We spend a third of our lives asleep, and most of us dream. Usually, these dreams make no logical sense, yet at the same time can feel incredibly realistic. What’s going on in our brains when we dream, and why do we dream?
The Study of Dreams
Oneirology is the name given to the study of dreams. In human history, this hardly existed because as you can imagine, dreams are not physical objects that we can hold, examine directly and measure. This makes understanding them very difficult.
It is estimated that the average person forgets 95% of their dreams… within 10 minutes of waking up. This further adds to the difficulty of studying them as you cannot rely on the dreamer to tell you exactly what happened. So, how do we study them?
REM is short for Rapid Eye Movements . REM sleep is the deep sleep stage of the sleep cycle, and the reason why it is called REM, is because in this stage the sleeper’s eyes are rapidly darting around under their eye lids. REM sleep accounts for 20-25% of all sleep, and we drift in and out of it on average 4-5 times per night.
Why is REM relevant to dreaming?
By studying the electrical activity in the brain while one sleeps, scientists have shown that the levels of activity are incredibly high during REM. In fact, so high, that these levels are similar to those when awake .
The biggest difference in these activities is that certain chemicals in the brain, such as serotonin, are almost completely blocked thus stopping us from carrying out our dreams. For example, if you dream that you are climbing walls and jumping off them, you don’t end up hurting yourself in waking life. Some people have certain REM sleep disorders where they cannot achieve complete REM sleep. Disorders such as these cause sleep walking. Sleep walking is your body basically attempting to act out your dreams.
When in REM sleep, you are harder to wake up; when you are woken, there is a very high chance you will be able to remember your dreams much more vividly. If you wake up to an alarm to get ready for work or school and realise you can recall every bit of detail of your dream, you were in REM sleep prior to waking up.
Being deprived of REM sleep has proven to have a significant effect on one’s memory. In fact, memory recollection of things learnt the day before, without enough REM sleep, is shockingly terrible.
WHY do we dream?
If you learn something new in the day, for example, learning how to get the car moving on your first driving lesson; the electrical activity going on in your brain during this learning process is effectively repeated during REM sleep .
In a single day, a lot of electrical activity occurs in the brain via simply thinking, or learning new skills, such as driving as mentioned above. When some of these thoughts are replayed in REM sleep, the conscious mind (the Cortex in the Brain) detects them and cannot make sense of them completely as they are not replayed in order. Consequently, it attempts to link all these thoughts together into a cohesive story which then forms a dream. This explains why they can also be incredibly random.
Is this all completely true? Unfortunately, the answer is no. As much as we understand REM sleep, the actual conclusion of why we dream is just a theory. While this theory can be somewhat accurate to some extent, it is not a definitive explanation for why we dream; meaning dreams, are still a mystery.
What us humans have been able to explain is incredible, yet we struggle with one of the things humans do most; dream. Mind blowing.
If you have any questions, leave them below and until next time, take care.
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