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How Long Do Dreams Last?

image of our writer Filip Maric

Written by Filip

Sleep Advisor

Featured image for How long do dreams last FI

8 January 2024 10 min read

Well, it's hard to answer how long do dreams last. The subjective feeling would be – they last indefinitely, especially when a sleep paralysis demon joins you. On the other hand, dreams of being billionaires never last long enough. But let's put aside our desires. Let's check what science says.

There are many mysteries surrounding dreams. When and how do dreams happen? How long do dreams last? How come sometimes we remember every piece of our dreams, and often we don't remember a single detail. Most of the time, we don't actually even know we're dreaming. Does it have anything to do with sleep length? For example, you are more likely to remember everything from your dream if you woke up during the REM stage. I hope we haven't confused you, but don't worry; we'll explain everything in detail later.

The average person dreams anywhere from a few seconds to two hours each night. In addition to the influence of sleep phases, you should also consider other factors. Let's talk about it.

Understanding the Nature of Dreams

You can't imagine the chaos going on in your body while you sleep. Although it is a time to rest, the body works hard to regenerate itself. For example, the number of leukocytes doubles the body temperature drops, the muscles relax, the brain processes information, and the liver works at full strength and cleanses the body of accumulated toxins. In order not to enumerate the processes until tomorrow, we will divide them into their categories – the stages of sleep.

The Stages of Sleep: REM and NREM

An image of a woman under a dreamcatcher

Okay, before we fall asleep, there is a transition phase in sleep cycles. This period is relatively short, lasting only ten minutes, and the sleep is relatively light. People can wake up from this stage of sleep more quickly than from other stages. It is the NREM sleep type, which consists of the following subphases:

  • Transition to sleep state – This phase lasts approximately 5 minutes. Eyes slowly move under the lids, muscle activity slows down and you can “wake up” easily. This is a semi-conscious state.
  • Light sleep – This is the first stage of real sleep, lasting 10 to 25 minutes. The eyes stop moving under the lids, the heartbeat slows down and the body temperature drops.
  • Deep sleep – This is the stage where it is difficult to wake up, and even if you do, you cannot adjust for several minutes and often feel groggy and disoriented. In this deepest stage of sleep, brain waves are very slow. Blood pressure goes from the brain to the muscles, restoring physical energy.

REM sleep– the rapid eye movement phase – Occurs approximately 70 to 90 minutes after falling asleep, and dreams occur during this phase. The eyes move rapidly, breathing becomes faster, more irregular and shallower, heart rate and blood pressure increase. During this stage, the arms and legs are completely paralyzed while the brain takes over!

The Role of REM Sleep in Dreaming

If you wake up from REM, you will probably feel the effects of vivid, hallucinogenic and emotional dreams. Thus, this stage of sleep is associated with many daily brain functions. Does that mean anything to you? Okay, let's make it easy for you. Since your eyes move around rapidly in various directions, the brain receives certain messages.

It may not receive any visual information, but your brain is highly active during REM sleep in contrast to other stages of sleep. The only difference is that your eyes are closed, and you feel a temporary loss of muscle tone. Therefore, REM sleep is linked with the activities of brain regions such as memory consolidation, emotional regulation, and sensory processing. This is why you can have rich and complex dream experiences.

Perception of Time in Dreams

An image of the sky

What do you think? Does time pass faster or slower in a dream than in reality? There is no correct answer because perception is wrong – just your brain playing tricks with you. It is influenced by several factors, such as:

  • Time dilation – dreams that seem to last for hours can last only a few minutes in real time or vice versa
  • Time jumps – if you have a transition between different scenes or events in your dream, you will get the feeling that time is passing faster
  • Timelessness – sometimes the concept of time disappears, and the dreamer may experience a sense of being in an eternal moment or continuous loop
  • Dream-lag effect – creating a time lag between waking life events and appearance in dream content is possible.

Research is still being done on the brain's neural activity during REM sleep and its role in the perception of time in dreams. However, certain external stimuli during this period and the brain's creative nature can have a major impact on the dreamers' experience.

