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Oneirology. That’s the scientific study of dreams.
Despite having an entire branch of science dedicated to studying and understanding dreams, we still don’t know for sure the mechanism of dreaming or even why humans dream at all.
There’s lots of theories though. We explore the most interesting ones below.
What Happens When We Dream?
Most of our dreaming occurs in the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep (we have a blog post all about sleep stages). When you close your eyes and drift off, you go through three stages of non-REM sleep before getting into the REM dream stage.
While the brain has some activity throughout all sleep stages, it becomes hyperactive in REM sleep. In fact, when measured, brain activity in the REM stage is almost similar to brain activity when we are awake.
The eyes dart about under the closed eyelids, but your body remains deliberately paralyzed by the brain. This is called muscle atonia and it is essential in ensuring you do not act out your dreams.
Fun fact: some people have a disorder (REM sleep behavior disorder) that keeps them from attaining muscle atonia during REM sleep. As a result they display violent body movements during sleep and they can even sleep walk.
How Do Dreams Happen?
This is where things begin to get fuzzy. The truth is, we don't know for sure the mechanism behind dreaming.
One theory is that dreams are signals from the brainstem. This is the part of the brain that sends signals from the brain to the body. In REM sleep, neural activity in the brainstem continually activates the parts of the brain that process movement, vision, and other sensory inputs.
This results in dreams. Because real external sensory inputs are blocked during sleep, these signals are magnified, which results in vivid dreams.
Other theories suggest that dreams are random impulses caused by imagery and thoughts from our memories. They are not supposed to make any sense and that’s why dreams can be so nonsensical or weird.
Some scientists think dreams have an evolutionary mechanism behind them. In early humans dreams were simulations of potentially threatening events that helped them prepare for actual threats when they were awake.
Some researchers think that’s why a lot of dreams involve scary or terrifying imagery. Personally, I feel like all my dreams involve me running away from something or someone so maybe the scientists have a point.
Why Do We Dream? 3 Possible Benefits of Dreams
1. Self Therapy
Some scientists believe that dreams act as our personal therapists. During the day, we experience a wide range of emotions, both good and bad. It can be hard to find the time and space to pause and analyze all these emotions.
While we sleep, our emotions let loose. The theory is that dreaming is important for emotional processing, especially processing negative emotions that we are more likely to stuff inside.
By dealing with these emotions in our sleep, we are more likely to be in a better mood when we wake up. This could be one of the reasons why sleep deprivation often leads to heightened feelings of anxiety, fear and irritability. There’s a build up of negative emotions that you’ve not processed.
2. Memory Consolidation
The other possible reason we dream is to consolidate memories from the day. This is especially important when you are learning a new skill. The brain uses dreams to create new connections in your brain and fortify what you’ve learnt.
We know that poor sleep quality is associated with poor memory and learning. One explanation for this could be lack of dreaming.
3. Problem Solving
You’ve probably experienced this. You have a problem of conundrum that you can’t seem to solve. You decide to lay it aside and sleep on it. When you wake up, you suddenly have a new insight or idea that helps you solve the problem.
Some researchers think dreams are responsible for this. When you dream, the brain creates connections between different thoughts and ideas to come up with a solution.
These connections are also important for creative work such as writing or painting. There are countless artists who’ve gotten inspiration from their dreams.
You’ve also probably been inspired to a new idea or solution from your dreams without knowing it. You just forgot the dream, like many of us do.
Do Dreams Have Meaning?
Dreams are meaningful in the sense that they can help us process thoughts and emotions. In fact, keeping a dream journal is a great way to assess your emotional and mental state. All the stuff that’s in your subconscious tends to bubble up in dreams.
Some experts, like Freud, also believe that dreams are representations of hidden desires.
Dreams can also be a manifestation of our physical lives. If you spend a lot of time playing a sport, you are likely to dream about playing that sport. If you are a painter, don't be surprised if you paint in your dreams.
It could be just the brain pulling images from our memories.
Beyond this the scientific consensus is that dreams are largely meaningless. They are not messages from the subconscious or the universe. The nonsensical and bizarre things we experience during dreams are just a function of normal brain function.
But in cultural and religious contexts, people give a lot of meaning to dreams. For example, some people believe that a recurring dream is a warning about someone or something in your life.
Others believe that a dream about you cheating on your partner means you are unhappy in the relationship. A dream about losing teeth could symbolize your fears about aging.
None of this is supported by science. So it’s up to you if you want to interpret your dreams in a particular way.
Sleep Quality and Dreams: How They Are Connected
People often complain that they don't dream. In reality, they probably dream but do not remember any of it. Our brains are not very good at storing dreams.
The second possibility if you think you don't dream is that it’s true. The most likely reason for this is that you are not sleeping well.
Poor sleep quality interferes with sleep stages. You may not experience less REM sleep when you don't get enough sleep. This results in less dreaming.
If you want to start dreaming more, make an effort to improve your sleep quality. Come up with a good sleep routine, make your bed more comfortable with a supportive mattress and breathable sheets, and keep your bedroom coo, quiet and dark.
The longer and deeper you sleep, the more likely you are to dream. It doesn't mean you’ll remember your dreams, but you will enjoy the benefits of dreaming like better memory, better problem solving and brighter moods during the day.