The Importance of Dreaming
Everybody dreams; simply because you do not remember your dream does not mean that you do not dream. In fact, you have several dreams during a normal night of sleep. On average, you can dream anywhere from one to two hours every night. Moreover, you can have four to seven dreams in one night. Five minutes after the end of the dream, half the content is forgotten. After ten minutes, 90% is lost.
Numerous studies emphasis the importance of dreaming and its role in your well-being and health. Some researchers believe that dreams help you to tackle stress. Dreaming is a necessity and helps to recharge the mind and revitalize the body.
The sleep cycle repeats itself about an average of four to five times per night, but may repeat as many as seven times. Dreams can occur in any of the four stages of sleep, but the most vivid and memorable dreams occur in the last stage of sleep – Rapid Eye Movement (REM). This is a normal stage of sleep characterized by the random movement of the eyes and is the most restorative part of sleep, when your mind is being revitalized and your emotions fine-tuned.
Do you dream in order to sleep or do you sleep in order to dream? Although that question remains debatable, researchers agree that there is a purpose and importance to dreaming.
REM sleep in adult humans typically occupies 20–25% of total sleep, about 90–120 minutes of a night’s sleep. During a normal night of sleep, humans usually experience about four or five periods of REM sleep; they are quite short at the beginning of the night and longer toward the end. Many animals and some people tend to wake, or experience a period of very light sleep, for a short time immediately after a bout of REM. The relative amount of REM sleep varies considerably with age; a new-born baby spends more than 80% of total sleep time in REM.
In REM sleep, the mind is as active as it is during waking hours; however, chemically it is different. REM is controlled by the excitability level of the cholinergic neurons. Noradrenaline and serotonin are missing in the brain when in the dream state. These chemicals allow the brain to carry out tasks, solve problems and remember things.
Researches have showed that people who are deprived from entering the dream phase of sleep or the REM stage, exhibit symptoms of irritability and anxiety. In one dream study, volunteers are woken up right before they enter into the dream state. Then they are allowed to fall back to sleep. Again, right before they enter REM sleep, they are awakening. This continues on through the night. The volunteers sleep the same amount of time as they normally do. The next day, these volunteers go about their day and observed to be disoriented, depressed, crabby, and quick tempered. There is a general impairment in their daily functioning. Some eat more than usual. As this study continues on through several nights, subjects become more and more agitated. It is found that deprivation of REM sleep causes over-sensitivity, lack of concentration and memory loss.
This study shows the importance of dreaming and its role in your well-being and health. Some researchers believe that dreams help you to tackle stress. Dreaming is a necessity and helps to recharge the mind and revitalize the body.
Why Do We Dream
Science has made great progress in deepening our understanding of dreaming. Still, there is no answer to the question: Why do we dream?
There are, however, a great number of theories being explored. While some scientists posit that dreaming has no direct function—but instead is a consequence of other biological processes that occur during sleep—many studying sleep and dreams believe dreaming serves a primary purpose. Theories of dreaming span scientific disciplines, from psychiatry and psychology to neurobiology.
Some current theories suggest that dreaming is:
- A component and form of memory processing, aiding (link is external) in the consolidation (link is external) of learning (link is external) and short-term memory to long-term memory storage.
- An extension of waking consciousness, reflecting (link is external) the experiences of waking life.
- A means (link is external) by which the mind works through difficult, complicated, unsettling thoughts, emotions, and experiences, to achieve psychological and emotional balance.
- The brain responding (link is external) to biochemical changes and electrical impulses that occur during sleep.
- A form (link is external) of consciousness that unites past, present and future in processing information from the first two, and preparing for the third.
- A protective act (link is external) by the brain to prepare itself to face threats, dangers and challenges.
There is not likely ever to be a simple answer, or a single theory that explains the full role of dreaming to human life. Biological, cognitive, psychological—it’s very likely that dreaming may serve important functions in each of these realms.
Like sleep, dreams are vulnerable to disruption from problems with mental and physical health. There are a number of conditions (as well as medications) that may affect dreams, and that can make dreams more difficult and disturbing.
Depression and anxiety often are accompanied by nightmares, and the presence of nightmares may be an indication of the severity of depression. Research has found that among patients with Major Depressive Disorder, the presence of frequent nightmares is associated with(link is external) suicidal tendencies. People who are depressed or anxious are more likely to have stressful, disturbing, or frightening dreams, sometimes in the form of recurring dreams.
