Before we go into detail about what are dreams, why do they occur, what is the basic idea behind dreams and what purposes do dreams serve along with techniques to remember dreams, we must first realize the importance of deciphering a little useful and relative information about sleep. What is sleep? To put simply, it is a partially subconscious and partially unconscious state of mind that is characterized by mitigated activity of the body, especially muscles and rescission of almost all sensory activities.
Sleep can be differentiated from being awake by a decreased ability to respond to stimuli (outer or inner) but being a tad bit more reactive than other states of unconsciousness such as comas or other consciousness disorders.
What are the different levels or stages of sleep?
Sleep in all its forms usually occurs in the form of stages or cycles and these can be differentiated in two different types. The first one being NREM (Non-Rapid Eye Movement) and the second being, REM (Rapid Eye Movement). Non-Rapid Eye Movement or NREM stage/cycle makes up a hefty 75% of our total sleep time whereas the remaining 25% is occupied by REM stage/cycle.
Now for further decomposition of the stages of Non-Rapid Eye Movement stage of our sleep, we would divide NREM into 4 separate stages with stage 1 occurring when we have just laid on the bed, stage 2 occurring when we have fallen asleep and have become unconscious of our surroundings, stage 3 and 4 occurring when our body muscles and breathing rate has completely slowed and relaxed. This stage collectively is also known as deep sleep.
But this isn’t yet the fun part. The REM stage is where the actual game begins. REM usually takes place after 90 mins of your sleep time and then after every 90 mins of that. This is the stage of hyper-brain activity when our eyes constantly are in motion whilst our body is relaxed. This stage of our sleep is during which dreams occur and this stage is exactly which incentivizes and energizes our body for a hectic day ahead with heightened focus and alertness.
What are dreams?
Though there have been numerous definition and interpretation of dreams, a simple one that might suffice here is that dreams are involuntary illusions that occur during different stages of sleep. Dreams can be classified into being vivid or vague and can characterize emotions such as happiness, sadness or fear in us. Dreams are the strongest during the REM stage of our sleep. During REM, we are least likely to remember our dreams.
Why we dream?
Whilst mankind hasn’t paused in its quest to understand the “Why we dream?”, after a great deal of scientific research and technological advancement and persistence, we still don’t have any definitive answers but we sure do have a lot of theories.
- We dream to fulfill our subconscious wishes- In the early 1900s Sigmund Freud, the famous Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis proposed that while all our dreams including our nightmares are a collection of images from our daily conscious lives, they also have symbolic meanings which relate to the fulfillment of our subconscious wishes. This theory is also known as the cigars and tunnels theory in which cigars, owing to their shapes are associated with men whilst tunnels and caves are associated with female genitals.
- We dream to remember- To enhance performance on certain mental tasks, sleep is good but dreaming while sleeping is even better. In 2010, researchers found out that subjects were much better at getting through a complex 3-D maze if they had napped and dreamed of the maze prior to their second attempt. In fact, they were up t0 10 times better at it than those who only thought of the maze while awake between attempts. Researchers theorize that certain memory processes can only happen whilst we are asleep are our dreams are a signal that these processes are taking place.
- We dream to forget- Quite the paradox! There are about 10,000 trillion neuro connections within the architecture of our brains. They are created by everything we think and everything we do. A 1983 neurobiological theory of dreaming called “reverse learning” propounds that whilst sleeping and mainly during REM sleep cycles, our neocortex reviews these neural connections and dumps the unnecessary ones. Without this unlearning process which results in our dreams, our brain could be overrun by useless connections and parasitic thoughts could disrupt the necessary thinking we need to do while we are awake.
- We dream to keep our brains working- The continual activation theory proposes that our dreams result from our brain’s need to constantly consolidate and create long-term memories in order to function properly. So, when external input falls below a certain level, like when we are sleep, our brain automatically triggers the generation of date from its memory storages which appear to us in the form of thoughts and feelings that we experience in our dreams. In other words, dreams are a sort of screen saver that our brain turns on so that our brains don’t completely shut down.
- We dream to rehearse- Dreams involving dangerous and threatening situations are very common, and the primitive instinct rehearsal theory holds that the content of a dream is significant to its purpose. Whether its an anxiety-filled night of being chased down the woods by a blood-thirsty bear or fighting off a ninja in a darkened alley, these dreams allow us to practice us fight or flight instincts, keeping them sharp and dependable just in case we might be needing them in time. But it doesn’t always have be unpleasant. Dreams about an attractive person either male or female could actually give our reproductive system some practice too.
- We dream to heal- Stress neuro-transmitters in the brain are much less active during the REM stage of our sleep, even during dreams of traumatic experiences, leading some researchers to theorize that one purpose of dreaming is to take the edge off painful experiences to allow for psychological healing.
- We dream to solve problems- Unconstrained by reality and the rules of conventional logic, in our dreams our minds can create limitless scenarios to help us grasp problems and formulate solutions that we might not consider whilst we are awake. John Steinbeck, the Nobel Prize winner American Novelist, used to call it the committee of sleep and research has demonstrated the effectiveness of dreaming on problem solving. It is precisely how the renowned Chemist August Kekule discovered the structure of the Benzene molecule. It is due to this theory that sometimes we hear sleeping on a problem as a best solution to it.
Whilst these theories are very fascinating and charming in the sense that they provide us with an understanding of the concept behind dreams and their roles for our brains and bodies, it is still unclear as to whether dreams are actually the sum total of our primitive urges and desires as well as subconscious wishes, but as insight is allowed further into the human brain that is already a mystic maze of limitless knowledge, we might come to know the actual reasons behind dreaming which may differ from these theorized before or if we’re lucky enough, be consistent with these.