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Understanding Dreams

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Updated May 23, 2014

Woman asleep in bed
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What are Dreams?

Dreams happen during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep. In a typical night, you dream for a total of 2 hours, broken up by the sleep cycle. Researchers do not know much about how we dream or why. They do know that newborns dream and that depriving rats of REM sleep greatly shortens their lives. Other mammals and birds also have REM sleep stages, but cold-blooded animals such as turtles, lizards and fish do not.

REM Sleep and Dreaming

REM sleep usually begins after a period of deep sleep known as stage 4 sleep. An area of the brain called the pons--where REM sleep signals originate--shuts off signals to the spinal cord. That causes the body to be immobile during REM sleep. When the pons doesn't shut down the spinal cord's signals, people will act out their dreams. This can be dangerous because acting out dreams without input from the senses can lead a person to run into walls, fall down stairs or worse. This condition is rare and different from more common sleepwalking and known as “REM sleep behavior disorder.”

The pons also sends signals to cerebral cortex by way of the thalamus (which is a filter and relay for sensory information and motor control functions deep in the brain). The cerebral cortex is the part of the brain involved with processing information (learning, thinking and organizing). The areas of the brain “turned on” during REM sleep seem to help learning and memory. Infants spend almost 50 percent of their sleep time in REM sleep (compared to 20 percent for adults), which may be explained by the tremendous amount of learning in infancy. If people are taught various skills and then deprived of REM sleep, they often cannot remember what they were taught.

The Meaning of Dreams

Dreams may be one way that the brain consolidates memories. The dream time could be a period when the brain can reorganize and review the day’s events and connect new experiences to older ones. Because the body is shut down, the brain can do this without additional input coming in or risking the body “acting out” the day’s memories.

Some researchers believe that dreams are more like a background “noise” that is interpreted and organized. This theory states that dreams are merely the brain’s attempt to make sense of random signals occurring during sleep. Some people have more control over their dreams than others. For these people, the last thoughts before going to bed may influence the content of a dream.

Of course psychologists and most people look for greater meaning and insight in dreams. Here are some common dreams with interpretations:

  • Falling: Dreams of falling are said to indicate insecurity. Freud thought dreams of falling meant the contemplation of giving into a sexual urge.
  • Flying: Dreams of flying are said to indicate feeling in control or 'on top of' a situation.
  • The Naked Dream: Dreams of being naked are said to indicate that you are ashamed about something or have something to hide.

Personally, these interpretations feel a bit too pop psych to me. I think by engaging with your dreams and thinking about them you can determine what meaning might be conveyed for your life. (I keep having a dream about forgetting to wear socks, please leave comments if you have any insight).

You can develop your ability to remember your dreams by keeping a journal near your bed and writing down everything you can about your dreams when you first wake up. After a few weeks, your ability to remember your dreams will improve. Some people claim that they have lucid dreams, which are dreams in which they can participate and change the dream as it develops. Lucid dreaming can be triggered through a number of techniques, though little research and lots of speculation has been done on it.

More on Improving Your Sleep

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