There’s evidence that one type of drug commonly used to treat depression may alter dreaming. Selective Serotonin Uptake Inhibitors (SSRI) appear to affect dreaming (link is external) in several ways. SSRI may decrease dream recall—the ability to remember dreams.
This type of drug may intensify dreaming. SSRI may also lead to the presence of more positive emotions in dreams. Withdrawal from SSRI, on the other hand, may lead to nightmares and may also intensify dreaming.
Drugs and alcohol also can affect dreaming. Alcohol disrupts the normal, healthy sleep cycle and leads to fragmented sleep. Consuming alcohol heavily and too close to bedtime may alter and diminish time spent in REM sleep. Studies show that alcohol-dependency is linked to dreams with more negative emotional content. Marijuana also disrupts and reduces REM sleep. Withdrawal from marijuana and cocaine has been shown (link is external) in studies to induce strange dreams.
Certain sleep disorders may be accompanied (link is external) by altered dreaming. Insomnia can heighten dream recall, and also lead to more stressful and disturbing dreams. (Depression and anxiety are also more likely in people with insomnia.) Obstructive sleep apnea, because of its ability to disrupt normal REM sleep, can cause disturbed dreaming with more bizarre and negative dream content. Narcolepsy, a disorder that involves extreme daytime tiredness and altered sleep-wake cycles, can also lead to more negative and bizarre dreams. Restless Leg Syndrome, a neurological disorder (link is external) and a sleep disorder, can also be accompanied by nightmares.
REM behavior disorder (RBD) is a condition (link is external) where the normal paralysis that occurs during REM sleep doesn’t take place. People with REM behavior disorder can move during this sleep phase, and often act out physically in reaction to their dreams. This activity can be violent—thrashing, kicking, getting out of bed—and can lead to injury to the sleeper or a bed partner. We don’t know precisely what causes RBD, but it is associated with neurological illness and injury, as well as to withdrawal from alcohol or narcotics, or use of some anti-depressants.
Nightmares and disturbed dreaming are a hallmark (link is external) of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as is disrupted sleep.
People who suffer from PTSD (link is external) often experience frequent and recurring nightmares, which may be accompanied by acting out during dreams, with symptoms similar to REM behavior disorder. PTSD occurs in some people who’ve experienced forms of trauma, including assault, disaster, war and combat. Soldiers who’ve served in active combat often experience sleep problems and disordered dreaming linked to trauma and PTSD. After years of observing a particular group of symptoms among combat soldiers, sleep scientists are now proposing the creation of a new sleep disorder (link is external): Trauma Associated Sleep Disorder, with symptoms that include nightmares, sleepwalking and other disruptive nighttime behaviors.
Altered dreaming is also linked to degenerative neurological conditions, including Parkinson’s disease (link is external) and some forms of dementia. Violent and aggressive dreams, along with RBD—physically acting out during dreams—are frequent symptoms of neurological degeneration. These dream-related symptoms also have been identified as a strong predictor (link is external) of future development of degenerative neurological disease. Studies show that REM behavior disorder (RBD) is a strong predictor for both some types of dementia and Parkinson’s disease.
What about dreaming’s influence over our waking lives? Dreaming is a universal, enduring aspect of being human (though not limited to humans, since animals dream as well). Dreaming is something we do daily from the time we are very young to very old. Are dreams more than a nightly de-cluttering of the mind? Are there ways that dreams might help us live better? There is a long-held view of dreams as a creative portal—and scientific study may be giving that belief some credence. Evidence suggests that dreams may assist in daytime function and performance, especially as they relate to creativity and problem solving.
Both testimonies (link is external) from creative people and contemporary scientific research suggest that dreams are a creative landscape for the mind. One study of musicians’ dreams found that not only did they dream frequently of music, but nearly half of the music they recalled from their dreams was unfamiliar and novel(link is external) to them, an indication that composing is possible in dreams.
Recent research examined (link is external) the role of dreams in problem solving, using a group of lucid dreamers. They found that lucid dreamers could use their dreams (link is external) effectively to solve creative problems (in the case of the study, the creative problem was crafting a metaphor as directed by researchers). Studies like this one suggest dreams may be fertile territory for influencing and enhancing our waking frame of mind.
More broadly, dreams provide us with insight about what’s preoccupying us, troubling us, engaging our thoughts and emotions. Often healing, often mysterious, always fascinating, dreams can both shape us and show us who we are.