Why Do We Dream? The Role Of Dreams
Most people dream. It’s a strange phenomenon of a personal story that makes no sense and yet invokes our emotions, and it all happens while we are sound asleep.
When you dream, the most mundane objects become immensely important, and people you haven’t seen in years are suddenly back in your memories.
Many of us wonder why we have these dreams, what they mean, and what may have triggered them. Today we are going to answer these questions and help you understand your subconscious.
What Are Dreams?
Most of us understand that dreams are the stories, images, and memories that we see while we dream, but there is a little more to the process than that. There are 5 stages of sleeping in the sleep cycle, and each phase helps the body in different ways.
Stage 1 reduces your muscle activities. Stage 2 is when your eye movements stop, and your brain waves slow down. This stage is also known as spindles.
In stage 3, your brain waves become extremely slow, and you produce delta waves. The 4th stage is the most difficult to wake up from. There is no eye movement at all. If you do wake someone in the 4th stage of sleep, they are often disorientated.
The 5th stage is known as rapid eye movement or REM. Your breathing becomes fast and irregular as well as shallow. Your eyes start to jerk around in quick motions, too. Your muscles, however, become temporarily paralyzed. It’s in this stage that you dream.
Dreams are a universal human experience, described as a state of consciousness
Dreams are called a “state of consciousness” despite being asleep. This is because of the sensory, cognitive, and emotional effects the dreams produce. Every culture, both past and present, has made a note on dreams. It is a phenomenon that has existed across the human species.
The reason why we still consider it to be a conscious state is due to the Sforza, Kriger, Petiau study in 1997 (REM Sleep Behavior Disorder: Clinical and Physiopathological Findings). This team of researchers discovered that humans with natural disorders that had damaged the inhibitory responses could still act out the physical reality of their dreams. Similar to sleepwalking, this means that our current space and our dream space could interact in this consciousness.
When asked about the dream, these sleepwalkers could describe the dream and their interactions in a way that correlated with what the observers saw. This showed a state of consciousness.
Many people believe that they do not dream; however, it is more likely that their waking brain cannot access these memories. The inability to access these memories is probably to do with your acetylcholine and norepinephrine levels which change during your sleep. These features help with your long-term and short-term memory.
As the change occurs, the ability to recall your short-term memory drops. When you awaken, your memories function as normal, but the night has been lost. This means that although you do not remember your dreams, you have experienced them.
The dreamer has reduced control over the content and imagery of the memory
It is important to recognize that dreaming is separate from having a “no cognitive state.” A “no cognitive state” is when someone is in their REM sleep but is not actually dreaming. People dream between 3 and 5 times a night, but there are lots of moments of rest in between; these are the “no cognitive state.”
Dreaming is when you experience full emotional experiences. There is a theme that you follow, there is a concern in your story, and there are people or objects you interact with. A dream might not have all of these issues, but they will have at least one.
Just like a poorly written movie, you watch as these events unfold, and although you interact with the plot-line, you often have very little control over what will happen.
Facts About Dreams
Because of their strange and even magical nature, many of us want to learn all we can about dreaming. We have collected a handful of interesting facts for you to share with other like-minded people.
As we said before, everyone dreams; if you don’t remember your dream, that doesn’t mean you went a night without a strange adventure. Sometimes our dreams feel like they lasted for days; the events and plotlines (although confusing) lasted for much longer than the night. Sometimes our dreams seem to be just a blip of information, and then we wake up.
In reality, we only dream for around 2 hours per night. And what’s just as fascinating is that babies dream for approximately 2 hours too.
Because youngsters sleep for so long during their early months, you might think they would dream for longer than adults or even older children, but in reality, that time sleeping is spent mainly on growing; only a short amount of time is dedicated to dreams.
Everyone tends to have around 3 or 4 individual dreams a night; each of these dreams will last between 5 and 20 minutes. This explains why your dreams seem to be completely disconnected at times.
Dreams are usually forgotten
After learning that we dream around 3 or 4 times a night, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that we forget about 95% of our dreams once we have awoken. This is because the frontal lobes, which play a crucial role in collecting and retaining memories, are either inactive or have low activity during our REM sleep cycle. Because the acetylcholine and norepinephrine levels in this part of the brain lessen, storing these memories becomes a low prioritized function.
