Have you ever woken up and recalled your exciting or weird dream? Well, dreams are our most enthralling and perplexing thoughts. However, while we all dream, what we dream about, and how that impacts our sleep is entirely different. It is only reasonable to question how dreaming impacts the sleep quality, whether nightmares are more harmful than we think, and if we can avoid bad dreams – given that almost everyone has dreams, both pleasant and unpleasant.
While some studies show dreams have no apparent meaning, they are known to affect our sleep. Ask anyone who just woke up from a nightmare.
Even with science and technology advancing, a lot about dreams and their impact on our sleep is up for debate. Questions like ‘Why do we dream?’ and ‘How does dream affect sleep?’ have been bugging scientists for a long time now, and there have conducted many researches to answer these questions.
So let us look at dreams from a scientific and health point of view – understand more about them, understand why and when do we dream and if they really affect our sleep..
Understanding Dreams and Nightmares
Sleep helps us control our metabolism, heart rate, brain function, and other elements of our health. And we also dream when we sleep – fantasies occur during specific stages of sleep. For example, we dream the most during sleep in the REM (rapid eye movement) stage.
When you experience REM sleep, your brain activity increases, indicating that your sleep is not as deep. The activity level of your brain is similar to when you are awake, so REM sleep is the stage during which you will have vivid and intense dreams. Additionally, the key muscles you regularly control, such as your arms and legs, are immobilized.
Nightmares, however, are unsettling because they startle you awake from a deep slumber and make your heart race with fear. Since REM sleep periods become gradually lengthier as the night progresses, you may discover that nightmares occur most often in the early hours of the morning.
You might also experience nightmares after consuming a midnight snack, which can boost metabolism and make the brain more active.
Why Do We Dream?
While there are many views on why we dream, nobody fully knows their significance or what they imply. Some scholars believe dreams have symbolic value, while others think they’re connected to waking reality.
Scientists do know that most people dream every time they fall asleep, and those dreams might be intriguing, exciting, horrifying, or simply bizarre.
When Do We Dream?
Whenever you fall asleep, your brain cycles you through various sleep stages throughout your sleep. These sleep stages are divided into two categories – non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.
NREM Stage 3 is more frequent in the night’s first half, while REM is more prevalent in the second half.
Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep occurs approximately an hour to an hour and a half after sleep. REM sleep is highlighted by complex dreams and, as the name suggests, rapid movement of your iris.
When you dream, the brain is active throughout the night, with exceptionally high activity in the forebrain and brainstem throughout REM sleep.
Because your mind is more active during REM sleep, you get the most intense dreams in this stage. That being said, it is not true that you dream only during the REM period, but the dreams during this stage are more vivid than those you have during the NREM stage.
Do Dreams Have Meaning?
People have been interested in the origin of dreams and their unique meanings for more than millennia. Unsurprisingly, we all have wondered at least some point in our lives what they mean – perhaps why you are here, to begin with.
Scientists have varying degrees of thoughts on whether dreams are merely the result of a random neuron activity during sleep or if there is something more. Some say dreams are like a data dump that assists your brain in differentiating significant memories from unimportant ones. Others say it could be a means to mentally prepare you for obstacles and play out alternative scenarios in your head.
Sigmund Freud, the eminent neurologist, and father of psychiatry, studied the topic in his most well-known work, The Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1900. According to Freud, dreams are a doorway into your subconscious brain and reflect your unconscious wishes, thoughts, and inspirations. There are various interpretations of what dreams imply, as there are multiple interpretations of why we dream.
According to the activation-synthesis idea, however, we dream because our minds try to make meaning of our brain activity while sleeping. As a result, the theory says that dreams have no meaning because they are the outcome of neural activity.
Then there is the threat simulation theory, which says dreams are a defense mechanism our brains use to prepare us for potentially dangerous scenarios. Therefore, if you have a highly evolved threat simulation system in your genetics, you have a better chance of survival.
But then again, the latest studies have suggested that dreams have no link to our feelings or ideas.
Types of Dreams
You have always known there are different kinds of dreams, right? Let’s make a quick distinction.
- Daydreams: A daydream is a trance that occurs while you are awake and may be so engaging that they take your attention away from what is going on in your surroundings. Daydreaming, according to specialists, can be due to concentration problems, which are symptoms of mental diseases like anxiety and depression.
- Nightmares: A nightmare is a distressing dream that awakens you from negative emotions such as worry or terror. Nightmares are common among youngsters, but they can occur at any age and are generally something you don’t need to worry about. Studies show that nightmares are frequently associated with unfulfilled psychological demands or dissatisfaction with life experiences.
- False-Awakening Dreams: A false awakening is an unusual sensation of “waking up” while still sleeping. It may include vivid, lifelike visuals that make you uncomfortable and perplexed.
- Prophetic Dreams: A prophetic dream is where you have a glimpse of the future events in your dreams before they unfold in real life. Some people believe that prophetic dreams indicate that you are foretelling the future. In contrast, others believe the subconscious mentally prepares you for a probable occurrence.
- Lucid Dreams: These are the most unusual dreams in which you are mindful that you are dreaming. Not only that, but you might believe that you have a perfect influence over your dreams. Because of this awareness, you can readily analyze your lucid dreams.
- Recurring Dreams: According to several theories, recurring dreams are tied to unresolved challenges or difficulties in your life. They contain the same theme or storyline and generally occur during stressful times for extended periods, perhaps several months or even a decade.
Do Dreams Affect Sleep?
Dreaming is a natural element of sleep and has no negative or harmful impact on your sleep. Nightmares, on the other hand, do impact your sleep. They make it more challenging to drift off to sleep, and we face trouble transitioning between sleep cycles, making us drowsier the next day.
For example, you might have a nightmare, yet you could be able to sleep. But for someone else, who is used to having a nightmare every other night, they could find themselves unable to sleep. So it varies from person to person and what we dream about.
Frequent nightmares lower your sleep quality, cause anxiety, and affect your productivity levels the next day. In addition, you might avoid sleeping because of the fear of disturbing dreams, increasing the risk of insomnia and sleep deprivation.
According to scientists, shorter sleep has long been linked to harmful disorders such as heart disease and stroke. Extensive population studies reveal a disheartening truth – the less sleep you have, the shorter your life.
Various studies also prove that sleep deprivation is associated with an increased likelihood of obesity and Alzheimer’s disease. On the other hand, quality sleep helps us retain memories and learn facts and abilities more quickly. So while dreams might not impact sleep directly, there are impacts all right.
On the one hand, nightmares affect your sleep, while on the other, your sleep also affects those nightmares. It’s a full circle and highly interrelated.
Some researchers have found a link between nightmares and restrictive sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a possibly severe sleep disorder wherein breathing stops and begins repeatedly. In brief, a mild sleep disturbance may make you more prone to nightmares, which are frequently more vivid than those faced by regular sleepers. Other sleep disorders that compromise your adequate sleep can also be linked to nightmares.
No Dream is Too Weird
While there is no agreement on the scientific backing for dream interpretation, what they mean is left as a personal choice. Many things about dreams ultimately come down to what dreams represent to you. According to one study, having a clear perspective regarding dreams was related to greater positive waking and better life satisfaction.
So, go ahead, and be as creative as you want with your dreams without having apprehensions because we all have had dreams that make no sense and are just plain weird. You could also try some tricks to remember your dreams, like thinking about them as soon as you wake up. Or you could get up peacefully rather than in a rush. Also, you could consider maintaining a journal to keep track of all your dreams.
So, it is completely fine if you have dreams about falling, being chased, flying, or a thousand other types without interpretation. Trust us; we have all had these dreams, if not more absurd.