Why We Dream: The Key to Emotional and Mental Wellbeing

Are you aware that every night you’re becoming psychotic? I know that sounds like a disturbing diagnosis, but it’s true – we all go through psychotic episodes each night which include

  • hallucinations – we see, hear, feel, and even smell and taste things that aren’t there in your bedroom.
  • delusions – we believe things that are unreal and irrational.
  • disorientations – we become disoriented and feel lost and confused.
  • sudden and dramatic mood swings – we can switch from being extremely happy and feeling on top of the world to feeling depressed and beaten down. 
  • memory loss – most of the time, as soon as we wake up, we can’t remember what we were dreaming about just a few moments ago.

If some or all of these experiences occurred regularly during the day, it would indeed be a cause for concern. But since it happens at night during the REM phase of our sleep cycle, there is nothing to worry about. On the contrary, it shows that you’re a healthy human being because dreaming is essential to your mental sanity.

What are dreams, and how do they happen?

Why we dreamDreams are a series of thoughts, images, and emotions that occur during sleep. Since the earliest times, man has been asking the question, “What are dreams?” because of their mysterious nature. It’s important to understand the cycle that we go through when we sleep in order to answer what are dreams and how do they happen.

The average person sleeps eight hours a day, and throughout this time, the person goes through a sleep cycle several times over. There are two basic types of sleep. One is characterized by very slow brain waves, hence, known as the slow-wave sleep or SWS, and the other one is REM sleep, which stands for rapid eye movement. 

There are four SWS stages that a person goes through during sleep, and then the person enters the fifth stage, the REM sleep. This entire sleep cycle is repeated throughout the whole time the person is sleeping, but of course, a person can wake up at any stage.

How dreaming works

It’s during the REM sleep that a person usually starts dreaming. Rapid eye movement is called so because if you observe a person in this stage of sleep, you will notice that beneath their eyelids, their eyes are moving rapidly from side to side or as if they are following the actions of someone or something. It’s also during this time that the body becomes seemingly paralyzed. 

REM sleep was discovered in 1953 by Eugene Aserinsky, who noticed the fluttering eyelids of sleepers in a sleep lab. From this, Aserinsky studied these eye movements and even utilized a polygraph machine that recorded changes in the brain. Patterns were recorded by the polygraph machine, particularly during REM sleep. 

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At one time, a sleeping subject was crying out as he was sleeping, and Aserinsky woke him up, finding out and confirming that the sleeper was dreaming.  

You accumulate six years’ worth of dream time during your lifetime

From then on, dreams are generally associated with REM, which is the state of sleep when brain activity is at its most. Studies reveal that the average human accumulates six years’ worth of dream time in his/her lifetime, averaging two hours of dream time every night.

Research indicated that humans develop dream activity over the first eight years since birth, around the time that cognitive and linguistic developments also occur. And because dreaming is developmental, it changes as the person grows. This is why what are dreams to children is different from what are dreams to adults.

Are we only dreaming during REM sleep?

That depends on how you define dreaming. It’s true that if you think of the dreams as these hallucinogenic, bizarre experiences that seem to tell a story, then that’s happening primarily during REM sleep. 

However, if you include random thoughts like “I thought of water”, which you may recall after waking up, then these can occur in all phases of sleep, even deep sleep. If it were possible for me to wake you from a deep sleep, you might report some kind of unexciting thought like this. 

Are dreams meaningful?

The interpretation of dreams has been practiced since earliest times by the ancient Greeks and Egyptians, who believed that dreams contain messages from supernatural or divine powers, whose meanings can only be unfolded by people with special powers. 

Two of the major works on the interpretation of dreams were the Greek book Oneirocritica by Artemidorus from the 2nd century, the first one written on this subject, and Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams.

The different approaches to the interpretation of dreams over time

Artemidorus believed that dreams are unique to the individual and that a person’s waking life will influence the symbols in his dreams. Moreover, in ancient Greece, sick people were sent to temples to be healed in the belief that divine healing would come to them if they locked their dreams in the temple. The ancient Greeks also considered the interpretation of dreams to be prophetic and contained important premonitions. 

In Egypt, too, dreams were given great importance, and priests interpreted dreams. There are many cases in the Bible, where dreams were described as revelations from God. The importance of dreams in the life of the Egyptians is clearly visible in hieroglyphics.