However, another study, this time published in Frontiers of Psychology, found a link between recalling your dreams and the density of your brain matter. Specifically, they were looking at the prefrontal cortex as opposed to the overall frontal lobes. In their study, they chartered how participants with higher white matter density were able to recall more of their dreams.
12% of people have claimed to only dream in black and white
Although most people can dream in the full color they see during the day, some people have reported only dreaming in black and white. These people are not necessarily color blind; many of the people who fall into this category have a full range of color vision. In the study published in Consciousness and Cognition, researcher Eva Murzyn found that 12% of the general population experience these black and white dreams.
Murzyn also found that mostly those over the age of 55 reported these black and white dreams. The participants didn’t always see their dreams in black and white; instead, it occurred around 25% of the time. Murzyn believed that the reason for this discrepancy was due to the black and white television screens of the past. This idea was backed up by Eric Schwitgebel, who found that people in the 1940s rarely dreamed in color.
It seems as though our brains lay out our dreams in a story-telling format.
Animals probably dream
If you have a pet, like a cat or a dog, then you will have likely found them wagging their tails in their sleep or moving their paws as if they are running. To you, it might seem obvious that animals can dream, but let us look at the science.
In the 2020 study “Do All Mammals Dream,” Paul Manger and Jermone M Sigel found that all mammals went through a sleep cycle just like humans do. Because we cannot communicate effectively with animals, they decided their measurement of dreams would be conducted on a “REM sleep” vs. “no REM sleep” scale.
They concluded that aquatic mammals like seals were incapable of dreaming as they did not reach REM sleep, however land mammals, like elephants and dogs, did reach REM sleep, and so can dream.
This means that your cat’s twitching paws are likely a reflex from their imaginative sleep.
Although Manger and Sigel discovered this connection, we have not learned if animals can retain their dreams or if they connect a story to their visions.
Why Do We Dream?
The question of why we dream is both a philosophical question and a scientific one. There isn’t one solid answer in the scientific community that explains what the proper function of dreaming is, but there are many theories in this field, and each of them provides a sense of clarity.
Many theories about why we dream
Although there are many theories about why we dream, there are four main theories that others lean on to branch out our understanding. These theories come down to consolidating our memories, processing our emotions, expressing our desires, and practicing confronting dangers.
Most experts agree that these four theories combined together create a more accurate account of why we dream. However, there are some who believe that dreams hold no purpose, and they are simply the visual representation of our thoughts when left without stimulus.
Some researchers say we need dreams for our physical and mental health
In the Journal of Social, Political and Economic Study, MJ Lowis showed how the cognitive mind was less constrained during the dreaming state compared to the waking state. While in the safety of a dream, the mind continued working on problems and important emotional issues affecting them. In fact, if an individual was to work with a professional therapist on dream analysis, they should be able to help unpack these dreams to understand or quicken that “breakthrough” moment and achieve peace.
In this same study, MJ Lowis found that the participants were able to discuss their problems with less stress and anxiety once they had completed a dream analysis session. Their heart rate lowered, and their pupils were not dilated when they were asked questions about their emotional topic.
The study came to the conclusion that their dreams were able to help the patients become physically calm and mentally calm about their individual troubles.
Some studies suggest that dreams stem from our imagination rather than from our perception
To some people, the sensory experiences you have collected in the day are a prominent factor for your dream’s storyline. To others, the abstract thoughts stem more from your imagination rather than what you have seen on any given day.
One meta study, which compared other researchers’ work and then combined it with their own findings, shows that there is more evidence for imagination during dreaming than simple perception recall.
Although our dreams might be inspired by something we have seen in the day, the object or person doesn’t necessarily represent itself. Instead, a more abstract connection is made through our imagination.
One particularly interesting theory is called the Information-Processing Theory, and it explains how when you sleep, you consolidate your memories and all the information you have collected in the day. The way your brain then files and stores the data looks like a lucid and strange dream to our conscious mind. Essentially the dream is a by-product of memory storage, or it might even be an active part of the process.
The idea is that the helpful memories become more substantial during this process, and they are important moments in our dreams, whereas unhelpful memories fade into the background. This helps the brain store useful information and “chuck out” unimportant data.
The idea is backed up by the low-frequency theta waves, which become active during REM sleep. These waves are in the brain’s frontal lobe, in the same area where learning, storing information and recalling information are active.
