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Sweet Dreams!

Shira Yehudit Djlilmand

We spend a third of our lives sleeping — and apparently, a good portion of that dreaming. And yet dreams are a little-understood phenomenon. What causes dreams? Are they to be taken seriously? Discover the world that appears while we sleep.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Some people seem to have very vivid dreams, which they remember clearly, others remember their dreams rarely and vaguely, and yet others insist that they never dream. What’s the truth? Are dreams the province of a fortunate few?

According to scientists, everyone dreams, every night. Provided you are sleeping complete sleep cycles — which includes REM sleep — you are definitely dreaming. In an average night, a person goes through four to five sleep cycles. This translates into one to two hours of dreaming, totaling about four to seven dreams every night. In the average lifetime, a person spends about six years, or 2,100 days, dreaming.

If that’s the case, why do some people claim they never dream? Quite simply, we forget most of our dreams. Dreaming happens in the same part of our brain where short-term memory is stored; five minutes after the end of a dream, half of it is forgotten, and after ten minutes, ninety percent is lost. If you want to remember your dreams, experts say that the best time to recall it is just after waking — before changing position.


A Dream World

In recent years, scientists have greatly increased their understanding of dreams, but they are still far from understanding why we dream. Sigmund Freud’s famous psychological theory of dreams — that they are unconscious, repressed desires — has not been proven. Since Freud, theorists have offered more physiological reasons for dreaming, including maintaining sleep, coping with stress, and preserving physical health.

Neuroscientists have also discovered that brain activity during REM sleep (so-called because of the Rapid Eye Movement that we experience) is crucial for learning; dreams may help us integrate new information into our memory in a non-traumatic way.

But these are all just theories. What does seem to be clear is that our bodies need REM sleep, and dreaming occurs during REM sleep; scientists theorize that we also require a certain amount of dreaming.

While the “why?” of dreams is murky, we know a great deal about the content of dreams. The topics and venues of our dreams seem, to a surprising extent, to be dependent on exterior criteria. For example, young children don’t dream about themselves — they don’t appear in their own dreams until the age of three or four. Males and females dream differently; females usually dream about people and places they know, while males have night visions of strange faces and places. Or at least they think they’re strange. In reality, all the images in our dreams are based on real images we’ve once seen and perhaps don’t recall.

Despite the myriad differences between people, there are nevertheless a few common themes that their dreams share. According to the Association for the Study of Dreams, the five most common dreams are falling, teeth falling out, being chased, being lost or trapped, and missing a bus, airplane, or train. Two other common dreams are flying (if you ever dreamed this you’ll know what a wonderful feeling it is!) and the inability to move, a terrifying nightmare, which often wakes us up. Nightmares such as these cause real physical reactions, including raised pulse, sweating, and even screaming.

If we look at what happens to our mind and body while we dream, we can understand why some of those dreams are so vivid and emotional. Studies show that our brains are actually more active when we dream than when we’re awake.

Dreaming occurs in the fifth and last stage of sleep, called “REM sleep.” During that stage, the brain stem starts firing electrical impulses through the brain, heightening breathing and heart rate, so that some regions of the brain’s metabolic rates are actually higher than when we are awake.

Scientists have also discovered that the parts of our brain responsible for memory and sensory processes, such as vision and hearing, actually have increased activity during REM sleep, which explains why dreams can be so vivid. In addition, the “limbic system,” the part of the brain that deals with emotions, also becomes more active during REM sleep, explaining why our dreams can be so powerful emotionally.

Yet, while the brain is so active during our dreams, our body can’t even move. During REM sleep, a mechanism in the brain paralyses the body so that it can’t react to the movements in our dreams. (This is a blessing — imagine if you were dreaming about flying and your body decided to try it out!)


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