Dreams By Rimi Chakravarti

Dreaming. What first comes to mind? You might think of crazily amazing things, like flying, travelling at the speed of light, or maybe even finding a hidden land. Dreaming is what we do in our sleep, a combination of thoughts, memories, events and feelings. They can be good, bad, or just downright weird. But why? Why do we dream, how does it affect us, and how do we come to dream of certain things? All these questions are about to be answered.

Why do we dream?

‘Why do we dream?’ is probably the ultimate question within the world of dreaming. Unfortunately, that question has yet to be successfully and truly answered, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any theories to explore.

One possible answer, discovered by scientist Aristotle and philosopher Plato, shows that dreaming may be some kind of an imitation of a situation or process, to try things that we’d’ve never tried in real life, for instance: flying, battling the ultimate beast, blasting off to Jupiter, or fighting an army of apocalypse zombies.

Another theory was generated by the Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud, and it is known as the Psychoanalytic (sahy-koh-uh-nal-ah-tihk) theory. Psychoanalytic, or psychoanalysis, is the therapy used to treat mental disorders by investigating the interaction of conscious and unconscious elements in their mind and bringing repressed fears and problems into the conscious mind (the state of mind we are aware of) by techniques, such as dream interpretation.

The theory states that people’s aggression, feelings, and instincts are what drive them, and since these are restrained in our conscious mind, they are all let loose to roam in the unconscious. This tells us that we actually have a lot more to our unconscious mind (the mind we are not aware of), but we don’t know it because we’re not exactly conscious when this unconscious business goes on.

This next theory is also quite interesting. It’s known as the Active-Synthesis theory. It was thought out by two men; Robert McClarley and J. Allan Hobson, back in the day of 1977. They proposed that during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, brain circuits are activated, and therefore the limbic system becomes active. The limbic system is a part of your brain underneath your cortex that combines thinking and emotions into one system. This system consists of many parts of your brain, such as the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is associated with your long and short-term memory, and the amygdala, the part of your brain that creates your feelings.

This is a diagram of your brain.

Although Hobson stated that dreams are because of an internal function, he still believed that dreams had some spiritual meaning. According to him, dreams may be our, “... most creative conscious state.” He most likely believed that even if the majority of dreams make no sense at all, there are one or two that pop up which we go on to find useful in our lives.

According to Dr. Michael J. Breus, also known as the Sleep Doctor, “Dreams provide us with insight about what’s preoccupying us, troubling us, engaging our thoughts and emotions. Often healing, often mysterious, always fascinating, dreams can both shape us and show us who we are.” That means that dreams may have a purpose, whether it be about the world, or showing you a different part of yourself.

How does our brain generate dreams?

How does our brain come up with all the weird things in our head? As it was mentioned earlier, the amygdala is the part of the brain associated with feelings, and it’s in fact active during sleep. What this means is that all of our dreams are filled to the brim with feelings; whether you’d be scared, sad, or even excited, it all comes from your amygdala. Dreams are thought to be compilations of all your recent thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

Although the amygdala is responsible for the feelings in your dreams, it’s not conjuring the whole thing up all by itself. There are two other parts of the brain that come into play when it comes to the great, scary fire-breathing beast in your head while you sleep. One of these parts is your cortex.

Your cortex, which was mentioned earlier, is a complicated thing, because it is a multi-pieced part of your brain that is responsible for all the fantastical things that happen during your dream. Since we are a highly visual species, during sleep many parts of your cortex are active, therefore combining visual images and events into what you see in your dream.

The last part thought to affect your dreaming is the frontal lobes. These control your behaviour, learning, personality, and movement. It’s that these lobes control most of your body. Behaviour, learning, personality, and movement is what makes you your original self. If those aren’t as active during your sleep, then your whole sense of reality and who you are is discarded, and is replaced by the thoughts of your unconscious mind.

The Sleep Cycle

You may not know that we go through several stages each night when we sleep, but, we do. We go through this cycle up to five or six times a night, and only dream during our REM state, which was discovered by Nathaniel Kleitman and Eugene Aserinsky.

Kids at ten years old and above dream 4-6 times each night, while infants dream even more, because they go through more REM than we do. This means that kids dream more often, recall more, and generally have a greater imagination, though this may not be true in some cases. Dreams can get longer as you have them throughout the night, and can even begin five minutes after you hit the sack to thirty minutes before you wake up.

