The seeds for our dreams are sown during our waking hours; memories from the previous days play out in our minds, the brain attempts to make sense of unfamiliar events or come to term with conflict. This explains why some psychiatrists examine the contents of dreams in patients under their care. Many remain divided in matters of dream theory despite countless studies; but most will agree that dreaming is fundamental to our understanding of the world we populate and rather than ignoring or fearing them (as in the case of nightmares) we should embrace, enjoy and strive to rationalise them.
How are dreams formed?
Studies suggest that there are four to five cycles in the average nights sleep, each cycle is made up of five stages lasting around 90 minutes each. Stages 1 to 4 are known as non-rapid eye movement stages (NREM); where the brain filters out the routine or mundane elements. Sleep researcher Francesca Siclari adds to this declaring that “..if you remembered every detail like you can do in waking life, you would start to confuse things with what’s actually happening in your real life.” Dreams that take place in the NREM stages are less lightly to be remembered unless you happen to be woken during this period.
The fifth stage is known as the rapid eye movement stage (REM) and this is where the good stuff lives; dreams in the REM stage are more story-like in nature, some rich with colour, sound, smell, tactility and emotion. Familiar places, people and activities may appear in the REM stage, but so do our fears, fantasies and taboos. Our brain tries to protect us by altering some of the less desirable thoughts, assigning new meanings, and allowing us to enjoy a good night's sleep. This supports Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud's viewpoint that "there is only one useful task, only one function, that can be ascribed to a dream, and that is the guarding of sleep from interruption". You are generally more likely to remember your early morning dreams as REM sleep become longer and more vivid as the night progresses.
What about nightmares?
Manifestations of difficult or traumatic experiences can present themselves in the form of nightmares, our inability to separate dreams from reality (or even the fact that we are dreaming) can add to a state of confusion, fear or sadness upon waking. Professors Yuval Nir (Tel Aviv University) and Giulio Tononi (University of Wisconsin) suggests that certain regions of the brain associated with self-awareness (such as the Posterior Cingulate Cortex or the Prefrontal Cortex) are deactivated during sleep adding to our lack of ability to rationalise such dreams.
Some nightmares (and regular dreams) act as practise for dealing with real-life uncomfortable situations, similar to when a patient undergoes exposure therapy to confront their fears. For me dreaming of being chased by a giant man-eating moth may serve to illustrate that there is actually nothing to be afraid of, seeing that inevitably I'll survive the nightmare together with all my limbs. Typically children experience more nightmares that adults, they are at a stage in life where they may suffer more anxiety as they try to understand their place in the world, this exposure therapy process may assist with their quest for answers.
Fun Facts About Sleep and Dreams
Don't sue me, just some stuff I found on the interweb!!
During the REM phase of sleep our bodies enter a state of paralysis (or Atonia) in order to prevent us from acting out our dreams.
Our brains are almost as active during REM cycles as they are when we’re awake.
Humans spend one third of their life sleeping whilst cats spend two.
You can’t read, or tell the time whilst dreaming.
Men get up to 20 erections per dream.
Approximately 12% of people only dream in black and white.
Freud, S. (2001) The Complete Psychological Works Of Sigmund Freud, Vol 19. Vintage Publishing
Dowling, S. (2019) Why can’t some people remember their dreams? Available at: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190516-why-cant-some-people-remember-their-dreams (Accessed: 23 March 2021)
National Institutes of Health. (2019) The brain may actively forget during dream sleep. Available at: https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/brain-may-actively-forget-during-dream-sleep (Accessed: 23 March 2021)
Royal Papworth Hospital NHS Foundation Trust. (no date) Vivid dreams or nightmares Available at: https://royalpapworth.nhs.uk/our-services/respiratory-services/rssc/patient-information/symptoms/vivid-dreams-or-nightmares (Accessed 25 March 2021)
Faraday, A. (1990) The Dream Game. Harper Prism
Fiore, J. (2019) Art History’s Iconic Depictions of Dreams, from the Renaissance to Surrealism. Available at: https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-art-historys-iconic-depictions-dreams-renaissance-surrealism (Accessed 26 March 2021)
Gotthardt, A. (2019) How Studying Your Dreams Can Help Your Art Practice. Available at: https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-studying-dreams-help-art-practice (Accessed 26 March 2021)
Nir, Y, Tononi, G. (2011) Dreaming and the brain: from phenomenology to neurophysiology. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2814941/ (Accessed 23 March 2021)