Post No.: 0427
Why do we have dreams when we sleep? There’s currently still no definitive answer as to why but some hypotheses include memory processing, it’s just an extension of our thoughts during the waking day, or it’s the mind working through stressful emotions or challenging ruminations.
Indeed, stress or anxiety can affect our dreams by making them more vivid, emotional and intense, and these kinds of vivid, emotional and intense dreams might bi-directionally exacerbate our stress levels too. Most of our dreams occur during REM sleep, and if you do manage to sleep after a stressful day, you might fall into this stage, and therefore start to dream, sooner in the night than usual. These dreams might also appear more ‘random’, incohesive and recurrent – perhaps as a reflection of a scattered and racing mind when stressed? If we try to make sense of them then we can’t, or we could try but they’d be subjective interpretations and we shouldn’t necessarily take them literally (e.g. if we dream about someone dying then it doesn’t necessarily mean someone close to us is about to die in real life).
If you want more pleasant dreams – try to think about what you do want to dream about before you sleep. Or because of the subjective nature of interpreting dreams, we might as well do our best to try to interpret them positively, such as that it revealed a need to forgive somebody and let something go, or that it was a warning about proactively dealing with something that has been niggling at the back of your mind? Whatever the case, it seems pretty certain that dreaming is healthy and normal for us.
If you think that you never dream but you’re otherwise healthy and you get enough sleep (you can’t dream without sleep!) then it might be that you do but you can never recall them because they weren’t vivid, intense or therefore salient enough. That might be a good sign because it could mean that your stress levels are low. And whether it’s a stressful period in our lives or not – if we don’t wake up in the middle of a dream (because we sleep quite soundly and our sleep isn’t interrupted, which is generally worse for shift workers) then we won’t remember having one. (You could try drinking lots of water before going to bed – the need to go to the toilet will wake you up in the middle of the night?) And unless it was a very vivid and noteworthy dream – if we fall back asleep quite rapidly after waking up in the middle of one then we’ll likely forget about the content of that dream, or of even having a dream altogether, the next time we wake up. If we don’t take a moment to lie in bed and ponder over the details of a dream just before we get up – perhaps because we are awoken by an alarm clock and there’s no time to – and if we don’t occasionally revisit the memory of that dream over several days, then we’ll more likely forget it completely over time. An alarm clock could also wake us up before we reach another REM phase.
These are the reasons why we tend to forget most of the dreams we ever have – even those we know we had but cannot remember what they were about anymore.
In general, we tend to be most forgetful of events that happen when our minds are drowsy and fuzzy, whether it’s within several minutes before we fall asleep or within several minutes after we wake up. This is why it’s pretty much pointless trying to learn or remember things when you’re feeling super sleepy. The lessons won’t stick as well. Best to come back after you’ve had some rest.
If we wake up in the middle of the night after having a dream, we must be careful about having many thoughts in our minds though, whether due to trying to revise a dream, remember something that one must do in the morning or ruminating about something else, because this will keep you awake if you need to get back to sleep again. It might therefore help to keep a voice recorder nearby to record your thoughts so that you can offload and ‘forget about them’, as it were, until you’re ready to get out of bed.
People who were blind as an infant or earlier say that they don’t dream with images but only in thoughts. People who became blind later in life say that they often dream with the images they remember from the days they could see. Some people with the sleep disorder narcolepsy can sometimes find it hard to tell the difference between their waking and dreaming lives because they’re constantly switching between being awake and asleep, which can be totally disorientating.
‘Hypnagogic hallucinations’ occur during the sleep onset period, when our minds begin to drift in and out of sleep. During this time, we can experience imagined sensations that seem incredibly real, such as scary ‘sleep paralysis’, where we feel awake in bed but cannot move or speak!
Sleeping is important for the consolidation of memories, and one hypothesis mentioned earlier is that dreams are a side-effect, a by-product or epiphenomenon of this process, where fragments of our thoughts are pieced together into a (attempted) coherent story. And since the prefrontal cortex is deactivated, our inhibitions are much lower when we’re dreaming, hence more impulsive (e.g. aggressive) behaviours can be performed in our dreams than would in our real life when we’re fully consciously awake (and not under the influence of something like alcohol). During puberty, about 10% of dreams are sexual in nature.
