The Science Behind Dreams
Most of us are familiar with that terrifying feeling of falling just before we’ve woken up sweating and in distress. Sometimes, we’re even aware that we are dreaming while we are sleeping. While insufficient knowledge, popular myths, or even movies like Inception may influence our perception of what a dream is, we’re going to bust these ideas and understand what a dream is and what it means based on straight, hard facts.
What is a dream?
Experts generally agree that a dream is a series of subconsciously generated images that can include sounds, sights, and other sensations. Falling is a recurring theme, caused by a phenomenon called Hypnic Jerks (sudden jolts when you’re about to fall asleep give the illusion of falling).
Dreams occur most frequently during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, a deep sleep state that means you are less likely to be disturbed.
Dreaming during REM sleep
The average person has three to five dreams per night, and some may have up to seven, with the length ranging from a few seconds to approximately 20–30 minutes. Your muscles are paralyzed during REM sleep to prevent you from acting your dream out. This feeling can persist when you’re half-awake and is called sleep paralysis.
The dream’s length and vivid nature increase as you remain undisturbed in the REM phase. If someone suddenly wakes you up during this time, you are likely to remember the dream you were vividly having just moments ago and will feel startled. However, feel free to take it as a rare memory, as we tend to forget a huge chunk (about 95%) of our dreams.
Why do we dream?
Some scientists believe that dreaming is related to signals sent to the cortex during sleep. While some of these signals are crucial for memory and learning, others are seemingly random. Your brain might try to interpret these signals by combining them into a cohesive story, resulting in a dream.
Another theory states that dreams declutter our brains. During dreams, our brain automatically discards pieces of memory that it regards as useless.
How does dreaming help us?
Dreams seem to help us process emotions by encoding and constructing memories of them. What we see and experience in our dreams might not be real, but the emotions attached to these experiences certainly are. Our dream stories essentially try to strip the emotion out of a certain experience by creating a memory of it. This mechanism helps reduce personal worry and anxiety by rendering negative emotions inactive.
The majority of our dreams are based on negative emotions, adding weight to this theory. Pleasant dreams only happen if you have low-stress levels, i.e., less negative emotions.
While research continues, there is no solid proof of what dreaming means. No theory, from the one proposed by Sigmund Freud to the one presented by Christopher Nolan (the director of the movie Inception), has not been able to provide concrete evidence to support itself. And while it may be fun to dwell on what a dream we’ve had, we must remember that sometimes it’s just a dream!