Have you ever awoken from a dream and felt like you just experienced an entire lifetime?
Dreams can be so vivid and surreal that they make us feel like time has been suspended. But how long do dreams last in the real world?
Generally, the average dream lasts anywhere from five to 20 minutes; however, there are some longer dreams that can last up to an hour and really short ones that only take up a few seconds.
But why do the lengths of dreams vary? And what factors can make your dreams longer or shorter? Keep on scrolling to find out!
When Do Dreams Happen?
There are four sleep stages, and dreams can happen during any of them. However, they’re most likely to happen during the fourth stage, also known as the rapid-eye movement (REM) stage.
Dreams during this stage are more vivid and longer than the other stages. But does this mean you go through one REM stage throughout the night and thus dream one time? Not exactly.
During a night of sleep, you go through the entire sleep cycle four to six times, which gives you four to six chances to dream vividly.
Why Do Lengths of Dreams Vary?
As I mentioned, the more you sleep, the more the 4-stage cycle of sleep repeats. But with each iteration, the REM stage lasts longer while the deep sleep stage (third stage) is shorter. This is why during the same night, some of your dreams can be longer than others.
Science estimates that the first couple of dreams in your night can last 10 minutes, while the later ones can last up to 30 minutes. However, we can’t be sure because the science of dreams depends largely on what people remember from their sleep, which isn’t much, especially in the earlier stages of sleep.
People are more likely to remember dreams properly if they’re awakened during REM sleep, which of course, isn’t guaranteed.
Some dreams also happen at the other sleep stages, but they’re much fainter, shorter, and less memorable.
The Average Length of Dreams
On average, dreams only last about 5-20 minutes each, but there’s a huge variation because it’s normal to dream several times per night. For instance, some dreams can only last a few seconds.
But these are usually the fainter dreams you might experience in the earlier stages of sleep, which themselves only last for several minutes. They can still feel very long and nuanced, and in most cases, they’re more of a messy collection of thoughts rather than organized stories.
In total, dreams make up about two hours of our sleep.
Factors That Affect Dream Length
As we’ve established, most of our dreams happen during REM sleep. Therefore, the length of this stage plays a huge role in determining the duration of our dreams, but it’s not the only thing, as other factors may also play a role, such as stress levels and medications.
Stressful events in our lives can lead to longer dreams because our brains are trying to make sense of them. Certain medications, such as antidepressants and anxiety pills, may also have an effect on dream length, as they can produce longer and more intense dreams.
Even alcohol can negatively impact your whole sleep. It mainly shortens the REM sleep stage and, by extension, reduces your dream length.
Finally, age can also be a factor, as research suggests that older people may have shorter dreams, mainly because their sleep is much more fragmented, and they experience shorter stages of deep sleep and REM sleep.
Why Do Dreams Feel Much Longer In Real Time?
Time is naturally distorted within sleep, and it can feel like you’re going through years at a time or that time is completely frozen! This isn’t a solved case yet in science and physiology, but I’ll try my best to explain the leading theories.
One of them is that because brain activity is much slower than usual during REM sleep, our brains take their merry time to process dreams, so they move at a slow yet subtle pace. Think of it like a really fast 10-second video that was slowed down—it’d still be a 10-second video, but you’ll see it as longer than that.
Another theory is that, when dreaming, we often see snapshots of exciting moments and highlights but not the boring details and fillers of the day. And our brains fill the gaps from there.
In a Nutshell
Dreams are a mysterious phenomenon with a wide range of meanings. Some say that dreams are simply a way that the brain processes stressful moments and makes sense of them. That’s why you can sometimes dream about embarrassing events that you encountered within the last month.
But while this scenario may feel like it’s going on forever in your head, it’s probably much closer to 5-20 minutes in real time. And the deeper your sleep is and the longer you sleep, the longer your dreams will become, as they can reach up to an hour.
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