Why do we dream?
Every night, each of us dreams (two hours on average). We’re not the only ones. Vertebrate animals are known to dream, including mammals, fish and birds. Recent research suggests spiders and octopus might dream, too, meaning dreaming might be more universal than previously thought. Over the long haul, that’s a lot of dreaming happening all over the planet, hinting at some highly significant purpose. What?
While we still understand very little about dreaming, small parts of the puzzle have been unlocked. One clue comes from the finding (by Brent Young and Franz Goller) that finches move their vocal muscles in time to music in their dreams (earlier research identified neuronal patterns in the bird’s brain congruent with the pattern of their song). Similarly, cats simulate hunting sounds and movements while dreaming.
Back to finches. Young and Goller discovered – and here’s the key point – finches create new songs in their dreams. Thus, it’s thought dreaming might be a form of creative learning and practice, improvisation and adaptation. Consolidating new information and experiences absorbed while we’re awake, the dream state is a continuation (not a cessation) of learning – an important fact for those who view sleep as an impediment to their goals.
During REM sleep (which is when most dreams occur), the brain is highly active. But, the rational, logical part of our brain is deactivated, Matthew Walker tells us, while the fight or flight stress hormones are also shut out. At the same time, emotions, memories, images and ideas are allowed to flood in and connections are made between past and new information. Unhindered by stress reactions or rationalisations, this bizarre hallucinogenic stew of stimuli provides the perfect recipe for problem-solving and creativity.
With the leash on stress hormones, we can face emotional issues without overwhelming fear allowing us to make sense of the world and process emotions. Dreams are not, as popularly believed, a mere visual replay or recycling of the day’s events. However, our daily “emotional” issues do feature strongly in them.
Lucid dreaming occurs when a person becomes aware (but not awake) while dreaming and can exert control over their dream. Once written off as an imaginary experience, sleep lab research has proven that such people weren’t making up their experiences. Lucid dreaming is real.
Various surveys have been done to try to estimate how common it is. These suggest that while uncommon, many of us have had the experience at least once in our lifetime. Lucid dreaming appears to be more common in children and young people. One theory is that lucid dreaming is a type of proto-consciousness – a building block that precedes consciousness and occurs alongside brain development. Another theory, just as odd, is that it may be a further evolution of the brain.
Theories aside, by controlling what happens in our dreams, lucid dreaming enables a further extension of the problem-solving and emotional healing gifted by dreaming. A bit like your own true-life movie replaying in your head, you get to tweak the script and control the ending.
The healing power of dreams
An experiment by neuroscientist Matthew Walker involved showing emotionally powerful images to people. One group were shown the images in the morning and evening prior to sleeping. The other group were shown the images in the evening and then again the following morning. In other words, one bunch of subjects had a sleep sandwiched in between. Those who slept in between the two viewings felt significantly less emotional following the subsequent viewing than the group without the sleep. Scans of their amygdala (part of the brain associated with strong emotions) also showed less activation.
The power of dreams
• Create associations, connections and links between old stored and new information and seemingly unrelated pieces of information to help us solve problems, hence the saying to “sleep on it”.
• Promote creativity and adaptation to the external world. This explains why so many of us wake with fresh insights, revelations, ideas and even new inventions.
• Improve task performance through mental rehearsal.
• Help us comprehend the world and ourselves.
• Promote emotional healing and resilience.
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