Open to interpretation: the pop science of dreams

by Nelly Mendoza-Mendoza | 9/28/16 1:53am

Even if you don’t remember your dreams, most of us dream several times a night. It is estimated that an average person will have about 100,000 dreams in their lifetime. People who are blind can dream, too, and only people with certain disorders can’t dream. Your first dreams in your sleep cycle are shorter than the ones at the end of your sleep cycle, which can be up to 60 minutes long. It is thought that other mammals that can achieve REM sleep can also dream.

Initially it was thought that dreams only occurred in the rapid eye movement stage of the sleep cycle. New evidence suggests that dreams also occur in the non-REM stages of sleep. These dreams often focus more on events that might have happened to you throughout the day, helping you make new connections with your past memories and consolidate new information, while scrubbing unimportant or irrelevant information from your memory. This happens because the amygdala, the area of the brain responsible for emotions, and the hippocampus, the home of memories, are both active during REM sleep.

When we dream, we experience emotions that are almost identical to the emotions that we feel while we are awake. For example, you might wake up feeling stressed out or angry if you are woken up during a vivid nightmare. While dreaming our body becomes paralyzed, which serves as our body’s protection from acting out what we are dreaming about. Still, certain REM disorders can cause people to sleep walk and/or act out their dreams.

One of the most common dreams is of a significant other cheating. For those that subscribe to the idea that dreams carry real world meaning, this dream has to do with the fear of being wronged or left alone. Another common recurring dream is of losing or cracking your teeth, the meaning of which can vary depending on what we consider to be the significance of our teeth. The symbolism of dreams in general can be interpreted in the context of our lives. For example, recurring nightmares can represent worry, confusion, sadness, guilt or fear of failure. The most commonly reported emotions experienced during dreams are anger, sadness and fear. This could be because dreams involving negative emotions tend to be more vivid and because our bodies react stressful scenarios as they would in real life, causing spikes in heart rate or blood pressure which help cement the dreams in memories.

Men are more likely to have dreams involving violent scenes, while women tend to dream more about relationships and children have more nightmares because they haven’t developed the right tools to cope with emotions. Children might have more dreams involving monsters, potentially symbolizing the unknown.

Researchers don’t know exactly why dreams are forgotten so easily, but some have suggested that it is to keep our real memories and dreams separate and distinguishable. This way you won’t be confused with what you dreamt and what you lived during your waking hours. During REM sleep our body shuts down our memory creating systems, which might explain why we are more likely to remember dreams that we had before waking up. This is why sound sleepers are less likely to remember their dreams than those who wake several times a night.

Some people report of dreaming about events that would later happen to them. Some claim that Abraham Lincoln dreamt of his assassination, and there have been reports of precognitive dreams about the Titanic catastrophe and 9/11. However, this might also be due to the fact that when something happens we often try to find evidence in hindsight, or real-life occurrences might trigger a memory of one of our dreams. Researchers don’t have enough evidence to rule out premonitions as a hoax or as purely coincidental, but what we do know is that our brain is always trying to make connections.

When dreaming we cannot read or tell time. In fact, if you look at a clock in a dream, the hands will appear to be still. Since the invention of the color TV, the average number of people dreaming in color has increased.

Lucid dreaming is the ability to control one’s dreams. Usually, someone is able to achieve lucid dreaming if they know that they are dreaming, yet they are in REM sleep. The ability to have lucid dreams might be linked to being more introspective and having more gray matter in your brain. The Egyptians recorded the first lucid dreams more than 5,000 years ago. Tibetan Buddhist Monks use lucid dreaming on their path to enlightenment. During lucid dreaming, parts of your brain that would normally be off during sleep are on, most notably the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for self-awareness and working memory.

Theories for the purpose of dreams include preparing for change, coping with trauma or loss and helping the brain solve problems that we couldn’t otherwise solve.

Google, the DNA’s double helix spiral form and the periodic table first appeared in dreams of notable thinkers, Larry Page, James Watson and Dmitri Mendeleev, respectively. This may be because the prefrontal cortex, responsible for logic and reasoning, is inactive during sleep.