Dreams have eternally fascinated me. Why did I have more nightmares as a kid than I do now? Why are so many dreams incredibly complex, anachronistic, and confusing? Why do we remember our dreams sometimes and other times we don’t? Dreams are a bit of dark spot in science, and I imagine they will be for a very long time.
There are so many facets of dreams (recurring dreams, nightmares, memories, lack of control, etc.) that it is a very difficult subject for science to tackle, I’m sure. There’s simply too much to measure. Further, it is very difficult to compose an experiment on dreams. A subject could go ten days, weeks, months without ever having a dream, or at least have a dream that they remember when they wake up.
That’s one point to note – we do in fact dream every night. Dreams are extremely complex, and as such, we wake up feeling confused by our dreams. So much so, that often we wake up and do not even recall that we had a dream that night. Nonetheless, it is estimated that most people spend up to 2 hours dreaming every single night. (Canoe)
Most people tend to dream during REM (rapid eye movement) the phase of sleep most often characterized as the deepest portion of sleep. Typically, sleepers fade between non-REM and REM sleep, and endure the longest phase of REM sleep right before they wake up, which is the portion of sleep that we are most likely to remember the dream we had, and we are most likely to have the richest and most complex dream as well. So, while it is hypothesized that people dream during all phases of sleep, failure to remember your dream when you wake could be because you woke up before this last intense phase of REM.
So, nightmares. I distinctly remember making and hanging my dreamcatcher in my room, smiling contently and retiring, covers up to my chin, knowing for a fact that I’d be safe from nightmares from that point on. I’m not sure why I so dearly trusted a paper plate and some yarn to keep me safe, but, nothing is off limits in science. (Honestly, I’m sure an experiment could be done that finds a correlation between dreamcatcher use and a decrease in nightmares)
Nightmares, traditionally, are a response to underlying anxieties or fears that we have. (Tartakovsky) As a child, I would often have nightmares that my parents were replaced with bigger, scarier, much meaner parents, and I was alone in my house with them. In hindsight, I suppose this is just a fear of losing the companionship of my parents.
Nightmares, largely, are grown out of. Nearly 50% of young children (aged 5-10) experience nightmares occassionally (Canoe) while, now, I barely ever experience nightmares.
Repeated Dreams can be for two reasons. For one, recurring dreams can mean that there is an underlying fear or source of anxiety that you have not acknowledged, or may not even know about.
As a child, I had a recurring dream that the man in the yellow shirt from the children’s show The Wiggles was chasing me down a hill. In this instance, it is much less likely that I had to acknowledge my underlying fear of being afraid of large singing men wearing yellow shirts, but more likely that it is the second reason, our brains tend to take us back to familiar places, or situations that we have visited before in our mind’s eye. For example, it is possible to have a dream again simply because you subconsciously thought about it right before you fell asleep.
Often, the dreams I have are illogical, anachronistic, or nonlinear. This, simply, is because our minds work in abstract, nonlinear ways. Our thoughts bounce to and fro, and our consciousness does not stay on one straight chronological path. How often do you find yourself talking about one thing, and then quickly recall something else?
As such, our dreams simply take after the illogical pattern that our consciousness follows. Often people will wake saying they had multiple dreams, which is true, but the reason we are often confused by the chronology is because they are just as abstract as our subconscious. (Tartakovsky)
Lastly, researchers have studied the brain waves involved in when people dream. Scientists measured which waves were emitted and how they correlated to the phase of sleep (REM and non-REM) This article explains how they woke up the subjects at different points in their sleep, and asked them to journal about their dreams.
What they found is that recalling dreams activated the same response in the brain as recalling autobiographical memories. Thus, for our brain, recalling dreams is just like recalling things that happened to us in real life. In another study, the article continues, scientists found a link between dreams and our emotions. For example, having a nightmare about an upcoming event is a form of your brain “practicing” per se, processing a situation. (Sanford) As such, dreams are a very real way to get our emotions out. While the experiences in our dreams are completely artificial, the emotions linked with those dreams are very real.
Dreams are a way for us to process our emotions.