Book review: Why We Dream by Alice Robb

why we dream alice robbWhy We Dream has two interwoven strands. The first is a useful summary of the latest thinking in neuroscience on the importance of sleep and of dreaming in particular. The second discusses how we can use dreams to gain insight and make changes to our lives through methods including dream interpretation and lucid dreaming.

The author is aware that these might be seen as the preserve of cranks and has defends herself against the accusation by producing a book that is rigorously researched.

Dreams help us absorb what we’ve learnt through the day, from the emotionally charged to the banal (I remember when I was learning to type how I’d dream of moving my hands on the keyboard). There’s a fascinating chapter on nightmares and their evolutionary role which I unwisely read just before falling asleep one night and…you guessed it.

There are insights into interpreting dreams and how this varies – and the common factors – across cultures. The author talks about keeping a dream diary and how it can actually help you remember more of your dreams (I’ve had this experience in the past).

All of this was interesting and well written but not entirely new to me as I’ve read other books such as Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep which cover some of the same ground. What I really wanted to know was how to have lucid dreams.

The author discusses the scientific research which suggests it is possible to not only be aware that your are dreaming but to control events within the dream. At the end of the book she describes attending a retreat with a lucid dreaming ‘expert’.

My own thought after reading this chapter was that training to be a lucid dreamer is quite hard work. Techniques include meditation, dream diaries and setting alarms to wake up several times a night (during what you hope is your optimum dream time). It all sounds quite exhausting and as someone who has struggled with insomnia, I’m not inclined to mess with my sleep cycle.

While I was reading the book I often found myself wondering if I would dream that night, and what I would remember. I started keeping a dream diary again. I even sought out a couple of podcasts on lucid dreaming. Then I realised all this thinking about dreaming was keeping me awake at night.

So much of our lives now are colonised by productivity hacks, by wanting every aspect of our day to be more useful and fulfilling. Sleep is the final refuge. The last thing I want to do is start trying to optimise my sleep.

Who wants a lucid dream anyway? It’s like a choose-your-own adventure and there’s a reason why they have never really taken off. If I believe the unconscious mind is more powerful than anything available to us consciously, why would I want to take back control?

Fortunately for me, I don’t meet the criteria the author lists for people who, research suggests, are most likely to have lucid dreams (high performance athletes, people with good spatial awareness and low susceptibility to motion sickness) so it seems I’m safe.

While lucid dreaming is not for me, Why We Dream provides a fascinating overview of the importance of dreaming and is written in an accessible and engaging style.

I received a copy of Why We Dream from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Why We Dream on Goodreads

Enjoyed this? For an interesting fictional take on these themes, take a look at my review of The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker



  1. The dream world does interest me. I find I do return to the subject from time to time. A couple of years ago I read Lucid Dreaming: A Beginner’s Guide to Becoming Conscious in Your Dreams by Charlie Morley. There were excercises to try, and like you, I was divided between the desire to try this which required waking after a dream and writing it down (without turning the light on and disturbing my partner) and the need for a restful nights sleep.


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