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The Science behind our Dreams & Nightmares

Updated: Sep 11, 2022

The subject of Dreams and nightmare is something which has intrigued fascination amongst many scientists, psychologist and philosophers through many centuries. The history of recording and interpretation of dream and nightmares can be dated back to the early Mesopotamia civilization and the ancient Egyptians who used to record their dreams and interrupt their dreams on a wax tablet and list the meaning of the most commonly occurring dreams respectively. And since then, we too we as a society haven't taken a step aside to understand this interesting phenomenon which largely remains a mystery.

A dream can be defined as a succession of images, ideas and emotional sensations that usually occur involuntarily in the mind during certain stages of sleep. On an average, a Human spends about two hours dreaming per night and each dream lasts for about five to twenty minutes. Dreams can range from extraordinary intense or emotional to very vague, fleeting, confusing or even boring. Sometimes dreams seem to have a clear narrative, while sometimes it doesn't have any rational meaning attached to it. Sometimes, dreams can also take the shape of Night mares, which is an unpleasant dream that cause a strong emotional response from the mind, typically fear but also despair, anxiety or great sadness. Nightmares are a normal part of sleep and their frequency varies from one person to the next. Nightmares can become a source of physical and mental distress and can have physical causes such as sleeping in an uncomfortable position or having fever or psychological causes such as stress, anxiety. One of the most popular research projects have found that eating before going to sleep can trigger an increase in the body's metabolism and brain activity which can be a potential stimulus for nightmares.

Sigmund Freud, who is the father of psychoanalysis wrote his famous book "The interpretation of dreams" which suggests that dreams represent unconscious Desires, thoughts, wish full-fillment and motivation. While there have been many a lot of limitations to his theories, but the research suggests that there is a dream rebound effect which is also called as dream rebound theory, in which suppression of a thought tends to result in dreaming about it. Now let's understand what actually makes us dream? In REM sleep (Rapid eye movement) it's believed that we experience our most vivid dreams. Studies have found that dreaming is also controlled by forebrain mechanisms, which influence our speech, abstract thought and pleasure and the REM stage of sleep is the controlled by the brainstorm, which further helps regulate our heartbeat and breathing. In a chain of reactions, the brainstorm can stimulate the forebrain and cause dreams to occur. Many scientists have also found that, as we dream the amygdala, the part of the brain that deals with emotion is quite active than it is while we are awake.

The interpretation of the dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind- Sigmund Freud

One popular theory also suggests dreams being connected to emotions. This model is called as the AMPHAC/ And Neuro Cognitive model of disturbed dreaming which advocates that dreams are our way of regulating emotions - particularly fear. Normal dreams help us eradicate fear and process other emotions properly. While few researchers believe that dreams are connected to emotions, another Theory suggested has a totally different approach. The activation synthesis model which says that dreams are actually random and they are just our brain ways of making sense of activity that goes on while we sleep. Our Brain takes signals from parts like amygdala (which is responsible for the perception of emotions like fear, anger and sadness) and the hippocampus (which plays a major role in learning and memory) and try to interpret them resulting in dreams. Dreams also help us sort out the day’s events and combine and organize our memory in a systematic format. The self-organization theory of dreaming explains that dreaming is a side effect of brain neural activity as memories are consolidated during our sleep. While we dream, helpful memories get stronger while less important one’s fade. Research has stated that when a person dreams about complex tasks, they improve in performing them as well. Dreams seem to help us process emotions by the process of encoding and constructing memories of them. What we see and experience in our dreams might not necessarily be real but the emotions attached to their experiences certainly are and do feel extremely real. This maybe also because the Amygdala an area of the brain that responds to emotions when we are awake is also active during REM sleep. Drama could also help prepare us for emotional events through something called threat simulation theory. This also means that dreams help regulate traffic on that fragile bridge which connects our experience with our emotions and memories.

Dreams pass into the reality of action, from the actions stems the dream again; and this interdependence produces the highest form of living - Anais Nin

Many a times, it so happens that people tend to know that they are dreaming and also have the ability to control their dreams. This phenomenon of being aware of the dreaming state and controlling the dream is called as lucid dreaming. About 55% of the people have experienced one or more lucid dreams in their lifetime. However frequent lucid dreaming is rare and only 33% of people have lucid dreams at least once a month on an average. Lucid dreams are most common during the rapid eye movement sleep (REM) and there are a lot of benefits of lucid dreaming. It causes less anxiety and provides a sense of control to the dreamer and is also empowering. Moreover, it refines your motor skills and improves problem solving abilities. Researchers have also found that lucid dreaming can help people solve problems that deal with creativity. Many people who were frequent lucid dreamers were able to come up with new ideas or insights sometimes with the help of characters in their dreams. There are different ways scientist measure dreams from asking questions to using MRI. These studies show us that activity in the brain while we sleep and gives us the interesting dreams we recall when we wake up. While there are many theories for why we dream, more research is needed to fully understand their purpose rather than assuming only one hypothesis is correct. Dreams likely serve a variety of purposes in an individual's life and knowing that so much is left uncertain about why we dream we can feel free to view our own dreams in the light that resonates best with us.

Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember you have the strength, the patience and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world- Harriet Tubman

By our member - Anusha Mangalvedhe




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