“You may say – I am a dreamer, but I am not the only one”

Author: Renāte R. Apse

We all have found ourselves mesmerized over what dreaming is and whether dreams have meanings. What exactly is the purpose of dreaming? Why is our biological system programmed to dream?


You are in an exam room. You have been studying very hard! Once you get the problem sheet, you realize you do not remember anything – as if you were completely unprepared. Your fear of failing is paralyzing. Your mind is racing, no control whatsoever over your memory, panic attack… How will I ever get out of this?  And boom…

You wake up. You don’t remember anything, maybe some vague fragments, but you wake up covered in sweat, thinking “Thank God, it was just a dream”.

We all have found ourselves mesmerized over what dreaming is and whether dreams have meanings.  Why do we dream about specific scenarios and how come we forget our dreams? What exactly is the purpose of dreaming? Why is our biological system programmed to dream?

What is a dream?

It is as if we become psychotic creatures when we dream. We see things that are not really around us, we start to believe what cannot be possibly true, we have no clue of time and place, we wake up and forget all about it. It is all scary – hallucinations, delusions, disorientation and amnesia. If this happened in reality, we would seek help, but since it is dreaming, we treat it as normal. It is inherent in our biological system.

Traditionally, Freud and his scholars analysed dreams from the viewpoint of the “meaning of dreams” – thereby looking at dreams psychoanalytically. Nowadays, emphasis is put on the form of dreams and not purely on the content. This novel approach focuses on the mental activity of the brain during the sleep and while being awake.

Thus – what really happens to our brain when we sleep?

When sleeping, there are two main stages our mind and body go through – rapid eye movement (REM) stage and non-REM stage. We dream during the former – the REM phase, when our eyes move rapidly behind closed eyelids, blood pressure rises, heartbeat becomes irregular, and brain activity increases.[1] While during REM sleep our brain becomes active, our body is paralysed, which chemically can be explained by the release of an amino acid (glycine) from brain to motoneurons, which are responsible for transmitting impulses from brain to the spinal cord. With the release of glycine, motoneuron discharge is suppressed.[2] The “body paralysis” may indicate to the biological way of not being able to act out our dreams (if you are dreaming that you are fighting, then in reality – not starting a fight with your dog, for instance). Here, one may indicate – but what about sleepwalking?! While, this is another story, sleepwalking is considered to be a psychopathology, which is caused by an impromptu arousal from the non-rapid eye movement.[3]

 

E.Hartmann. The Nature and Functions of Dreaming. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp.63.

There is a debate among scientists as to whether dreams are a fundamental part in sleeping or a by-product of sleeping. Are dreams a necessity? From the physiological perspective, the REM phase or dreaming is an epiphenomenon when the brain activates itself.[4] The answer to the question of necessity is not clear-cut, but the fact that babies dream more (further elaborated upon) is a strong indication of it.

Why do we dream?

The two stages (REM and non-REM phases) of our sleep have a specific biological basis.

Learning and creativity. Paul McCartney dreamed the melody of “Yesterday”. Most of us have come up with solutions or ideas when we wake up. REM sleep has a critical role in the ability to perform and learn procedural tasks.

Dreaming is the time when our brain puts together the most unimaginable things in one dream or story, thus allowing us to combine and create new ideas.

Physiological reasons. Sleep may be one explanation as to why patients of fatal familial insomnia (FFI) or from other sleep disorders shorter lifespan (below the average) as the body is not able to cope with challenges it is facing. In 1980s, Rechtschaffen attempted to understand what happens if we do not sleep.[5] He wanted to go beyond the statement “we sleep, because our body asks us to sleep”. As cruel as it may sound, he used rats as the objects of the experiment and forced them to stay awake all the time (when they fell asleep, they were thrown in water, which instantly woke them up). In two weeks, the rats were dead.[6] When examining them, he was not able to spot any fundamental reasons.

While it is still the “unknown of the unknown”, it clearly indicates that the functioning of our system is dependent on the sleep and thus dreaming.

Development of our central nervous system (CNS). The fact that new-borns experience very high levels of REM sleep and that the level of REM sleep as we age decreases, indicates the role of REM in developing our CNS[7] by the formation of novel neuron connections. Thus, the same as we develop our muscles by physical activity, we develop and keep our brain “fit” by sleeping.[8]

Thermoregulation. REM sleep also provides the ability to control body temperature. In fact, if there is sleep deprivation, and more significantly REM sleep deprivation, it may result in a gradual inability to control and regulate body temperature, which is fundamental to homeostasis. While not demonstrated with people, an experiment with rats indicated that the thermoregulation and sleep are interconnected. In contrast to non-REM sleep, during the REM sleep (dreaming), our bodies lose control over thermoregulation and body’s response to outer temperature fluctuations may not be observed. The mechanisms in the brain, which regulate temperature are turned off during the REM sleep, which allows to refresh our thermoregulation capacity.[9]

Organising the information. The content of our dreams reflects the information we process, observe and analyse (most often in a random way).[10] Currently the most plausible and popular theory suggests that we may have to filter information in our brain – erasing it, update our memories, and incorporating novel memories. The fact that our dreams include bizarre combination of our memories may serve as an explanation.

What is the takeaway?

While dreaming is still a mystery for scientists and there are more question marks than dots, there is one thing that we know for certain – we need to dream and to dream, we need to have enough sleep.

Thereby, without further ado – dream to live.

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Sources


Article sources:

  1. Scientific American. Dream States: A Peak into Consciousness. Available on: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/dream-states/.
  2. NCBI. Glycine-Mediated Postsynaptic Inhibition is Responsible for REM Sleep Atonia. Available on: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2579976/.
  3. Szelenberger, W., Niemcewicz, S., DAbrowska, A.J. Sleepwalking and Night Terrors: Psychopathological and Psychophysiological Correlates. International Review of Psychiatry, vol. 17, 2005, 263-270. Pp. 263.
  4. Hartmann, E. The Nature and Functions of Dreaming. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. 65.
  5. National Geographic. The Secrets of Sleep. Available on: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2010/05/sleep/.
  6. National Geographic. The Secrets of Sleep. Available on: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2010/05/sleep/.
  7. Johns Hopkins Medicine. The Science of Sleep: Understanding What Happens When You Sleep. Available on: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/healthy-sleep/sleep-science/the-science-of-sleep-understanding-what-happens-when-you-sleep.
  8. Hartmann, E. The Nature and Functions of Dreaming. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. 112-113.
  9. Hobson, J.A. Dreaming: A very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Pp. 76-77.
  10. Hartmann, E. The Nature and Functions of Dreaming. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. 113-115.

 

Photo sources:

  1. Cover picture – https://www.dalipaintings.com/the-dream.jsp
  2. E.Hartmann. The Nature and Functions of Dreaming. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp.63.
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