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Why Do People Have Nightmares?

Dreams are endlessly fascinating. Psychiatrist David Kahn describes dreams as the way your brain thinks while you're asleep.

Why do people dream? Why do people have nightmares? How do dreams happen? Can people who are blind can see in their dreams? In this episode of But Why, we're answering dreamy questions with psychiatrist Dr. David Kahn of Harvard Medical School.

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"Why do people have dreams when they are sleeping?" - Charlotte, 6, Burlington, Vt.

"Dreaming is thinking when we're asleep. When we go to sleep, the brain doesn't stop being active; sometimes it's more active than when we're awake. Dreaming is the way the brain thinks," says Dr. Kahn.

If dreaming is the way the brain thinks when we're asleep, why does it seem so different from the way we think when we're awake?

"Dreams can be very strange because parts of the brain change compared to the way the brain is when we are thinking and awake," Kahn tells us. "The emotional parts of the brain are active when we are asleep and dreaming. Often our dreams will therefore be scary or joyful or affectionate or even nightmarish."

But the logical part of your brain stops working; it goes offline. That means that anything can happen. If you're awake, your logical mind says you can't fly. But when you're asleep, that part of the brain checks out.

"Dreams give us the opportunity to do things in our mind that we can't do when we're awake," he explains. "You have new experiences. Some are anxiety provoking and some can be a lot of fun."

No matter what you dream, you can think about dreams as an opportunity to let go of the part of you that says "you can't do that," or "that would never happen" and just enjoy the magical way your brain makes visions and connections.

Melody is the Contributing Editor for But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids and the co-author of two But Why books with Jane Lindholm.
Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
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