The Elasticity of Time in Dreams: Experiencing Hours in Minutes  

Why is this happening to you? Don't worry, you're not the only one. Simply, several factors contribute to the elasticity of time in dreams. Those are:

Exploring the Connection Between Dream Content and Time Perception

An image of a person holding their hands up to the sky

Therefore, dreams have a nonlinear and fragmented narrative structure. Before you realize what's happening, you've already rapidly shifted to the next scene. This makes it quite difficult to estimate the time and then add the intensity of the emotional content. For example, falling from a height in your sleep can seem like an eternity! This also applies to more pleasurable things like experiencing an orgasm during sex.

Do not ignore the influence of explicit or implicit time-related themes (travel scenarios, historical settings, or anticipation of future events). It can also be real-life experiences. Thus, the biggest challenge in studying dream content and time perception is the subjective nature of dream experience and the lack of objective measurement.

That is why the cooperation of experts from different fields, such as neuroscience, psychology and sleep science, is necessary.

Factors Affecting Dream Duration

If we do not count the alarm or external noise, sleep duration can be conditioned by several factors. But you already knew that. If you missed some details about sleep stages or sleep cycle length, we will discuss them. This time, we're going deeper.

Sleep Quality and Dream Length

There is no categorically declared average duration of sleep. However, we can equate that time with the duration of the rapid eye movement (REM) phase. If one phase lasts up to 6 minutes, we estimate that sleep will last that long. Of course, this does not apply to all cases, such as continuous dreams or dreams that continue from one sleep period (from one REM stage to another sleep period).

Also, just because our REM phase lasts that long doesn't necessarily mean yours will too. It is an individual factor that you must not ignore. That brings us to sleep quality! You can say that you got enough sleep if you had a night's sleep of optimal length, which means not too many or too few hours of sleep (7-9 hours). Without it, there is no good cognitive function of the brain. Concentration weakens, and there is no clarity in thinking or good memory. It is undeniable, they point out, that the right amount of sleep strengthens immunity and prevents the development of many diseases.

The Impact of Sleep Disorders on Dream Time

Frequent awakenings, restless sleep, or interruptions can indicate a sleep disorder. This leads to the disruption of the normal sleep cycle, including REM sleep. What is the cause? It can be anything that falls into the group of emotional and psychological factors. The most common triggers are stress, anxiety, and mood disturbances. But these conditions can also affect dream content and intensity.

For example, if you are going through a bad emotional period, you are more likely to have vivid and emotionally charged dreams. Over a long period of time, such conditions can lead to insomnia or vice versa. Sleep disorders like sleep apnea or narcolepsy have an impact on your mental state, including sleep quality and REM sleep.

The Role of Age, Gender, and Personality Traits in Dream Length

When we say that our REM sleep is different from yours, we mean individual characteristics like these:

Remember, more research is needed to understand their complex interplay fully.

How to Extend or Control Dream Duration

If you are interested in exploring the world of lucid dreaming, you should know a few tricks. They will help you establish better control and extend their duration. Well, let's finally find out how to have a fascinating experience!

Lucid Dreaming

An image of a man atop a mountain with the face beaming in their face

We'll start from the basics – what is a lucid dream? It is a state of sleep in which a person becomes aware that he is dreaming. It may sound like a cool story at first, but it can be scary. However, there is a way to gain some control over the dream content. But we'll come back to that later! So, in the beginning, you are not aware that you are dreaming, but as time goes on, you become more aware.

The turning point is when the dreamer realizes that a certain (unrealistic) experience did not happen in physical reality. Once he realizes the power is in his hands as he can affect reality.

For example, Mary Shelly got the inspiration for the first transcript of Frankenstein, McCartney wrote the melody of the Beatles' legendary hit “Yesterday”, and we heard that Salvador Dali also knew about lucid dreams.

Well, if your dream manipulation goes well, who knows? You might become a new member of the famous-lucid-dreamer club; give it a try.