Factors That Influence Dreams
It’s not just our activities in the day that can influence our dreams. There are many elements of our lives that can change the way in which our dreams form. The main three factors are our health conditions (both constant and current), the foods we eat, and our exercise routine.
If you are struggling with bad dreams, understanding how these three factors are affecting your sleep could give you control or ease your pain.
There are a number of health conditions that can affect your dreams. These are the top three:
Mental Health Disorders
If you suffer from a mood-related mental health disorder such as depression, bipolar, or anxiety, you are more likely to experience intense dreams. These dreams may even contain disturbing content and should really be considered nightmares.
Because your condition doubles, reinforces, or fabricates negative feelings, your dream state will try and protect you from these dangers when you are awake. As we said before, some dreams try to help you by letting you practice the threat in a safe environment. Unfortunately, your overly stimulated responses cannot regulate the fear you experience.
You may think that antidepressants or antipsychotics could help with this problem. However, they also give you higher risks or nightmares. To help you sleep, we recommend talking to your doctor.
Lack of sleep
If you have been sleep-deprived for two or more nights, you might think that finally resting will bring you peace. However, your brain has had so much information stored that when you eventually reach REM sleep, it has a lot of data to unpack. This means that your dreams are more likely to be vivid and dramatic, causing nightmares.
If your reason for missing sleep is due to studying for a test or another form of stress, your subconscious mind will likely try and decipher this emotional problem at the same time as it stores your information. That means that your vivid dreams will probably be filled with fear.
Because these dreams are vivid and your brain is storing information, you are likely to recall the dreams and therefore be conscious of the nightmares as you wake.
If you are pregnant, your hormone production will increase as your body prepares and looks after the baby. Although this increase is created for both you and the baby’s physical protection, it can make processing thoughts and emotions more difficult. This is reflected in the commonly used term “pregnancy brain,” where you often forget things or become erratic. This unstable emotional nature is likely to leak into your dreams, creating an intense vision.
So far, there isn’t any indisputable evidence that a portion of a particular food will create a specific dream. However, we can confirm that some foods will make it easier for you to remember your dreams.
For example, high carbohydrate foods give you energy, but they can also make you feel low after a while. The same is true for sugary foods. Too much of either can dramatically affect your mood. This is also true when you are sleeping. Eating a carby snack or a sugary sweet before bed will create a negative outcome in your dreams which will make them more memorable.
These foods will also want you to use up their energy, meaning they may wake you up in the night. Waking up through your REM sleep will cause you to awaken with the memory of the nightmare in the forefront of your mind.
We have talked about how interrupted sleep and a lack of sleep can affect your dreams, making them more vivid and easier to recall.
A 2014 study published in the Vascular Health and Risk Management Journal found that good exercise can make you sleep easier. Specifically, exercising before noon with a run or other cardio workout helps your body create a clock of rest. You will be more likely to fall asleep, and these nights of sleep will be deeper than a day with no exercise.
These deeper periods of sleep should create less vivid dreams. This is because your body spends less time in REM sleep and more time in the second stage of sleep, known as spindles. This is already the most significant sleep stage, and it is used to help repair the body.
Not only does the cardio exercise trigger more repair, but it is also likely to work through your stress and anxiety. With less emotional stress, the dreams you have will be less intense.
Why Do We Get Nightmares?
There is a perpetual myth that adults outgrow nightmares, and although it’s true that nightmares are more common among children, that doesn’t mean that adults are immune.
Nightmares are distressing dreams that cause the dreamer to feel disturbed
Nightmares can be vividly realistic. They invoke your fight or flight responses, causing your skin to sweat and your heart to palpitate. At the peak of the drama, your mind will either pull you out of the dream for your own safety, or it will allow you to fight against the impending dread.
The subject of the nightmare will vary between people; however, the fear tends to be reflective of your waking anxieties.
Nightmares and Night Terrors are often thought to be the same thing. However, Nightmares often occur during REM sleep, and they wake you up in the early hours of the morning. They also constrain dreams which inspire your fear. Night Terrors, on the other hand, are not dreams but feelings. Those who suffer from Night Terrors don’t often know why they were afraid. These terrors typically occur out of REM sleep and cause the person to awaken after just a few hours of sleep.
