Sunday, October 28, 2007

Dream On

My mom told me about a dream she had recently that incorporated some things we had talked about the week before. This got me interested... what happens in your head while you sleep?

What is a dream?
A dream is "a subconscious sequence of images, sounds, ideas, emotions, or other sensations usually during sleep, especially REM sleep."

Does everyone dream?
All humans do (and most mammals and birds too). When someone tells you that they don't dream, they probably mean they don't remember their dreams.

What happens when you fall asleep?
When you drift off to sleep...your heart rate slows, your temperature drops, & your brain begins processing events from the day. 'Dreams' in this early state are usually made up of flashes of thoughts and images from your day (like what you ate for lunch, a phone call you made, a movie you watched, etc). You don't usually remember these dreams unless you wake up during or right after them.

What happens next?
After about 90 minutes, you fall into REM sleep. You're more likely to remember REM dreams. REM dreams are often vivid, loopy and surreal. There's a biological reason for this...your amygdala (the part of your brain that processes emotions) & your hippocampus (the seat of your memory) are very active during REM sleep. Meanwhile the prefrontal cortex of the brain (responsible for logic and reasoning) is shut down during sleep. "Dreams use so many bits and pieces of our memory, but not in a logical, linear way. It's more of an associative conglomeration of things." says David Linden, Ph. D., professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.

Brain scans done during REM sleep show the visual center of the brain is not active (this is the primary place of input during your waking hours), while the visual memory center goes into overdrive (the part that stores images from the past). Your brain is literally flipping through it's photo album and comparing where events fit into your schema. We 'see' our dreams by subconsciously pulling them from our memory.

Why do we need sleep?
"It's almost like the old card-catalog system in libraries," says David Linden. "Dreams consolidate our recent memories and cross-reference them with older ones so that we can better understand what's going on." This explains why dreams often incorporate elements from our past. In a recent study conducted at Harvard, participants were asked to play a video game then sleep. The research team concluded in the journal Science, people who were most involved in playing the game were the most apt to dream about it, suggesting that, while they slept, their brains were processing the information that seemed important. Once the information is in your memory, it influences your decisions and how you behave during the day.

Rosalind Cartwright, Ph. D., a psychologist and the founder of the Sleep Disorder Service and Research Center at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, studied people going through divorce & found that those who were most depressed in the day also had the least emotional dreams. While those who were managing well during then day were more likely to have highly emotional and expressive dreams. Those who were 'doing better' during the day seemed to be working out their feelings in their dreams. "It's almost like their dreams helped them realize, "I've handled feelings like this before so I can deal with them again!" says Cartwright. The dream state is your brain's rehearsal to mentally prepare for current and future events.

What are nightmares and recurring dreams?
"Uncomfortable recurring dreams are usually linked to an unaddressed anxiety," says Veronica Tonay, Ph. D. a psychology instructor at the University of California, and the author of The Creative Dreamer. Nightmares are often brought on by a real life event (moving to a new place or a trauma). Children tend to have more nightmares than adults do. "They haven't developed the psychological tools to deal with emotions, so they're more likely to feel overpowered by them. They have a lot of nightmares about animals and monsters. This could be symbolic of big things they don't understand yet."

Don't worry though, intense and frightening dreams are normal as long as you don't have them every night.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

OMG, It is so odd that you were thinking about dreams on this day. Sara and I were discussing sleep on the same day. If you stop and think about it people are like rechargable toys. They have to sleep to reenergize. Kinda like being plugged into a charger. Of course, dreams are a very important part of the process. Talk about being on the same wave link.
Happy Birthday:)

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