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Modern society was still fascinated by the interpretation of dreams. Many renowned and influential figures in the field of psychology offered their own theories of what dreams mean, including Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Calvin Hall.

Are dreams pointing to repressed desires?

Sigmund Freud believed that repressed desires were so grueling and shocking that if they appeared in our dreams unveiled, they would wake us deeply disturbed. So Freud assumed that there was some sort of filter in our mind that protected the sleeping person. Suppressed desires would be filtered and reappear in the dream camouflaged so that they could not harm us.

Freud believed that he understood how the filter worked and that he could decipher and reverse engineer the disguised dream to reveal its true meaning.

Dreams as collective memories of the unconscious

Why we dreamOn the other hand, Carl Jung’s dream theories describe dreams as collective memories of the unconscious. In Jung’s interpretations of dreams, he speaks of symbols that make up the content of dreams and which must be analyzed according to their significance to the dreamer.

Calvin Hall developed a cognitive approach to the interpretations of dreams. He described dreams as a series of thoughts that emerge during sleep and that the content of dreams visually represents the dreamer’s notions or perceptions. 

Hall also discovered that although dream content varies from one to another at times, most people pretty much dream about the same things. With a dream collection database of over 50,000 recorded dreams from the 1940s to 1985, he used an outlined coding system in studying dreams.

What happens in our brains when we dream?

Although these approaches, like Sigmund Freud’s theory of dreams as wish fulfillment, were non-scientific, they had a significant impact on our thinking about why we dream. However, modern science rejects these approaches, mainly because new technology made it possible to get a better picture of what happens in our brains when we dream.

In the 1950s and 1960s, scientists used electrodes attached to the scalp to get a general idea of the type of brain wave activity that underlies REM sleep. 

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But the breakthrough was made in the early 2000s when scientists start using brain imaging machines that allow them to reconstruct sophisticated three-dimensional representations of brain activity during REM sleep. For the first time, they could see how even the very deepest structures previously hidden from view came alive as REM sleep and dreaming got underway.

Not only undermined the results they gained the theories of Freud but they gained insight into how we dream (e.g., logical/illogical, visual/non-visual, emotional/non-emotional) and what we dream of (e.g., experiences from our recent waking life or new experience), and most importantly why we dream.

Your Brain-CEO isn’t working during REM sleep

One fascinating fact about REM sleep is that it’s a state in which the visual, emotional, and autobiographical memory regions of your brain are activated and not so much the regions that control rational thoughts. In other words, the prefrontal cortex responsible for managing your analytical thinking and logical decision making is inactive during the dreaming state of REM sleep. 

This is an essential factor in understanding what and why we dream. Now it is possible to predict the general form of your dream, whether it’s rather visual and rational or emotional and irrational. Also, some research has been done on predicting the topics people are dreaming about, at least in broad categories like if it’s about a woman or a man or about a house or an animal.

 

But what’s about the function of dreams, the question “Why we dream?” Do dreams do anything good for us, or are they instead an unintended by-product of sleep? Let’s look at these questions next.

What are the core benefits of dreaming?

It is probably no secret to you that sleep plays a vital role in memory, both before and after learning a new task. And REM sleep is particularly crucial here because that’s when the consolidation process of your procedural memory happens – the remembering “how” you do something (for example, riding a bicycle or playing the piano). 

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We also know that lack of sufficient REM sleep has a substantial impact on our mood, motivation, judgment, problem-solving skills, creativity, and perception of events. What happens is that during REM sleep, your brain remembers the details of your daytime experience, integrates them with existing knowledge, and puts them into perspective.

Dreaming for our emotional and mental health

But there is another significant accomplishment of REM sleep, or more precisely of the act of dreaming during this lighter sleep phase: to forget or dissolve painful emotional charges that had previously been wrapped around some of your memories related to your daytime experiences.

“Time heals all wounds” is age-old wisdom that people from all cultural backgrounds probably know. But it’s actually not the full truth. What is really helping us to heal is not only the time but rather time spent in dream sleep because this the time when our brain goes through an emotional detox program.

How dreams help to detox your memory from painful emotions

Have you ever heard of norepinephrine, also called noradrenaline? Like adrenaline, noradrenaline is a stress hormone with the general function of mobilizing your brain and body for action. Your brain continually produces norepinephrine, except for one period – when you enter the state of dream sleep. In fact, REM sleep is the only time during the 24 hours of the day when your brain is completely free of this fear-inducing chemical. 