Dreams can cause: anxiety, fear, and trauma
Although it may seem evident that nightmares are caused by anxiety and fear, in 2014, a study showed how nightmares could cause these negative feelings too. The study followed 227 adults who had been diagnosed with a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). These individuals were more likely than non-GAD participants to experience nightmares. They found that these nightmares then carried over into their waking life, causing greater anxiety.
The patients would remember their dreams in more detail and be fearful of experiencing their sleeping terrors in their waking hours. Due to this constant state of fear, the participants were experiencing additional depression and a lower quality of life.
The study showed how, without treatment, the cycle of waking fear and dreaming dread would feed each other in an unending loop.
The study suggests that the participants who underwent cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) would be more likely to overcome their fear which was producing the nightmares, and can therefore break the cycle.
This study was revolutionary, as it was one of the first to examine the link between dreams and waking fear in adults who suffered from a generalized anxiety disorder. Until this point, only children were studied, creating a massive gap in psychological care for anxious and depressed adults.
Nightmares are usually spontaneous
For most people, nightmares are spontaneous, and they follow the natural flow of worry in your life. However, there are mood disorders and underlying factors that can cause nightmares to be more frequent.
The main factors outside of mood disorders are often late-night snacks, medications, and sleep deprivation.
Late Night Snacks
In a 2018 study, J Lee and S Suh found that the body decreases its level of ghrelin during sleep, which is normally used to send signals to the brain asking for more energy intake. As we do not need excess energy while we are sleeping, this function is turned off. However, if our body has already been given energy, it will either use or store it. Depending on current storage levels, this might mean that your body will create a more physical reaction to your dreams, causing nightmares.
Medications that affect the neurotransmitters and their engagement levels (such as antidepressants and narcotics) are known to cause more intense and frightening dreams. This is because, as your body sleeps off your daily dose, your body goes into withdrawal. The medication is no longer balancing your neurotransmitters, and so, in their desperate state, the irregularities become more drastic.
In a 2010 study, people who suffered from frequent nightmares and those who did not suffer often were put through a trial of sleep deprivation. In the trial, the researchers found that those who received nightmares more often had a low sleep time in their day-to-day life. Whether naturally or due to their hectic lives, they did not receive a whole night’s sleep. The participants who didn’t suffer from nightmares regularly found that forced sleep deprivation caused a spike in fear inducing dreams.
How To Remember Your Dreams
If you want to remember more of your dreams, there are some easy ways to accomplish this goal. Most of them are to do with changing your habits, but there is one particular one that might be less favorable to you.
Wake up without an alarm
Waking up without an alarm can be a stressful move on a working day. If you want to try this method, we suggest turning off the alarm on a day that you have no early plans.
The idea is that you are more likely to remember your dreams if you were to wake up naturally. This is because you will have completed an entire sleep cycle, and your mind will have sorted the stored information successfully.
Any information your conscious mind thinks needs more work should be given to you as a dream.
Remind yourself to remember
Before your mind drifts off, but while you are laying in bed waiting to rest, tell yourself that you want to remember your dream. This shouldn’t affect how your dreams are created, their contents, or how your memories are stored; however it should make this request the first thing you think about when you wake up.
When you awaken, the want to remember your dream should still be active, and so the first thing you’ll do is recall the details of your visions.
This leads to our next tip.
As soon as you wake up, try to recall the details of your dream. Actively doing this is called Dream Playback. If you wake up and try to grab the images and storylines straight away, they are more likely to linger in your mind. You can then take this foundation information and continue to pull more memories of your dreams from your mind before they slip away.
Write it down
It may help to write down everything you are remembering. This way, you can track how your dreams are decoding and understanding the problems you are facing in your life. Writing down your dreams can be a simple self-care treat or a wonderfully random view of your mind. Either way, writing down your dreams can help you recall them later.
If we do not try to recall our dreams, then most of them will be forgotten as the day continues, but actively remembering your dreams is achievable with just a couple of morning and nighttime changes.
If we manage to recall our dreams, they might be able to help us combat our nightmares. We know that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can treat nightmares for those with a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and so capturing our dreams may help those without GAD to unpack their fears too.
If you hope to stop nightmares by changing your lifestyle, then avoiding sleep deprivation and nighttime snacks should be your number one change. However, an early morning jog will also help you battle against the fear.
Dreams are how we digest the information we have stored in our day, and although they are often interesting and insightful, they are only an abstract creation of our imagination.
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