Sleeping, and possibly dreaming, appears vital for organising and storing memories and experiences, and is therefore vital for learning. So don’t cram all night. Study in the day, remind yourself of the key points just before you go to bed, and get enough sleep every night. Learn, rehearse, practise or train an hour or two before you sleep, or nap. For intense physical activities however, you’ll probably need to complete these at least a few hours before bedtime. Maybe also sleep or take a nap inbetween different distinct activities, or at least take a break inbetween them, to help with encoding and storing their corresponding memories.
We need sleep before learning and we also need sleep after learning. Sleeping after learning something helps us to memorise those things better. Even a short nap can help improve your memory, mood, reaction times, alertness, focus and creativity after you wake up, and can reduce mistakes and accidents too. Post No.: 0390 looked at the benefits of a nap if you need one. Therefore getting enough sleep improves our productivity overall rather than reduces it. Woof!
As well as mental skills or knowledge, dreams can also somewhat help to improve one’s motor skills. This is because just imagining movements fires the same neurons in the brain as if we’re actually moving (although of course the muscles aren’t getting the training they need in this case).
Creative people apparently dream more – sleeping on ideas helps us to come up with new connections between different concepts. Dreams can therefore help with creativity and problem solving, by unconsciously or subconsciously mulling over ideas, issues and scenarios.
This means that – via improving our creativity and problem solving – dreaming can help us to deal with the stresses of the day. When dreaming, your unconscious mind is often attempting to work through any problems and concerns you may be facing in life hence they could be trying to soften the emotional impact of these issues and/or provide useful insights into your worries and help come up with possible solutions to them. So if you have a complex problem that you cannot solve then sleep on it; try to dream about it. Try writing down the problem just before you sleep, place some items relevant to the problem near your notepad, and when tucked up in bed and about to fall asleep, tell yourself that you want to dream about your problem to find possible solutions. Imagine yourself dreaming about the problem in a positive and pleasant way, then waking up and writing the solution onto your notepad. This however needs to be balanced with trying to not think too much when in bed though, in order to be able to get to sleep in the first place!
If you do wake up in the middle of the night from a dream and have an idea, write it down then go back to sleep and invite more dreams. When you wake up in the morning, lie quietly in bed for a few minutes as you recollect your dreams and thoughts, then note down the main themes and images you saw. Since we don’t tend to remember things well if they happen either just a few minutes before we fall asleep or just a few minutes after we wake (even if we’re allowed to gradually and naturally awaken) – you must think about and try to revise a dream in your mind, or better write it down, as soon as you can in order to remember it and its details. Note also that one must be in REM sleep in order to reap these benefits of mental creativity and inspiration, which takes about 90 minutes to reach during the first cycle of sleep – thus a nap probably won’t be long enough for this exercise.
After a week or so of this, review your dreams to see what themes and answers may be revealed. It can take several nights until you get an obvious dream about the problem. This method cannot guarantee you’ll find a solution and it also depends on how you wish to interpret your dreams, but it’s a way to tap into your unconscious mind for uninhibited ideas.
At other times, we know what we need to do but are just afraid to take the next steps. So if you have a goal or aim in life then try visualising and imagining whatever steps you need to do in order to achieve it, just before you sleep, such as imagining putting on your smartest suit and heading out of the house and making that perfect ideas pitch to investors. This technique may encourage your unconscious mind to dream about it, work on it, mentally rehearse it and hopefully give you the courage to take the steps to make it a reality.
As you drift asleep, tell yourself that you want these images to crop up in your dreams. It’s a visualisation technique, and the stronger your imagery skills and imagination with the scenes and your actions then the more powerful this technique will be. Imagery (using your mind’s eye to imagine scenarios or scenes) can be useful to improve motivation or confidence. It can make the unknown a bit more knowable, such as imagining what a test is going to be like and how quick it’s going to be. It can prepare us for how we’ll react in the face of stressful events, such as imagining ourselves reacting more calmly or shrugging off any doubts if we lose a game or set during a match. It’s highly unlikely to lead to success on its own but it might be that tiny bit extra that you need to make a leap or to bounce back from a future fall. So visualise the steps you need to reach your goal, start your journey, remember why you started it, drop any ego, and have trust in something that’ll pull you through.
…In sum, although we don’t know for sure why we dream, we know it’s healthy to and they can be powerful. If you have any stories of how a dream has helped you, please share it with us by using the Twitter comment button below.