All this makes sense, considering that it’s during REM sleep, your brain’s emotional and memory-related structures are reactivated. And since this process takes place in a neutral environment without interference from a stress chemical like norepinephrine, which only REM sleep can provide, your brain has the opportunity to reprocess upsetting memory experiences from daily life. 

Why dreaming helps to resolve your inner conflicts

Leading sleep researcher Rosalinda Cartwright discovered that in times of crisis, people who make a rapid recovery have longer dreams in their sleep cycle. Whereas those who dream less, have trouble resolving their inner conflicts. 

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With her colleagues, Cartwright studied the effects of emotionally-rich dreams on recently divorced people. Data revealed that resolving emotional issues is done during dreaming. When dreams of an ex-spouse are viewed casually, the divorced person will start dealing with changes in his/her life. 

In her book The Twenty-four Hour Mind: The Role of Sleep and Dreaming in Our Emotional Lives, she writes about the role sleep and dreams play in regulating emotions:

“What we experience as a dream is the result of our brain’s effort to match recent, emotion-evoking events to other similar experiences already stored in long-term memory. One purpose of this sleep-related matching process, this putting of similar memory experiences together, is to defuse the impact of those feelings that might otherwise linger and disrupt our moods and behaviors the next day.”

Dream shed the emotional charge of your memories

Think about some of your more disturbing memories from your past, like a relationship breakup, an accident, or the loss of a loved one. What exactly happens when you recall that memory? Of course, you might feel uncomfortable, but isn’t it that the memories aren’t loaded with the same level of emotion as they were at the time of the experience? Not that you have forgotten the memory, but you have shed the emotional charge, or at least a considerable part of it. 

The reason for this is the therapeutic benefits of REM sleep. During this sleep phase, your subconscious mind separates your emotions from the actual event, so you do not have to relive the stress-loaded experiences every time you remember the event. We can, therefore, fully remember significant life events without being paralyzed by the emotional baggage that these painful experiences initially brought with them.

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On the flip side, if you do not get sufficient REM sleep, you will be left with a state of chronic anxiety in your memory. Whenever you remember something upsetting or devastating, you end up with the same stressful, emotional charge. Besides, you may experience painful repetitive nightmares, a combination often found in people who have PTSD.

Painful repetitive nightmares

Almost everybody has had nightmares at a certain point in our lives. Young children between the ages of three to eight years old in particular often suffer from nightmares caused by fear of monsters in their closets and under the bed, as well as other types of anxiety. Nightmares are normal in the development of children, and they usually do not indicate problems at all. 

But nightmares are not confined to childhood, and many adults still have occasional nightmares. The occasional scary dreams are normal, but there are recurrent ones such as those related to high stress or real-life trauma like surgery, accidents, or loss of a loved one that can cause problems.

Why healthy REM sleep may help to cure PTSD

A good example is people who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as soldiers returning from war and rescue workers who have experienced distressing situations. They report a higher incidence of nightmares than the general public. 

In these cases, it is believed that the brain wasn’t able to detox the trauma memory from the actual emotion during the first night after a traumatic event. Then during the second night, a renewed attempt occurs because the emotional experience associated with the memory remains too strong. If the process fails a second time, the same attempt is repeated the next night and the night after, and so on. That’s why people with PTSD have recurring nightmares of their trauma experience.

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But why is that happening? Why do some people seem to get over a traumatic event faster than others? One theory is that PTSD sufferers have a higher concentration of norepinephrine even during REM sleep, which prevents them from having the mental health benefit of dreaming described above. Therefore, lowering the noradrenaline levels at night may allow healthier quality REM sleep to emerge and help them to deal with their trauma memories effectively.

Conclusion

As you can see, the REM sleep dream state is a unique natural therapy that is available to you daily and completely free of charge, enabling you to manage the emotional turbulence of your everyday life. 

How can you ensure that you get enough REM sleep? A good way to start is not to use your alarm clock in the morning to avoid being interrupted while dreaming. Find out what time you need to go to bed so that you wake up on your own in time. This will undoubtedly take a while and requires a little trial and error practice, but it’s a surefire way to gain more mental and emotional strength.

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