By Sanah Thakur
Dreaming is such an integral part of our lives, yet apart from the content of most, we know very little about their purpose or process. In today’s column, I use my Psychology lens to dig deeper into the field of dreaming.
Simply put, dreams are a series of thoughts, images and impulses that one experiences while sleeping. There is minimal activity in the brain and all external stimuli is blocked from entering our minds. Our senses however are functional which makes a dream feel like you’re experiencing it. Dreams maybe seen as a combination of our real-life experiences merging with our imagination – having no such effect on our actual lives. Research shows that dreams play an important role in our lives and understanding certain aspects about dreams can help understand our mind better.
There are a lot of questions that come up when the topic of dreams is discussed in the field of Psychology. Some of the main questions, include “What is the process of dreaming?”, “What do our dreams represent?”, “What role do dreams play in shaping our lives?”, “Do dreams deal with our unconscious desires and motives?” and “When and why do we remember our dreams?”.
There are five stages of sleep that we go through starting with the very light stage from which is very easy to wake up. The second stage moves into slightly deeper sleep and stages three and four represent our deepest sleep. After about 90 minutes the fourth stage leads into what is known as REM sleep. Rapid Eye Movement is the fifth stage of sleep, which is characterised by movements of the eyes and other physiological changes like faster heart rate and breathing, and high blood pressure. Our brain activity level is the same as if we were to be awake and therefore this is the stage during which most dreams occur. The rest of the body is paralysed as the brain sends signals to shut off neurons in the spinal cord which prevents us from acting out our dreams and hence also explains why sometimes people feel unable to move while dreaming of a stressful situation. Researchers believe that dreams occur because the cortex is trying to find meaning to the random signals it receives during REM sleep, creating a story out of these fragments.
Research has gone into figuring out the various reasons why we dream but scientists haven’t come up with a single consensus. Some believe dreams are the link between memories and emotion. That is why sometimes dreams seem so vivid and real that people wake up crying or laughing. The brain is active while you’re sleeping and certain regions of the brain like the occipital lobe, which processes images and the amygdala, which regulates emotions are more active then. Therefore dreams tend to evoke a lot of emotion and bring out the memories in such a way that they feel real. Anxiety, fear and surprise are some of the common emotions that are intensified in dreams.
There is no logic when it comes to dreams. Dreams are filled with random, bizarre and discontinuous images and ideas like talking animals, time travel, shifts in settings, face transformations etc. but this strange dream content is accepted as normal while dreaming. According to Dr Allan Hobson, as quoted in Kendra Cherry’s article Characteristics of Dreams, the unquestioning acceptance of dream content is due to the strength of our internally generated emotions and perceptions. Another characteristic of dreams is that sometimes we experience certain strange sensations like falling, losing control over body movements and the inability to move quickly which maybe due to the paralysed state we are in while dreaming.
Dream recall is an integral part of the entire dream process. We tend to forget half the dream content five minutes after it is done and then another five minutes later we forget ninety percent of it. There are many reasons why we don’t seem to remember most of our dreams. L.Strumpell, a dream researcher suggested that since most of the dream images aren’t that intense they are easily forgotten and the physical sensations that accompany them are the first things we forget as soon as we wake up. Remembering as a process generally involves association and repetition and since dreams are unique and not repetitive, recalling them isn’t easy. There is also a possibility that since our brain neuro-chemicals aren’t the same while sleeping and during wake time, our brain is unable to consolidate memory. Sometimes though people do end up remembering their dreams and this is because our brain still functions at the same activity level as when we are awake and remembers certain events, especially emotionally charged ones. The sleep cycle consisting of the five stages of sleep is repeated many times and we generally tend to remember dreams that occur closer to the time when we awake.
Research on dreams still continues today as psychologists and scientists try to uncover the mystery behind such a process. Since dreaming is such a subjective process it is difficult to pin point why exactly such a process occurs and what it means to each individual. Though the psychology of dreams is still only a combination of many theories and observations, it continues to be one of the most interesting fields in psychology. To conclude, “A dream is a work of art which requires of the dreamer no particular talent, special training, or technical competence. Dreaming is a creative enterprise in which all may and most do participate.” – Clark S. Hall
* The author can be contacted on Instagram @sincerelysanah
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