waking, but with more life satisfaction, too. As Naiman suggests, “make dreaming important. Talk about it, write about it, share your dreams as much as you share what’s going on in your waking life.” After all, as he puts it, “dreaming is the dessert of a good night’s sleep.”

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Last Updated: Jul 19, 2020