Dreams transport us into unlimited creation, giving humans a chance to become more. From dragons to superheroes, dreams are humanity’s escape into an unknown world, almost always uncontrollable but never dull.
Humankind’s capabilities to dream, its characteristics, and what they represent are timeless questions that researchers, scientists, and psychologists continue to investigate. For centuries people have been seeking answers to these questions and to reduce the uncertainty that is dreams.
Before we dive deep into the many theories and explanations linked with dreams, it is essential to establish a foundation of what they are. Dreams are the thoughts, emotions, and experiences that occur while sleeping. They have various characteristics, including “first-person perspective, involuntary, content may be illogical or even incoherent, can provoke strong emotions,” and more. The reasons why we dream can vary. There are multiple theories and explanations for why we dream; here are some. Processing emotions, mental housekeeping, instant replay, and incidental brain activity are reasons why we dream, according to Sleepfoundation.org.
These theories and information have motivated scientists to continue researching dreams. Attempts at understanding this aspect of human life are challenging because it is all in our heads, but this has not stopped scientists from trying. Here are some of the many discoveries humanity has made regarding dreams.
One of the most significant discoveries about dreams was made in the 1950s by a group of American physiologists. They identified the different stages of sleep people go through. The deepest stage is REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement). An article in the National Library of Science says, “the researchers noticed a decrease in voltage and an increase in frequency in the EEG, accompanied by an increase in cardiac frequency variability and a decrease in body movements. They concluded that these physiological modifications indicate [REM sleep].” Most dreams occur in this stage, and this is when people remember them the most. During this phase, our bodies are “paralyzed” as our brains roam free.
The name comes from the eye movements that occur during this stage. Scientists believe this eye movement is people looking around in their dreams. Other discoveries of this sleep stage include “intense cognitive activity, creating complex stories of a dream; and lack of muscle tone prevent [which] prevents the dreamer from acting out his dreams,” according to Ruby Perrine M., the author for a journal on the National Library of Science.
All this information is exceedingly helpful, but many researchers have taken it further than simply identifying different stages of sleep. Many experiments continue to try and find answers to the timeless questions previously mentioned. At the Northwestern University of Illinois (NUI), Paller’s lab focuses on dreams and two-way communication. An experiment done at Paller’s Lab included teaching participants lucid dreaming and using eye movement to communicate with the real world while asleep. One participant was able to answer a simple math problem during lucid dreaming. This is a victory because scientists believe that from this successful trial, other doors could open.
Researchers say this discovery could enable people to practice skills in their dreams. The example described in an article for the National Science Foundation said, “imagine a surgeon attempting to perfect a technique used in open heart surgery — in a dream.” Skills can be practiced, and people can find different ways to solve real-world problems that might only come to them in a dream. Karen Kionckly, a doctoral student at NUI who made the discovery, said, “our two-way communication method provides hope for improving [problem-solving]. If you're working on a problem, can you be reminded of that problem during a dream and come up with a creative answer more easily?”
Other success stories include the work of Matthew Walker and others. Walker and his colleagues at the Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab at UC Berkeley experimented to see if there is a link between emotions and dreams. The results suggest that “our dream stories essentially try to strip the emotion out of a certain experience by creating a memory of it. This way, the emotion itself is no longer active.” This is a good thing for many people. Do you have a friend who ignores their emotions and never confronts them? Tell them that REM sleep is vital because it will allow them to process those emotions through dreams, even if they do not want to. Walker expressed how important this can be because, if not, it can increase worry and anxiety. Lack of REM sleep has also been associated with the development of mental illness.
Moreover, Cristiana Mazaro and her colleagues at the University of Rome conducted experiments on 65 students, which resulted in crucial findings. They concluded that “neurophysiological mechanisms that we employ while dreaming (and recalling dreams) are the same as when we construct and retrieve memories while we are awake.” And while other theories say dreams are useless, some believe they can substantially help. The threat simulation theory explains that dreaming “should be seen as an ancient biological defense mechanism [since it gives humans the] capacity to repeatedly simulate potential threatening events – enhancing the neuro-cognitive mechanisms required for efficient threat perception and avoidance,” as written in Scientific America.
This is fascinating but can “normal” people apply all of this to their lives? Let us try. I am 22 years old, and I can perfectly remember about five dreams stretching from when I was in 5th grade to now. These dreams include an alien apocalypse happening over and over again until I kill the alien in charge, and did I mention there were four tornados, two dreams about two friends whom I was never romantically involved with but had feelings for, and one recurring nightmare of me being chased by Remus Lupin in werewolf form, a character from the Harry Potter film series. These dreams are forever engraved in my mind.
Learning how emotions are linked with dreams explains the dreams about my friends. In these dreams, we were romantically together even though, in real life, we were not. As Walker said, I could confront and “experiment” with emotions I had always ignored. Even though Walker says this is a good thing, I beg to differ. Instead of making these emotions “no longer active,” they did quite the opposite. In one dream, I was living in Paris with my friend, but in the dream, he was my boyfriend. We explored the city and did so many fun things together. My feelings for him grew, but I realized it was all a fantasy when I woke up. So, I was just sad and confused. Do not worry, though; it was a long time ago. I do not even remember his name.
As I have mentioned before, dreams can provoke strong emotions. The emotions from these two dreams were so strong that I did not know what to do in real life. The dreams felt so real because the emotions were real. So, returning to reality was terrible because I could do nothing with my heightened emotions. And the fake scenario I created from the dreams made reality worse. Walker’s optimistic view on how emotions are linked to dreams may be accurate, but in my case, only partially.
Adding to the link between emotion and dreams is the recurring nightmare I used to have. Being chased provokes feelings such as anxiety, stress, fear, and more. All these feelings must have occurred in my life, and I had never faced or acknowledged them. Other emotions, such as guilt and shame, can cause someone to have a dream like this; however, it can also be a warning from your brain. Dreams in which someone is being chased can have many contributing factors, so the key is to pay attention and try to analyze your real life to understand the meaning behind the dream. Just remember, there is usually an underlying reason.
What I have learned about all of this is that your dreams will always reveal the truth, whether it is emotions or something else. Next time you try to avoid something, just know you are not safe. Your mind will outsmart you every time.
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