When it’s time for bed, you lay down and eventually fall asleep (normally at least), but what exactly happens during the time that you’re lying there that allows you to fall into a deep sleep? Since I once heard that people usually spend about six years of their lives dreaming, I’ve been curious about dreams and sleep so I decided to take this blog post as an opportunity to satisfy my curiosity and find out what exactly happens to us when we fall asleep that causes us to dream. So, how exactly do dreams work?
The article that I found breaks down the sleeping process into 5 different stages (see x). The first stage is considered the lightest and easiest to wake up from and it is the stage where our muscles begin to relax (see x). The second stage is where our sleep begins to get somewhat deeper and particularly, our breathing and heart rate slow down as we fall into the third stage (see x). The third stage is where our deepest sleep is considered to begin (see x). This is also where our brain starts releasing “delta waves” which, of all our brain waves, are considered the slowest (see x). The fourth stage is generally the same as the body continues to produce delta waves and the movement in our muscles continues to be nonexistent to limited (see x). This is also considered the deepest stage of sleep (see x). The fifth stage was the most interesting to me (see x). This is characterized by rapid eye movement, and is where heart rate increases, breathing escalates, and blood pressure rises (see x). Rapid eye movement is when our eyes move in our sleep and it is what allows us to dream (see x). The most interesting part about this stage is that during it, the whole rest of our body is paralyzed until we fall out of rapid eye movement sleep (see x). Interestingly enough, this is our body’s way of ensuring that we don’t sleep walk and physically imitate the things we are seeing in our dreams (see x). To be more scientific, the paralysis specifically beings when glycine is released onto motoneurons (see x). Glycine being an amino acid and motoneurons being the neurons that carry impulses out from our brain and spine and turn them into actions (see x). These stages occur several times throughout the night but every time the stages are repeated we experience more of stages one, two and five (hence experiencing less deep sleep and more dreams). This probably explains the reason why after my first alarm goes off, I almost always fall right into a “dreaming sleep” or stage five, the rapid eye movement sleep. (x)
I was really intrigued by this process and so I decided to dig deeper by looking at a longitudinal observational study done to examine dreams that repeat within adolescents and what they might mean. I made a table to show the amount of children/adolescents that were found within 1,000 families in Canada to participate in the study (see x). These children were given questionnaires that asked if they had experienced a dream more than once within the past 12 months and they were then asked specific details about their reoccurring dream (such as themes, what happened in the dream, who was the target of attack [if there was any], and who was doing the attacking) (see x). The following table shows the themes found. (x)
Compared to adult’s dreams, children were more likely to dream about unrealistic things such as monsters, as that is usually what kids are afraid of at those ages (the table shows the results) (see x). Moreover, the researchers claimed that as we age, our dreams become more personalized and relate more to our experiences (see x). Taking the results into account, scientists claim that while the reoccurring dreams we experience at a young age might follow us through to our adult years, these dreams are likely to also change and be affected by our everyday life experiences, so they therefore aren’t likely to remain uniform from childhood to adulthood (see x). I concluded since this trial is longitudinal and seemed randomly allocated efficiently (as they made sure to reach out for children from different type of backgrounds), it is safe to say that the results are accurate and are not likely to be due to chance. The conclusion also seems correct because as we learn more and experience more, it is only right that the things we dream become more complex and revolve more around our knowledge. (x)
While my initial intention was to understand the way our bodies work that allows us to dream, it is so interesting to understand the dreaming process and then to take that to the next level to compare it to the different stages of our lives and how our dreams may be altered by the things that we experience. I now know that our subconscious mind modifies the things that happen to us and creates scenarios within the fifth stage.