Dreams are amazingly persistent.
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Miss a few from lack of sleep and the brain keeps score, forcing payback soon after eyelids close. The phenomenon is called REM rebound. REM refers to "rapid eye movement," the darting of the eyes under closed lids. In this state we dream the most and our brain activity eerily resembles that of waking life. Yet, at the same time, our muscles go slack and we lie paralyzed—a toe might wiggle, but essentially we can't move, as if our brain is protecting our bodies from acting out the stories we dream.
Stage one of non-REM is the nodding off period where one is between sleeping and waking; it's sometimes punctuated with a sensation of falling into a hole. In stage two the brain slows with only a few bursts of activity. Then the brain practically shuts off in stages three and four and shifts into slow-wave sleep, where heart and breathing rates drop dramatically.
As the night progresses, however, non-REM stages shorten and the REM periods grow, giving us a minute dreamscape just before waking. The only way scientists can study REM deprivation is by torturous sleep deprivation. Of course there is non-REM rebound as well, but the brain gives priority to the slow-wave sleep and then to REM, suggesting that the states are independent of each other.
In a study published in Sleep, Nielsen showed that losing 30 minutes of REM one night can lead to a 35 percent REM increase the next night—subjects jumped from 74 minutes of REM to a rebound of minutes.
Nielsen also found that dream intensity increased with REM deprivation. Subjects who were only getting about 25 minutes of REM sleep rated the quality of their dreams between nine and eight on a nine-point scale one being dull, nine being dynamite. Of course, REM deprivation, and the subsequent rebound, is common outside the lab.
Alcohol and nicotine both repress REM. And blood pressure drugs as well as antidepressants are also well known REM suppressants. Take away the dreams and, curiously, the depression lifts. When patients stop the meds, and the vices, they're rewarded with a scary rebound. But the persistence of REM begs the question: Why is it so insistent? When rats are robbed of REM for four weeks they die although the cause of death remains unknown. Amazingly, even though we spend about 27 years dreaming over the course of an average life, scientists still can't agree on why it's important.
Some theories suggest that REM helps regulate body temperature and neurotransmitter levels. And there is also evidence that dreaming helps us assimilate memories. Some researchers say dreams have no purpose or meaning and are nonsensical activities of the sleeping brain. Others say dreams are necessary for mental, emotional, and physical health. Studies have shown the importance of dreams to our health and well-being. In one study, researchers woke subjects just as they were drifting off into REM sleep.
They found that those who were not allowed to dream experienced:. If you go to bed with a troubling thought, you may wake with a solution, or at least feel better about the situation.
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Sigmund Freud believed dreams are a window into our subconscious. He believed they reveal a person's:. Freud thought dreams were a way for people to satisfy urges and desires that were unacceptable to society. Perhaps there is merit with all these theories. Some dreams may help our brains process our thoughts and the events of the day. Others may just be the result of normal brain activity and mean very little, if anything. Researchers are still trying to figure out exactly why we dream. Just as there are varying opinions as to why we dream, there are also different views as to what dreams mean.
Some experts say dreams have no connection to our real emotions or thoughts.
Introduction to Sleep and Dreams
They are just strange stories that don't relate to normal life. Others say our dreams may reflect our own underlying thoughts and feelings -- our deepest desires, fears, and concerns, especially recurring dreams. By interpreting our dreams, we may be able to gain insight into our lives and ourselves. Many people say they have come up with their best ideas while dreaming, so dreams may be a conduit of creativity. Often people report having similar dreams -- they are being chased, fall off a cliff, or appear in public naked. These types of dreams are likely caused by a hidden stress or anxiety.
While the dreams may be similar, experts say the meaning behind the dream is unique to each person.
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Therefore, many experts say not to rely on books or "dream dictionaries," which give a specific meaning for a specific dream image or symbol. The particular reason behind your dream is unique to you. Although scientists can't say for sure what dreams mean and why we dream, many people find meaning in their dreams. Nightmares , or bad dreams, are common in children and adults. Often nightmares are caused by:.
If you have a recurring nightmare, your subconscious may be trying to tell you something.
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Listen to it. If you can't figure out why you are having bad dreams, and you continue to have them, talk to a qualified mental health care provider.
They may be able to help you figure out what is causing your nightmares and provide tips to put you at ease. Keep in mind that no matter how scary a nightmare is, it is not real and most likely will not happen to you in real life. Have you ever had a dream where you knew you were dreaming during your dream?
This is called a lucid dream. Research has shown that lucid dreaming is accompanied by an increased activation of parts of the brain that are normally suppressed during sleep. Lucid dreaming represents a brain state between REM sleep and being awake. Some people who are lucid dreamers are able to influence the direction of their dream, changing the story so to speak. While this may be a good tactic to take, especially during a nightmare, many dream experts say it is better to let your dreams occur naturally. There are many examples of situations where a dream came true or was telling of a future event.
When you have a dream that then plays out in real life, experts say it is most likely due to:. Researchers don't know for sure why dreams are easily forgotten.
What’s Causing My Vivid Dreams?
Maybe we are designed to forget our dreams because if we remembered all our dreams, we might not be able to distinguish dreams from real memories. Also, it may be harder to remember dreams because during REM sleep our body may shut down systems in our brain responsible for creating memories. We may only remember dreams that occur just before we wake, when certain brain activities have been turned back on.
Some say our minds don't actually forget dreams, we just don't know how to access them. Dreams may be stored in our memory, waiting to be recalled. This notion may explain why you may suddenly remember a dream later in the day -- something may have happened to trigger the memory.
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