Sometimes, when I close my eyes at night, I feel like I’m falling.
I’m tumbling through the molten sky, arms flapping as I break through shadows, clouds. Sometimes it stars I’m falling past; sometimes it’s rays of sunlight, drops of rain.
Sometimes, instead of falling… I am soaring.
And then, my eyes snap open. I’m stolen from the setting, wrenched free as the moment fades to nothing but a memory.
To most, this is a familiar phenomenon. The construction of an image in our minds, an evocative scenario occurring in the middle of our sleep: this is, of course, the concept of a dream.
According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a dream is “a succession of images, ideas, emotions, and sensations that…occur involuntarily in the mind during certain stages of sleep.”
Yet, what does this mean? How do our dreams come to be—and how do they affect our sleep, health, and ultimate well-being? Let’s begin by taking a dive into the science behind them…
Stage i: Entering REM + Neurochemical Changes
Though we often can’t remember much after our heads hit the pillow, the phenomena of “sleep” is more complex than we think. Comprised of a series of stages, it cycles through periods of high and low brain activity and repeats these cycles—at varying intervals—repeatedly throughout the night.
One such period is the Rapid Eye Movement, or “REM,” stage of sleep. Named for the hyperactive eye motions that occur throughout the period, this typically begins around the ninety-minute mark of an uninterrupted sleeping period and comprises about 20% of an adult’s total sleep time.
During this period, not only are the eyes darting up and down, back and forth, but the brain retains a feasibly-high level of activity, permitting the creation of original thoughts, a wide range of feelings, and even some degree of episodic memory. (This is in contrast to the three non-REM stages of sleep, in which the sleep is deep, the conscious is unconscious, and the body undergoes a high level of growth, strengthening and repair).
Lesioning studies have suggested that, though the brainstem is what leads to the physiological characteristics of REM sleep, the forebrain is the neural region that actually produces dreams.
Furthermore, it is the unique recipe of active neurochemicals that give these dreams their vivid, surreal quality. Specifically, it is believed that dopamine creates the unique settings and experiences since the molecule is often linked to hallucination. Additionally, acetylcholine—a neurotransmitter tasked with maintaining brain activation—is what keeps us at a level of subconsciousness where we’re able to recognize the unusual surroundings (in contrast to the deeper, fully-unconscious non-REM sleep). On the other hand, histamine, serotonin and norepinephrine—neurochemicals that keep us awake and aware—are thought to be down-regulated, separating us from the dream-scapes surrounding us and giving them a whimsical, surrealist quality.
And yet, little more than that is known when it comes to dream formation. Are dreams formed from our imagination, manifestations of our hopes, fears and desires? A few studies suggest yes. Others, however, have found contrasting evidence: some suggest that dreams are shaped by moods, while others instead believe that they stem from pent-up tension.
Evidently, there is much still to be learned about the physiological (and psychological) basis of dreams: what they are, what they mean, and how they arise. Still, though, that hasn’t stopped our long-held fascination with them, nor our curiosity about what they mean…
Stage II: Extrapolating from Subconscious to reality
We’ve now seen how our dreams might be created: the ways in which we physiologically create these constructs in our minds.
And yet, are dreams that detached from reality? Or are there ways in which they may affect our (conscious, waking) lives as well?
Perhaps most explicitly, spending time in that REM dream state provides the brain with a short period—really, the only period—where it is free of norepinephrine, that aforementioned awareness neurotransmitter that also happens to be strongly anxiety-triggering. Thus, the physical act of dreaming can actually free the body of (oft-harmful) stress, allowing it to relax, strengthen, and repair.
Studies have also suggested that dreaming—and, specifically, this lack of norepinephrine—can lead to greater emotional regulation and lessened reactivity. This is thought to be one reason why people are irritable when they don’t get enough sleep: shortened sleep lengths lead to fewer REM periods, less dreaming, and thus less time in that (truly-)relaxed state.
Furthermore, though it is the non-REM period in which the day’s memories are consolidated (and thus strengthened), it is, in fact, the dreaming periods in which they are recombined. Much of creative thought occurs during what creativity researchers have deemed ‘incubation’: a period of quiet relaxation, during which the mind can wander, recombining ideas into novel combinations. Uninterrupted relaxation: that is precisely what occurs in the time when one is dreaming. Perhaps, then, this is why many are told to “sleep on it” when faced with a dilemma: because only in their dream state can their memories (re-)arrange into a novel, integrative “solution.”
Stage III: Using Our Dreams to Foster Our Future
With this in mind, it does seem as though dreams can control us much more than we can control them (unless, of course, you’re Lucid Dreaming—but that’s a whole other topic that would require a wholly separate article to dissect).
And yet, is this a steadfast truth? Are we cursed to be helpless, relegated to passive puppets at our dreams’ command? Or can we be more active, take the reins of what we’re offered and use our dreams to shape our futures?
Most tend to believe—or, well, to hope—more for the latter. Henceforth has sprung the trend of Dream Journalling: a process in which one writes down their dreams each morning before their details slip out of reach. Be these paragraphs or scribbles, doodles or designs; some believe this holds the key to unlocking what lies beneath the surface of one’s consciousness: unconscious thoughts, well-hidden dreams, even repressed emotions.
Noticing dream patterns may help you recognize these (behavioural) patterns while awake—patterns you might not have even noticed you’d been wielding. Furthermore, certain scenarios have been proposed to share a link with particular fears and emotions—for instance, those who are trying to avoid commitments often see that manifest in dreams of being chased. As such, recognizing what is going on inside your dreams can help one recognize their feelings and their fears. With this recognition, of course, comes the ability to tackle these emotions, to finally face those fears—and thus step into a freer, truer life.