“We found that dreams were increasing in bizarreness from the early to late night,” says study author Dr. Josie Malinowski, a lecturer in cognitive psychology at the University of Bedfordshire in the U.K. The later dreams were more fantastical, impossible, and completely unlikely to ever happen in real life, “like a wild animal tearing up your back garden,” she says. Dreams also tend to become more emotional—in equal ways positive and negative—as the night progresses.
In the early stages of sleep, people dream more about media they’d consumed during the day, like a movie they’d watched or book they’d read. Dreams about events (as opposed to external stimuli) that happened during waking life, however, were more robust later in the night.
Some dream researchers, including Dr. Malinowski, believe you can prime the brain to dream about a particular topic through “dream incubation,” and that dreams might be able to help us problem-solve. Exploring these dreams can help people understand their own behavior, thoughts and feelings, Dr. Malinowski says.