Weird things you never knew about dreams

It's kind of nuts that you go to sleep each night with no clue what you're going to experience in your dreams. You could fly, talk to dead people, or end up back in high school with a big exam coming up. Dreams are so strange and mysterious that scientists have been exploring them for ages. Some facts about dreams are even weirder than the ones you already know about.

Blind people have more nightmares

Blind people have a mixed bag when it comes to their dreams. On one hand, just like paralyzed Bran in Game of Thrones can walk in his dreams, many previously sighted blind people can see again in their dreams. In a Danish study, researchers asked 50 people, half of whom were blind, to record their dreams for four weeks. They found that the participants who hadn't been blind from birth still had some visual impressions in their dreams. However, the longer participants had been blind, the less they could see.

Another strange conclusion? Blind people have more nightmares. While only 7 percent of the sighted participants reported nightmares, 25 percent of the blind ones did. Their nightmares included scary things from their waking lives, like losing their guide dogs, getting lost, or being hit by cars. The researchers guessed that nightmares could be a form of "rehearsal" for real life and that blind people need more rehearsal because they experience more danger on a daily basis.

If you tend to have a lot of nightmares, maybe they're actually helping you. Wouldn't you rather get hit by a car in your dream than in real life?

You can control what you dream about

It turns out that Dom Cobb from Inception isn't the only one who can control dreams — you can do it, too. According to Deirdre Barrett, a Harvard-based sleep researcher, if you have a problem you're struggling with, you can intentionally dream about it to find a solution. Do you want to dream about a certain person, like a deceased grandparent? You can do that, too.

Dreams are best for solving problems that have a visual component and ones in which the conventional thinking is wrong. If you want to stimulate a dream in which you solve a problem, think about it before you go to sleep and try to create an image of the problem in your mind. Bonus points for giving yourself an actual visual of the problem. For example, if you're trying to write a song, put your guitar next to your bed. Or if you're trying to get along with your spouse better, take a good hard look at them before you close your eyes.

If you want to dream about a certain person, look at a photo of them before you go to sleep. Want to go skydiving in your dream? Find a photo of someone doing it. Make sure you record or think about your dream right when you wake up so that you can take advantage of anything you learned, you dedicated student.

You can control what you do in your dreams

Not only can you control what you dream about, you can also control what you do in your dreams, in a trippy process called lucid dreaming. In a lucid dream, you become aware that you're dreaming and you can control what you do even while you're snoozing away.

There are a bunch of different ways to induce lucid dreams, one of which is called reality testing, according to a researcher from Stanford. Part of reality testing is asking yourself throughout the day if you're dreaming, and then looking for clues that you're awake. You may think that you don't need clues — it's kind of obvious that you're not asleep. But looking for clues while you're awake today will help you become aware that you're dreaming tonight.

Before you go to sleep, tell yourself that you'll remember your dreams. Reenter a recent dream you've experienced and look for clues that it's a dream. Imagine what you want to do in that dream. Then repeat the steps until you fall asleep. If this process seems a bit difficult, that's because it is. Lucid dreaming requires lots of mental training. But isn't it worth it to be able to decide to fly in your dream instead of just hoping it will happen?

Babies don't dream

Have you ever looked at an adorable baby sleeping and wondered what they were dreaming about? It turns out, they don't dream at all, according to neuroscientists. David Foulkes, a leading expert in pediatric dreaming, believes that babies spend their REM sleep building pathways in their brains and (later) developing language skills.

With all this brain development going on, Foulkes and other neuroscientists say there wouldn't be much brainpower left to also create dreams. Plus, all babies do is sleep, poop, and throw food on the floor. Not great fodder for dreams.

Children don't dream until they're 4 or 5 years old when they develop the capacity to visualize imaginary things. Even then, the dreams they report lack characters, memories, and emotions. It's not until they're 7 or 8 and they have a sense of identity that kids' dreams get plotlines. The stronger their self-concept is, the more vivid and structured their dreams become.

The next time you watch some sleeping babies, you'll know what they're (most likely) doing. They aren't dreaming of flying spaghetti — their brains are busy creating new pathways that will allow them to dream in the future.

Descartes' scientific method came from a series of wild dreams

René Descartes, the renowned philosopher of the European Renaissance, came up with a method in which he observed things in the natural world, made hypotheses about them based on mathematical reasoning, and then tested those hypotheses. (It isn't the scientific method we learn in grade school today, but it was an important step.) His method of reason came from a bunch of bizarre dreams that are anything but reasonable.

In the first dream, he was trapped in a whirlwind. He saw phantoms, felt like he was falling, and thought that a melon (of all things) would come to him from a foreign land. In the next dream, he dreamed of thunderstorms and sparks zipping around the room. In his third dream, he was in a quiet place in which he read a poetry anthology that disappeared and reappeared.

