Dreaming is widely regarded as a universal human experience. “We all dream every night,” even if we don’t remember them, said sleep expert David Neubauer, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University. Despite the ubiquity of dreams, however, they are often still shrouded in mystery.
“That’s why dreams fascinate people,” said dream researcher G. William Domhoff, a research professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “They come from somewhere else” – deep in the unconscious – “and so they have this mysterious element.”
Answers to key questions about dreams, including the basics of what they are and why we have them, may differ among experts. And while science continues to expand what is known about dreams, there’s a clear roadblock to understanding them, Domhoff said, because “we basically forget most of them.”
More generally, Neubauer said, dreams are a type of mentation, or mental activity, that occurs when people sleep and typically consist of vivid, hallucinatory visual content that is often bizarre or has irregular accounts.
“Highly intense, movie-like emotional narratives” tend to occur most often during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, he said. It’s also the phase of sleep when memory consolidation is thought to occur, he added, so dreaming may be our perception of the process of “getting rid of certain data files in your brain.” and to reinforce others to create better memories”.
Harvard dream researcher Deirdre Barrett, author of “The Committee of Sleep,” defines dreams as “our thinking brain in a very different biochemical state.” When someone dreams, the visual and emotional areas of the brain tend to be more active, while the verbal areas are somewhat less active, and “logical linear reasoning is significantly dampened,” she said.
But, she added, people’s minds are usually still occupied with the hopes and fears as well as the social and emotional concerns that dominate their daytime thoughts. “We think in this intuitive visual state, but a lot of research shows that the content of dreams is still very much in line with an individual’s main waking interests.”
Another approach to understanding dreams and dream content is what Domhoff has described as “neurocognitive dream theory.” From this perspective, dreaming occurs under six brain-related conditions that occur most often during REM sleep, said Domhoff, who has a forthcoming book on the theory.
Domhoff’s work suggests that the key cognitive process present during dreaming is an enhanced form of “simulation” in which people feel themselves in hypothetical scenarios that include a living sensory environment; interpersonal interactions; and emotions. “Dreaming is the accidental intersection of this age-old periodic brain activation with the relatively recent acquisition of the ability to imagine,” he said.
Here are answers to some common questions about dreams.
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Do dreams mean anything?
Alan Eiser, a psychologist and clinical lecturer at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor, says dreams can be “very meaningful” because they “deal with the kind of personal conflicts and emotional struggles that people live in their daily life. “
However, not all dreams have meaning, said Barrett of Harvard. In fact, much of their content may be “meaningless, circular or repetitive”. In this way, dreams can be similar to the thoughts we have when we’re awake, which aren’t always meaningful either, she said.
Domhoff also pointed out that while dreams can have meaning, her research suggests they are not symbolic. During sleep, people don’t seem to be able to access parts of the brain involved in understanding or generating metaphors, he said. To use symbolic thought, “it takes more brain,” he said, than is accessible during dreaming.
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Why do I have recurring dreams?
One theory, according to experts, is that people tend to have lingering concerns and will dream about these themes. According to Barrett, recurring dreams can be happy, but they’re generally more likely to be anxiety-provoking. Many therapists, she said, believe these types of dreams are usually about “bigger, long-term character issues,” such as a person’s personality traits, defense mechanisms, ways of doing things. face and his beliefs about the world.
Although you may notice that you’ve had the same dream before, Domhoff said, recurring dreams typically make up “a very, very small percentage of our dream lives.”
A commonly reported recurring dream involves the feeling of falling but suddenly waking up before impact. The feeling of falling and waking up with a start, which can also occur outside of dreaming as people fall asleep, may be the result of motion signals sent from the inner ear that are “completely random”, a Barrett said.
“As you get a little closer to waking up, there’s a slight overlap in being mostly asleep and yet starting to feel like you’re getting these movement messages that would mean something is seriously wrong. ‘they were actually happening,’ she said.
