What does it mean to dream?
All of us have the capacity to dream and experience nightmares. When we sleep we are often plunged into a vivid story that can be perfectly rational, entirely nonsensical, sometimes happy, sad, confusing or even terrifying. However, despite research, there still isn’t a definitive answer to the question ‘why do we dream?’
Numerous studies have been done of the years about dreaming – why do humans dream, what purpose does it serve, and what happens when we are deprived of this particular sleep phase? Sleep scientists have theories and have been able to answer some of these questions but largely, dreaming is still a mystery.
Let’s start with what science does know – when we dream.
Sleep can loosely be divided into two different phases – Rapid Eye Movement (REM) Sleep and Non-Rapid Eye Movement Sleep (NREM) Sleep. When you sleep, you will move through stages if REM and NREM sleep within a sleep cycle. A typical sleep cycle lasts between 90-120 minutes and you should experience around 4-5 sleep cycles every time you sleep.
Normally there will be long stages of NREM sleep, sometimes referred to as ‘deep sleep’ punctuated by shorter stages of REM sleep. As the night progresses, though, your time spent in NREM sleep will gradually decrease and your level of REM sleep will increase, particularly during your last two sleep cycles where REM sleep can last for up to an hour.
This is important because dreaming is believed to occur during REM sleep, when your brain will be almost as active as it is when you are awake! You will experience changes such as fluctuations in body temperature, increased blood pressure and heart rate and twitching.
So what happens when you aren’t getting enough REM sleep?
What happens when we are deprived of our dreams?
Sleep deprivation is definitely in the public consciousness at the moment with 1 in 3 Britons getting only 5-6 hours of sleep a night.1 However, while the symptoms of sleep deprivation are well documented, the concept of dream deprivation is still relatively unheard of outside of the scientific community.
This could be changing though as Dr Rubin Naismith, a sleep scientist recently published a report entitled ‘Dreamless: the silent epidemic of REM Sleep Loss.’ In this document he discussed the widespread problem of dream deprivation, arguing that it is contributing to ‘illness, depression, and an erosion of consciousness.2’
Apparently, though, the side effects of dream deprivation have been researched before. A study in the 1960s uncovered that subjects who were selectively deprived of REM sleep experienced weight gain, increased irritability, difficulty concentrating and anxiety.3 This would also seem to fit in with another study, this time conducted on rats, which found that REM deprivation increased the rats’ levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, inducing an inflammatory response.4
Why does dream deprivation affect your health so prominently though? The exact mechanism isn’t very well known but scientists seem to think it could be related to the processes that take place in your body during REM Sleep.
How do we benefit from our dreams?
It’s believed that your dreams are closely linked to your emotional and psychological health, which to an extent makes sense given the impact that dreams can have on how we feel. We’ve all experienced a nightmare we couldn’t wait to wake up from and we’ve all had dreams we wished could have lasted longer.
In cases of mental illnesses such as depression, it has been demonstrated that sufferers dream up to 3 times as much as non-sufferers and that often their dreams may be distressing.5 This is possibly because depressed people are more predisposed to being emotional and introspective.
Although there are no clear answers, most scientists agree that dreaming can help with the following cognitive processes:
- Short and long term memory: You may have heard of having an eidetic memory but the chances of you remembering every single occurrence that ever happened in your life is impossible and for good reason. Similar to the principles of how a smartphone works, all those memories would use up too much ‘data’ as it were so it’s thought that our dreams can act a bit like a housekeeper, deciding what memories we need and committing them to our long-term memory, and which ones we do not need. As Francis Crick, a co-discoverer of DNA, once put it, sometimes “we dream in order to forget.”
- Processing our emotions: It’s not surprising that dreams are so connected to our emotions and it’s thought that when you dream, it helps you to work through complicated emotions or fears, transforming your feelings into a more tangible form that you can witness and confront. In this way, dreaming is a bit like our own in-built self-help therapy which all of us have access to.
- Honing our survival instincts: In a way, just as dreams can help you to work through fears and uncertainties, they can also act as practice drills for your survival instincts. Think of it like a training simulation – in your dreams you are often confronted by frightening situations, whether it’s trying to escape a monster or finding yourself naked in front of your co-workers. This gives your brain a chance to practise what it could do in such a scenario so if it ever occurs when you are awake, it can spring into action. It’s also been proven by Antti Revonsuo, a Finnish scientist, that the amygdala part of your brain (the part responsible for your fight-or-flight instincts) is very active when you’re in REM sleep.6
All of these tasks sound very important and essential for your survival so how can you prevent REM sleep deprivation?
1 – Get rid of your alarm
How often have you been woken up mid-dream by the dulcet tones of your alarm? If you’re like most of us, it’s probably a daily occurrence that you try to tolerate as part of the morning routine.
However, since REM sleep normally increases towards the end of your final sleep cycle, this rude awakening could be doing a lot more damage than merely irritating you first thing in the morning.
Alarm clocks aren’t the only culprit though – bright lights and digital screens also impact your sleep cycle so it’s important to keep their presence in your bedroom at a bare minimum. As an alternative, you could a gentle wake-up dawn stimulator. These types of alarms gently light up your room, gradually waking you up rather than suddenly jerking you out of a dream. They’re widely available from a range of retailers, such as Amazon or Argos, so you shouldn’t have any trouble tracking one down!
2 – Watch what you eat
I’ve already discussed how what you eat can affect your sleep in my blog ‘Is your lack of sleep making you overeat?’ and it’s unlikely many of you will be surprised by the news that refined sugars, processed fats and caffeine can spell a bad time for your sleep patterns. Alcohol is another stimulant that you should definitely try avoiding too, as I mention in ‘Does alcohol really help your sleep?’
Instead, focus on drinking plenty of plain water and eating nutrient-rich foods. Getting a balance of protein, complex carbohydrates, fruit and vegetables can go a long way towards regulating your sleep patterns. If you want to learn more, please check out my top recommendations in ‘What foods you can eat to help you fall asleep.’
3 – Mind your medication
As many as 60 million Americans have been prescribed sleeping pills and it’s thought that this number could be as much as 10 million in the UK, which may not be good news for REM sleep. Now this might sound a bit contradictory – surely sleeping pills should help you to sleep? Isn’t the clue in the name?
Well it isn’t quite that simple as, while sleeping pills can promote drowsiness, they rarely promote REM or deep sleep which can lead to deprivation. You also have to consider that sleeping pills should be taken on a short-term basis and certainly not for longer than a month unless prescribed by your doctor.
If you’re looking for a natural sleep remedy, you could try our Dormeasan, which contains extracts of organically grown Valerian and Hops, and can be taken over a longer period of time. Gently helping you to achieve a natural sleep cycle, Dormeasan also doesn’t have any of the groggy side-effects associated with conventional sleeping pills.
4 – Try to put your stress to bed
It’s not exactly a secret that stress can play havoc with your sleep patterns and it’s one of the underlying causes of problems like sleep deprivation and insomnia. Unfortunately, dream deprivation can also give rise to increased levels of anxiety so it’s important to try and break the cycle by tackling the source of your stress directly.
The best way to beat anxiety and stress is to simply be kind to yourself – eat nourishing foods, get plenty of fresh air and set aside some time just to focus on yourself. Of course this isn’t always possible, especially if you’re trying to take care of a family or worried about work, but 30 minutes a day can make a big difference.
If you do need a helping hand to conquer your stress, you could try our natural stress remedy AvenaCalm. It’s incredibly gentle and contains extracts of oat, helping to tackle mild symptoms of stress and anxiety so you can feel more like your old self. Please be aware that this remedy should NOT be taken alongside Dormeasan.