The science behind dreams, nightmares and sleep
It’s said that we dream every time we sleep. Both are common features of sleep but the complexity of them still baffles researchers. Even the basics of the hows and whys of dreaming remain a source of intrigue.
Some theories suggest that dreams help your brain process the information it pulled in during the course of your day while helping you retain other memories. Others believe that dreams have symbolic meanings and can be used to predict future events. Still other scientists see dreams and nightmares as random unrelated, meaningless information and as a way for the brain to release the stresses of the day or help you adapt with events in your life.
A dream is defined as a “Mental experience that occurs during sleep.” Many dreams involve a level of visual perceptions put forth by your brain while you sleep. These images, in many cases, evolve into some kind of a story, i.e. dream or nightmare.
Many times dreams involve complex emotions and thoughts. If you’ve ever woken up and had a hard time separating your conscious from the dream state, you know how involved dreams can be.
Researchers continue to search for ways to measure dreams. While there are instruments that can measure the brain waves that are active during dreaming, there are no tools that can record the dream itself. Researchers need to rely on the reports given to them by those who were involved in the dream. Like dreams, the thoughts of what happened while you were sleeping, can be fleeting and imprecise upon waking. If you are a vivid dreamer you may even have a hard time separating what “happened” in your dream to something that “happened” during your waking hours.
There are repeating themes that researchers hear from their subjects, and likely you have experienced them yourself:
- Appearing nude in public
- Failing an important test
- Finding or losing money
Many dreams appear to depict ordinary everyday events.
Nightmares and night terrors are dreams that take a scary turn. Some people blame nightmares on having eaten spicy food before bedtime, but that hasn’t been proven. Fear is the most common emotion involved in nightmares however, they can also be coupled with anger, embarrassment or other negative thoughts. Some people feel that if they’ve had an extremely stressful day, that the nightmares follow when they fall asleep that night. Nightmares can also affect the sleeper following a traumatic life event. They are more prevalent in children than teenagers and women are more likely to suffer nightmares than men.
Common threads that run through nightmares are:
- Being in the midst of a major weather event – hurricane, tornado, flood
- Being in danger and being unable to move away from it
- Feeling alone or trapped
As with dreams, nightmares are disturbing because they seem so real and sometimes the memory of them lingers throughout the day.
Nightmares usually always appear during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Researchers have found that sleepers who suffer nightmares on a recurring, regular basis can suffer ill health effects, such as:
- Suicidal thoughts
- Depression and anxiety
- Sleep avoidance, which can lead to sleep problems
- Disturbed sleep episodes
If you find yourself suffering from restless nights plagued by dreams and nightmares, keep a dream journal as well as a log of your daytime activities and stresses. You may find a connection on your own that will speak to the reasons for your dream-plagued sleep. If you don’t, though you might want to speak with your doctor or a sleep specialist and see if there might be another, underlying reason for your sleep disturbances.
Since 2002, Valley Sleep Center, accredited by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, has provided Arizona with diagnostic sleep disorder testing in a home-like atmosphere, ensuring a comfortable, relaxing experience for patients. Their Board Certified Sleep Medicine Specialists consist of experienced and knowledgeable physicians who provide expert advice across a multitude of sleep related disorders including insomnia, sleep apnea, snoring, excessive daytime sleepiness, hypertension, sleepwalking, and pediatric sleep problems. They accept most insurance plans as well as Medicare. For more information contact Lauri Leadley at 480-830-3900; http://www.valleysleepcenter.com