If you have recurring dreams that don’t interfere with your normal functioning, observe them but don’t overthink and worry, said Bhanu Kolla, associate professor of psychiatry and psychology and consultant at the Center for Sleep Medicine at the Mayo Clinic. “It’s part of what’s going on in your life right now, and once things settle down, things change. It’s probably going to get better,” he said.
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What can I do against nightmares?
It’s important to have a clear idea of why a nightmare is happening, Neubauer said. Certain medications, including some antidepressants, can make dreams more vivid, and certain underlying conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, can cause frequent nightmares. If your nightmares begin to affect your life and impair your daytime functioning, experts recommend seeking professional treatment.
The most studied behavior-based treatment is image replay therapy, or IRT, which can involve trying to rewrite dreams to make the experience more tolerable, Kolla said. He suggested writing the new script, including all the sensory information, and then trying to visualize the images before bed.
“Over time, nightmares become a habit,” he said. “It’s something your brain has learned to do. With this imagery, we’re trying to get it to learn a new habit and displace that unwanted habit.”
Another strategy is to fall asleep by focusing on what you want to dream about, Barrett said. “It has the added benefit of making falling asleep a slightly more pleasant experience” and can distract you from your worries.
But you might not want to avoid every nightmare, Eiser said. “A single nightmare or the occasional nightmare can be your mind’s way of telling you that there’s something really scaring you that you’re not handling properly,” he said.
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I try to run or scream in my dream, but I can’t. Why?
During REM sleep, the voluntary skeletal muscles of the body are paralyzed. “It’s good and important because otherwise we would have staged every move we make in our dreams,” Barrett said.
It is possible that the sensations of trying to run but not being able to move, or trying to scream but only whisper are related to this state of paralysis. For example, when you have a scary dream and try to scream as you begin to wake up slightly, you may feel that your vocal cords are paralyzed from REM sleep, Barrett said.
There might also be meaning in not being able to run away from a dangerous dream situation, Eiser said. It’s possible that “either there’s something pulling you in and a part of you that doesn’t want to run away, or that feels guilty that you deserve to have that danger on you.”
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Sometimes I can’t move after waking up from a dream, or I see things. What is happening?
Not being able to move right after waking up is a common phenomenon known as sleep paralysis. Although it can be scary, experts have pointed out that the sensation is usually a mild, lingering effect of REM sleep, when your muscles are paralyzed, and usually lasts no longer than a minute for most people.
“It can be very reassuring to understand that this is only temporary and it’s just a little postponement of the dream stage and it will pass,” Eiser said.
Often those with sleep paralysis also report hypnagogic hallucinations, or wake up and see something from their dream in their bedroom, Barrett said. “Anything from the dreamscape can be superimposed on their actual visual field.”
These incidents can occur randomly, but experts have noted that they are more common in people with narcolepsy, a sleep disorder characterized by excessive sleepiness and sudden bouts of sleepiness during the day. If you notice sleep paralysis or hallucinations occurring more frequently, talk to a doctor. “It can be a first sign even before you have sleep attacks,” Barrett said.
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Why do only some people remember their dreams?
People who are awake while dreaming may be more likely to remember it because being awake, even briefly, can give them time to memorize the dream, Eiser said. “Somehow the dream gets lost if you wait too long after it happens.”
People who sleep less tend to remember fewer dreams, Barrett said, because they can spend less time in REM sleep and also because they’re less likely to wake up from a dream because they’re potentially deprived of sleep.
Personality traits, such as being more introspective, and the importance people place on dreams may also play a role, experts said. “If you’re more open to thinking dreams are okay or important, then you’ll talk about them,” Domhoff said, which can make dreams more salient.
But if you don’t tend to remember dreams, it may be beneficial to try to, Barrett said. “Overall, if you had to choose one state of consciousness, I would go with my mind awake as the most helpful,” she said. “But I think dream ideas are useful simply because they’re so different from our usual approach.”