Saturday, April 20, 2024

How Dreams Work

Written By Radhika Soni (Grade 9)

A dream is a series of images, thoughts, emotions and sensations that we experience during sleep. We all have dreams, and they often are a jumble of ideas, that do not make much sense. Dreams are narratives fabricated by our brain. But do these sensations have some secret meanings behind them, or are they just fuddles of thoughts that are not meant to be taken seriously?

What is it like to dream?

A dream typically entails visual imagery. However, people have also experienced dreams with the sense of sound, taste and all other senses. Dreams are most commonly in the first-person perspective and are usually involuntary. Overall, 12% of people are said to dream in black and white. It is usually an incoherent, strange combination of ideas that make up a dream. 

When do we dream?

Sleep is said to have two cycles – non-REM and REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. Our body goes through these two cycles throughout the night. The non-REM sleep itself has 3 stages. 

  • Stage 1 lasts for a few minutes. Here, the heart rate and breathing slow down and your muscles relax. It is the transition from wakefulness to sleep. 
  • Stage 2 is a light sleep where body temperature falls, and eye movements stop. 
  • Stage 3 is the deepest sleep of the non-REM cycle. It is in this stage that heart rate and breathing slow down to their lowest point.

In REM sleep, the eyes move rapidly behind the eyelids; heart rate and blood pressure increase to almost the speed of the awakened state. Dreaming typically occurs in REM sleep, however sometimes it can happen in non-REM stage. 

Why do we dream?

The science of dreaming has many unanswered questions, like things related to the brain often do. Dreams are said to be a collection of thoughts and objects from our daily lives. Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, theorized that while dreams may feature certain items or people that we encounter in our life, they also have a symbolic meaning. They signify our unconscious thoughts and desires. Other reasons for dreaming may be:

  • Organizing the information of our brain: while dreaming, mostly during REM sleep, the brain “unlearns”. It means that the brain gets rid of unnecessary information to help keep the mind healthy and uncluttered.
  • Training: while dreaming, the amygdala (a part of the brain associated with the fight-or-flight response) is active. Dreams could be training us to deal with survival situations.
  • Therapy: while dreaming, neurotransmitters associated with stress are inactive. This means if one dreams of traumatic experiences, there will not be any stress, which can give people a clearer or a different perspective on their trauma and may facilitate psychological healing.
  • Creativity: Dmitri Mendeleev said that the idea of a tabular format of the periodic table of the elements came to him in a dream. Dr. James Watson saw a spiral staircase in a dream, which helped him develop the idea of the double helix structure of our DNA. 
  • A by-product of our brain activity: our dreams may have no other purpose than being an activity resulting from our brains processing emotions and filing away memories.
  • The activation-synthesis theory: this theory suggests that dreams are caused by the stimulation of the medulla oblongata (responsible for controlling vital involuntary functions of the body) and that of the limbic system (involved in the regulation of emotions).

Being in the dream state

Our body produces certain neurotransmitters, which are chemical messengers made by a neuron to transmit a message. During the daytime, we have the neurotransmitters acetylcholine (responsible for contracting smooth muscles, dilating blood vessels and reducing the heart rate), serotonin (stabilizes the mood, gives happiness, and helps in sleeping and digestion) and noradrenaline aka norepinephrine (increases force of skeletal muscle contraction, and rate and force of contraction of the heart). 

During REM sleep, only acetylcholine is there. Acetylcholine triggers the thalamus (a hub for information exchange of our brain), and the cortex (the information processing center of the brain) but without serotonin and noradrenaline to keep us fully conscious, we are not exactly wide-awake, but our brains are in a dreamlike semi-aware-yet-not-fully-conscious state. 

The meaning of dreams

A dream can often show a person their unconscious desires, deepest thoughts and emotions. People have similar dreams such as falling off a cliff (a symbol of fear), being naked in public (signifying that they are afraid of revealing their flaws), being chased (a desire to escape their fears or desires) and losing teeth (which might mean that they are worried about their appearance).

However, not all dreams should be taken seriously. We can’t really figure out a hidden meaning of a dream where we’re arguing with our dog over what cereal we want to eat. Those are just plain weird. 

This is the possible explanation behind the incredible phenomenon, dreaming. We can see that our brain is capable of making such a mysterious sensation that scientists are still puzzled, for they have not found the exact reason behind dreaming. 

Our brain is an extremely interesting organ. The fact that it comprises of our consciousness, while being the decision maker behind regulating our body functions and performing involuntary life supporting tasks, growing, repairing, manufacturing and more, throughout our life, is amazing!

As Isaac Asimov aptly said, “The human brain, then, is the most complicated organization of matter that we know.”

Featured Image Courtesy – Medical News Today

Radhika Soni
Radhika Soni
I'm an avid reader and enjoy writing. I love seeing and learning new things, be it the mysteries of the universe, a new piece of literature, or beautiful works of art. I also like theatre and playing the piano.


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