Sleep and Dreaming 5 Major Characteristics of Dreams By Kendra Cherry Kendra Cherry Facebook Twitter Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology. Learn about our editorial process Updated on March 29, 2020 Medically reviewed Verywell Mind articles are reviewed by board-certified physicians and mental healthcare professionals. Medical Reviewers confirm the content is thorough and accurate, reflecting the latest evidence-based research. Content is reviewed before publication and upon substantial updates. Learn more. by David Susman, PhD Medically reviewed by David Susman, PhD David Susman, PhD is a licensed clinical psychologist with experience providing treatment to individuals with mental illness and substance use concerns. Learn about our Medical Review Board Print Dreams have fascinated artists, philosophers, and researchers for thousands of years. However, it was not until fairly recently in history that dreams became the subject of serious scientific study. While dreams can vary considerably, sleep researcher J. Allan Hobson identified five basic characteristics of dreams in his 1988 book, The Dreaming Brain. He and Robert McCarley also suggested in their activation-synthesis model that dreaming results from the brain's attempt to make sense of neural activity that takes place during sleep. Dreams Often Feature Intense Emotions Michael Blann / Getty Images One of the major characteristics of dreams is that the emotions experienced in dreams can be intense, painful, and acute. People commonly report dreaming about deeply embarrassing situations like being nude or using the bathroom in public, or profoundly terrifying events such as being chased by an attacker. In some instances, these emotions can become so intense that they interrupt the dream or cause the dreamer to wake abruptly. The three most common emotions that become intensified by dreams are anxiety, fear, and surprise. Dreams Are Frequently Disorganized and Illogical Anthony Harvie / Getty Images Dreams are full of discontinuities, ambiguities, and inconsistency, but sometimes these things can lead to downright bizarre dream content. According to Hobson, one of the hallmarks of dreams is that they often make no sense and don't observe any natural laws involving time, place, or people. Some examples of illogical dream content include flying, time travel, talking animals, loved ones who have passed away being alive again, combinations of people from different parts of your life, sudden transformations of both people and objects, and sudden shifts in the setting of your dream. Strange Dream Content Is Accepted Without Question Quiet Noise Creative / Getty Images The odd events and content that occur in dreams are typically accepted without question by the dreaming mind. According to Hobson, the unquestioning acceptance of dream content is due to the strength of our internally generated emotions and perceptions. Within the dream, these strange and illogical events, perceptions, and objects are not seen as being out of place. If the dream is remembered upon waking, the content of the dream is seen as odd or even difficult to explain. People Often Experience Bizarre Sensations Per Breiehagen / Getty Images Strange sensory experiences are another cardinal characteristic of dreams. The sensation of falling, an inability to move quickly, and being unable to control body movements are just a few of the commonly reported sensory experiences that occur during dreams. Dreams Are Difficult to Remember Cornelia Schauermann / /Getty Images While memory seems to be intensified within the context of the dream, access to the information contained within the dream diminishes rapidly once the dreamer wakes. Dream researchers estimate that approximately 95 percent of all dreams are forgotten entirely upon awakening. Why Can't I Remember My Dreams? Understanding the Characteristics of Dreams While many people may be familiar with these five common characteristics of dreams, some may be unaware of just how common these dream experiences are. "Dream characteristics and dream objects may be of an everyday nature or altogether fantastic and impossible collages of existing reality; they may behave normally or indulge in the most absurd, improbable or impossible actions in settings either familiar or bearing only the faintest resemblances to those of real life," Hobson explains. Sources Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy. Hobson, JA. The Dreaming Brain. BasicBooks, 1988. 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