Descartes wrote that in his third dream, he received the idea that the method of reason would unite all of science. Eighteen years later, he wrote his "Discourse on the Method of Properly Guiding the Reason in the Search of Truth in the Sciences," which revealed his method and what he saw in his strange dreams. What have you been dreaming lately?

Dreams help you learn

Do you ever indulge yourself and take a nap in the middle of the day? If so, you now have a good excuse for dozing off at your desk — dreaming actually helps you learn.

In a study by researchers from Harvard Medical School, 99 participants played a video game in which they navigated through a virtual maze. Afterward, half of them went off to nap for two hours, while the other participants stayed awake. Then they all did the maze again.

The participants who reported dreaming about the maze improved their performance over six times more than the people who didn't sleep or who didn't dream about the maze. The dreamers reported that when they first fell asleep, they dreamed of the maze itself, as if they were rehearsing it. But then, as they went deeper into sleep, their dreams began integrating the maze into other narratives, such as exploring maze-like caves or seeing their job application process woven through with mazes. Because job interviews aren't hard enough already.

Acting out violent dreams can predict neurological disorders

Did you know that your muscles nearly become paralyzed when you sleep so you don't act out your dreams? If that freaks you out, try this on for size: people whose muscles don't stop them from acting out their dreams are far more likely to develop neurological disorders like dementia and Parkinson's later in life.

In a rare condition called REM behavior disorder, people violently act out their dreams and may injure themselves or someone sleeping with them in the process. Here's a memorable example: Mike Birbiglia, a comedian who writes about living with the disorder, dreamed that a missile was headed for his hotel room. He jumped out his second-floor hotel room window, both in the dream and in real life. He had to get 33 stitches as a result.

Researchers at the University of Montreal studied almost 100 adults who had been diagnosed with REM behavior disorder. They found that people diagnosed with the disorder are 18 percent more likely to develop a neurodegenerative disease five years after their diagnosis and 52 percent more likely after 12 years. Experts now believe that acting out your nightmares may be an early symptom of Parkinson's, a disease in which you lose muscle control in your waking life.

The body in your dreams doesn't match your real body

Ever wish you had a different body? If so, you're in luck (at least while you're asleep), because your dream body doesn't reflect changes in your physical body. For example, people who are paralyzed or deaf often have dreams in which they can walk around and hear. Your dream body is also way more fun — it allows you to do things like fly and breathe underwater.

In one study, researchers found that participants who had marked their arms with red dots before sleep were no more likely to see red-dotted arms in their dreams than those who didn't mark their arms. In another, they asked people to read stories other people had written about their dreams. The dream readers couldn't tell whether the dreamers had disabilities or not based on the descriptions of their dreams.

These studies have led researchers to believe that your dream self is more like a "mini-me" than a real version of yourself. You may be aware that you have a body in your dreams, but you're not likely to see any details of your dream body. At least we can gloss over all the bumps and warts we try to ignore while we're awake.

The best way to analyze your dreams has nothing to do with dream dictionaries

Have you ever woken up after a particularly interesting dream and went straight to a dream dictionary, only to find that the definitions you looked up didn't seem to relate to your life at all? That's because dreams are highly personal, and an object can mean something completely different in one dream than it does in another.

Instead of relying on dream dictionaries, take a more thoughtful approach to analyzing your dreams. Clinical psychotherapist Jeffrey Sumber suggests the following method. First, record your dreams as soon as you wake up. The more often you write down your dreams, the more likely you'll be to remember them.

Then, identify how you felt in your dream. Were you sad? Angry? Happy? Did the feelings linger after you woke up? Next, see if you have any recurring thoughts in your dreams. Finally, consider all the elements of your dream. Other people in your dream can represent different facets of your personality. Things you encounter in your dream may represent your thoughts and emotions, as well.

Your dreams reflect your experiences, thoughts, and emotions, and you are the expert on them. So the next time you find yourself Googling "armadillo dream meaning," consider asking yourself what that armadillo means to you personally. Maybe it's a sign you're being overprotective. Maybe you need to go to the zoo less often.

Dreams make you more creative

Countless creative works and inventions have come from dreams, including The Terminator, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Paul McCartney's famous song "Yesterday." That's no surprise, because dreams actually make you more creative.

When you're awake, your prefrontal cortex acts like an overbearing Catholic schoolteacher, filtering out "inappropriate" and irrational thoughts. But when you're asleep, your inner schoolteacher goes off duty and your imagination is allowed to explore. Cortisol, a stress hormone that fractures memories, also rises during REM sleep. Your brain dislikes fragmentation, so it takes the slices of memory and creates stories from them. This process leads to more creative thinking as well.

Many studies have found a positive correlation between dreaming and creativity. In one study, people who dreamed in REM sleep improved 40 percent on a word association test. In another, 25 percent of a control group of volunteers found a mathematical shortcut without dreaming, while 58 percent of volunteers who had slept for eight hours found the shortcut.

If you want to be more creative, try getting a full night's sleep. Who knows? You may come up with a Billboard 100 song or the next Inception.