Everything We Know About Dreams

And everything we don’t know

Image of child sleeping
Tom Kelley / Getty

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In November of 1887, an anonymous Atlantic contributor wanted to understand an unsettling experience: How was it possible for the characters in their dreams to say or do something completely surprising—for example, to state a fact that the sleeping person is convinced they had no prior knowledge of? “It’s a phenomenon,” the writer confessed, “of which I can find no adequate explanation.”

In the decades since that befuddled note was published, research has stacked up on what our minds do when we go to sleep. But there’s a lot we still don’t know. Is it possible to dream about nothing? How do you know when an animal is dreaming? And why, why, do so many of us adults still dream about showing up to school naked and unprepared for the final exam?

Some of these questions have been answered in full, others in part, and some not at all. Dreams, in the end, may simply defy waking logic. “I used to think … mystery was a vacuum to be filled by knowledge,” wrote the journalist Roc Morin, after 10 months of collecting dreams from hundreds of strangers. “I see things differently now. I believe that mystery is an active and substantial force in its own right.” Here is some further reading on dreams, and the mind-bending questions they raise.

On Dreams

Illustration of a thought bubble with a desk in it
Getty; The Atlantic

Why Adults Still Dream About School

By Kelly Conaboy

Rushing to an exam after having overslept, showing up to school nude—school remains a common theme in dreams long after graduation. Here’s why.

A sleeping child
Tom Kelley / Getty

A New Test for an Old Theory About Dreams

By Ed Yong

When a sleeping animal’s eyes twitch beneath its eyelids, is it looking around a dream world?

"To be an artist is to live inside a lucid dream." - New York, USA
Roc Morin

What People Around the World Dream About

By Roc Morin

“The first thing I learned is: Everybody flies.” An atlas of hundreds of strangers’ dreams, from Tijuana to Reykjavík.

Still Curious?

Other Diversions


I’ll leave you with two excellent facts from Healy’s article:

  1. People who grew up watching black-and-white TV are more likely to dream in black and white.
  2. The “dreamiest member of the animal kingdom” is the platypus, which logs up to eight hours of REM sleep a day.

— Isabel