Sleep is an essential part of being human. As each day comes to a close, most of us retire to bed with intentions of resting and recharging for the next day. It may surprise you to know that approximately 33 percent of our lives are spent sleeping, and inevitably, dreaming. So, why is it that some dreams are good, some are nightmares, and all take so long to dream but almost no time at all to explain? Since so much of our lives are dedicated to sleeping and dreaming, it’s important that we understand the science behind the stories created by our sleeping minds.
1. Sleep, 2. Brain Scan, 3. Sigmund Freud, 4. Pods, 5. TED Talk, 6. Worldwide, 7. Dream State
Caitlin Phillips is a freelance writer spending her summer in Budapest, Hungary.
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1. The Transition
One minute you're awake and the next you are drifting into sweet, sweet sleep. But, all sleep is not equal, and there are moments when your brain is more susceptible to dreaming than others. A regular sleep cycle has five stages but is divided into two crucial categories: Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep. As your body slips into sleep mode and brain waves slow down, REM sleep kicks in and works its magic. During REM sleep, you experience the deepest sleep, and dreams during this time are both more vivid and more memorable. This type of deep sleep is necessary to ensure no disruptions wake you from slumber and interrupt your dreams.
anoldent, CC BY-SA 2.0
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2. Deep Sleep
During REM sleep, structures in the brain are working together to induce sleep, create dreams, and eliminate toxins that have built up in the brain throughout the day. The hypothalamus, thalamus, pineal gland, hippocampus and amygdala are just a few of the many pieces in our brain that are working together to promote deep sleep and vivid, uninterrupted dream time. Their functions include sending the brain signals to relax muscles and providing images and sensations to our cortex to give our brain the tools it needs to dream.
Liz Henry, CC BY-ND 2.0, cropped
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3. An Emotional Connection
Dreaming can be explained physically through structures in the brain, but what exactly is the purpose of dreaming? Throughout the history of time, there have been numerous explanations about the cause and meaning of dreams. In recent years, the speculation of scientists and researchers has contributed to theories about the psychological nature of dreams. Sigmund Freud's theories about dreaming emphasize the power and importance of our unconscious minds. His ideas center on the notion that dreaming is our brain's way of working through unresolved and repressed issues embedded in our psyche. As more research into the unconscious mind is conducted, new dream theories have come to highlight the correlation between dreaming and an individual's ability to process complex emotions. It appears that dreams act as a processor, helping us decode our emotions by turning them into memories that feel like real experiences, so that we may eventually filter our emotions out.
Tullio Saba, Public Domain Mark 1.0
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Thanks to modern technology and several recent studies into the science of dreams, we know more about dreaming than we ever have. Studies published recently in the Journal of Neuroscience glean insight into the dream-memory relationship. This study from the University of Rome successfully explains the way we are able to remember and recall our dreams. The study involved 65 sleeping student participants who were woken at different times and questioned about their respective dreams. The results clearly showed that participants that engaged in REM sleep had more low-frequency theta waves in the brain and were, therefore, more capable of remembering their dreams. This type of increased frontal theta movement is very similar to how our brains retrieve memories while we are awake. Another study conducted at the University of California-Berkley found that the less REM sleep we get, the less capable we are of understanding complex emotions in daily life. This research makes the link between emotional regulation and sleep becomes clearer.
tup wanders, CC BY 2.0
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Arguably the most important part of dreaming is the way it affects us in our daily lives. In his TED talk, Dr. Robert Stickgold shares what he has learned through studying how roles of sleeping and dreaming affect learning and memory processes, and how dreams change in response to mental hardship. He shows the ways that sleep, memory and dreams fit together by explaining the power of our brain to integrate new and old memories and imagine possible futures while we are dreaming. In the talk, he argues that dreams create and reveal the meaning of an individual's life. The takeaway here reminds us that the brain is a very complex structure and whether we are awake or asleep, its functionality affects the direction of our lives.
MIT Media Lab
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6. We All Do It
The strangest thing about dreaming is that everyone does it. No matter your race, class or gender, you have the ability to dream. However, science says that your background does have an effect on the narrative of your dreams. The documented research behind dreams tells us that there is absolutely a correlation between the emotions experienced in waking life and the ones played out in our dreams. So, while you might not always remember your dreams, you do have them. While the actual context and physical sensations like color, which we experience during dreams can vary; the experience is virtually the same worldwide.
Peter Macdonald, CC BY-ND 2.0
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7. The Research Continues
The exact and specific purpose of dreaming isn't really known yet, but dream scientists are continually conducting studies to learn more. Today, brain imaging tools like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) used in combination with dream reporting are providing researchers with the tools to begin to decode dreams. As dream research continues and investigations delve deeper into the mysterious nature of dreams, they are becoming slightly less complex and certainly more scientific. Although we are learning more about dreams every day, we may never be able to fully understand them. At least until we do, dreams will remain a marvelous mystery.
Amber Sims, public domain