Techniques for Enhancing Dream Recall 

It's not always easy to remember your dreams because they often come in fragments that don't make any sense. However, you must remember that this is one of the most important steps in exercising sleep control.

Don't worry if ‘random' thoughts start running through your head or you fail the first few attempts. After a few exercises, you will fall asleep and finally experience the experience of ‘lucid dreams'.

The Connection Between Meditation and Dream Length

The point is to shift the focus of your attention away from your usual train of thought. You separate yourself from the constant internal dialogue about various problems, interests, desires, daydreams, or random thoughts. This short meditation will shift your attention to what is happening inside or around your body.

In this way, you shift your attention away from the erratic thoughts and place it elsewhere. This attention will naturally carry over into your dreams, and you can become a lucid dreamer much more easily.

The Importance of Dream Duration on Cognitive Function

People generally have dreams that reflect pretty ordinary daily life experiences. Therefore, some theorists would say that we organize and interpret our everyday life experiences in this way. Actually, this happens in several different ways.

Dreaming and Memory Consolidation

Who is central to our ability to remember, imagine and dream? Hypothalamus, that's right. During REM sleep, this brain region shows increased activity. The result facilitates the processing and integration of new information into existing memory networks. However, we dream of situations from reality, meaning they are repeated. In fact, there are repetitive patterns of neural activity related to certain experiences and tasks. In this case, memory replay strengthens the neural connections associated with memory ability.

Dreams as a Reflection of Emotional Well-being

Have you ever dreamed that your partner is cheating on you, and how did you feel? Well, dreaming is like overnight therapy – you can reveal your deepest fears. It's true; during REM sleep, your brain is isolated from the anxiety-triggering molecule noradrenaline. But we must not rule out key emotional and memory-related structures of the brain. Therefore, the activity is not absent; it's just that the re-process of upsetting memories take place in a calmer environment. From there comes a strong urge to kick your partner out of bed (after a cheating dream).

Sleep, Dreams, and Creativity

An image of a cloud

After all this information, you probably think your brain turns into a little dream factory at night! It can be said that way, because during the REM stage of sleep, dreams represent an incubator for creative problem-solving and insight. Different connections between seemingly unrelated pieces of information are created in that phase.

Then, everything can start in new and unexpected ways. Yes, that's why you dream of all those weird things! Hypnagogic and hypnopompic states are especially responsible for that, where you can experience hallucinations, and vivid dreams.

Ugh, people often can't tell the difference between sleep and waking. On the other hand, it is the time when you can take some control over your dream narrative and unlock lucid dreaming.

The Science Behind Precognitive Dreams: Fact or Fiction?

If you are not sure if you have hidden powers like predicting the future through sleep, do the following:

No research can give you the answer, but don't give up just yet. Certain conditions, such as pregnancy, Parkinson's disease and trauma can impact your sleep. They are all related to an increase in nightmares.

Seeking Professional Help for Troublesome Dream Patterns

You woke up in a sweat, terrified of something bothering you all night – don't worry, it's just a bad dream! But if you're going through the same thing every night, get help. It can be support from friends, family or professionals. We recommend the third one, because you will be more sure what is causing your nightmares. For example, sometimes it is physical health or neglected mental hygiene. If you ignore such dreams, this can lead to insomnia, sleep disturbances and daytime anxiety. In the meantime, try to maintain your sleep hygiene.

Conclusion

Overall, you spend dreaming about 20-25% of your total sleep time. Maybe your subjective feeling says otherwise but stick to logic. Thus, REM periods last two hours on average but vary from person to person. It is influenced by many factors such as stress, sleep quality, as well as individual differences.

Finally, dreaming is still the subject of ongoing research. It refers to connecting sleep with crucial brain activities such as memory consolidation, emotional processing, problem-solving, and creativity. Therefore, do not stop exploring the science of sleep and dreams, because who knows what awaits you somewhere! And, of course, watch “Inception” again.

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