ZZZZZZZ....

The first stage includes light sleep, and easy awakening. This is generally when you first begin sleeping. The second stage is when the deep sleep begins. Your eyes stop moving, your breathing deepens and evens out, and your brainwaves become increasingly slow. In stage three, even slower brain waves called delta waves are scattered around with smaller, faster waves. In the final stage, stage four, your brain produces delta waves almost exclusively.

Stages three to four are generally when kids wet the bed, sleepwalk, or have nightmares, as these sleep stages are considered to be deep sleep and are very hard to be awoken from. The very last stage, REM, consists of much twitching and jerking, breathing becomes irregular or shallow, and there’s the temporary paralysis of your limbs, which seems really weird, but it’s what everyone does in their sleep.

Who knew that we go through so much activity each night?

How do dreams affect our lives?

Dreams can affect us in various ways; sometimes good, sometimes bad, and some people think they don’t at all. Either way, it needs to be explained.

Having a dream can affect us in a good way, like, those kinds of dreams that you aspire towards, the ones you try to make come true. That’s all very nice, but the bad side of dreaming can affect you terribly.

Some dreams repeat, like you see the same people, or you end up falling to your death each time. This may be because dreams are vulnerable to disruption from your physical and mental health, which leads us to why you might have weird dreams when you have a fever, or when you’re not feeling well otherwise.

People who are REM-deprived have a worse time in the waking world, as the people who get enough REM do not, and actually feel better. Believe it or not, REM deprivation/disruption can lead to continuing or recurring nightmares which are associated with suicidal tendencies, anxiety and depression, and post-traumatic stress. Insomnia, or the inability to sleep, leads to you recalling more and more stressful dreams. Disrupted dreaming is also linked to several nervous-system conditions, some of which are Parkinson’s disease, and some forms of dementia. Who would have guessed dreaming was this important?

You might be asking now, why is REM sleep so important in the first place? Why do we need it so badly? REM stimulates the brain, helps the brain develop, increases your production of proteins (which are good for you, by the way) and encourages your learning, which is all vital to your health alone.

There are many people in the world that believe dreaming has a purpose. In a study done by Professor Michael Norton from Harvard Business School, he had many students rate different theories about dreams. Out of all the Indians, Koreans, and Americans surveyed, a vast amount of the students said the theory that ‘dreams reveal hidden truths about themselves and the world’ seemed true, which tells us that many people actually do believe that dreams have a purpose. According to the French-American author Anais Nin (1903-1977), “Dreams are necessary to life.” That quote is pretty self-explanatory by itself. Even back in her time, she considered dreams to be critical to living.

You know now, how fascinating and mysterious dreams can be. Dreaming has a purpose, whether we believe it yet or not. We know where they come from, and maybe why they’re there. They even affect us in the real world sometimes. The next time you dream, pay attention. Think about what caused your dream to be that way, or what possible meaning it could be hiding. In the end, the possibilities of dreaming are infinite.

Glossary

Amygdala - the part of the brain associated with feelings

Frontal lobes - the part of the brain associated with your general behavior and actions

REM (Rapid Eye Movement) - the state your brain lapses in and out of when you sleep (you dream during REM)

Brainstem - the bottom part of your brain that is the most ancient, connecting your brain to your spinal cord

Spinal cord - the central part of your nervous system, connecting almost all the parts of your body to your brain

Dementia - many symptoms including the impairment of thinking, communicating, and memory which can lead to Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s disease - a disorder with the hippocampus that can lead to memory loss, often comes with age

Limbic system - combines primitive emotions and higher thinking into one system. Includes parts such as the hippocampus and amygdala

Cortex - the part of the brain associated with higher thinking and behavior

Hippocampus - the system that stores your memory

Parkinson’s disease - a long-term disorder of the central nervous system that can affect the motor system. Some symptoms are shaking, slowness with movement, and walking difficulty

Conscious mind - the mind we are aware of, the mind we know about

Unconscious mind - the mind we are not aware of, the mind we don’t know much about

Credits:

Created with images by AdinaVoicu - "sun sunset sky" • Unsplash - "northern lights plasma sky" • Greyerbaby - "sunset sun nature" • FrankWinkler - "coast elgol isle of skye" • ptc24 - "Sky" • Unsplash - "night sky stars" • nigelhowe - "First Light"

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