How and why do we dream?

By Mike DuBose

Sleep is one of the most fascinating events I have studied over the last decade. The greatest question persists: “Why do most individuals ‘sleep like babies’ while one-third of the population experiences insomnia, frequent awakenings, and unpredictable early risings?” In order to achieve a peaceful night’s rest, a combination of variables have to sequentially occur. Deficient sleep increases the risk of certain cancers, dementia, diabetes, memory problems, weight gain, mood swings, weakened immune systems, day-time sleepiness, and car accidents. Quality sleep is vital to good health and improves how you feel and think each day.

We begin our sleep series with the mysterious area of “dreaming.” The earliest documented dreams occurred in 2500 B.C. Ancient Greeks and Romans believed dreams had future prophetic powers and were gateways to the gods. In fact, some Greeks were employed as “dream-interpreters.” The Bible records twenty-one dreams (15 in the Old Testament) where God communicated with humans about impending disasters, His divine instructions, and great promises. The Bible reports well-known characters accurately interpreted king’s and pharaohs’ dreams.

The process of sleep and eventually night-dreaming occur in five stages: Our Arcadian Rhythm (the mind’s time clock) begins the process by alerting us it’s time for sleep. Happy chemicals (Dopamine, Serotonin, Melatonin, and other hormones) are released. These cause drowsiness and turn off internal transmitters that keep us awake. Stage 1, called “light sleep,” lasts less than 20 minutes where our hearts and breathing slow, and muscles relax. If we’re worrying or thinking about pressing issues, this process is delayed as we “toss and turn.”

Next, our bodies further travel through very calm states while the brain begins to produce bursts of Delta-brain-waves called “sleep spindles”—an interesting term. During stages 3-4, bodily functions significantly slow down while the mind is gearing up for its explosion of mental energy in dreaming preparations. At this point, it’s difficult to awaken you. Finally, we enter “deep sleep” where the body is nearly paralyzed, rapid eye movement (REM) occurs, breathing hastens, and blood pressure rises. Intense dreaming and strong emotions accelerate in this last stage several hours before awaking.

While there has been extensive sleep research, debate exists why dreams occur. John Hopkins Medicine and university researchers theorize that during dreaming, our brains clear out unneeded mental trash; solve problems; allow repressed, unresolved conflicts, unconscious desires, or unwanted thoughts to surface; replay past events or rehearse for future situations; preserve and strengthen its memory banks; prepare for potential threats; or simply have “no purpose.” Dreaming is known to help us learn and create long-term memories.

While most dreams are healthy, people experience frightening nightmares, especially after reading thriller mystery books or watching scary movies before bedtime. The Sleep Foundation reports, “About three-quarters of people experience an occasional nightmare, defined as disturbing dreams that cause sleepers to wake up.” Common nightmares include falling, drowning, being chased or attacked, dying, feeling lost, or trapped. Unfortunately, Harvard University reports victims who have experienced post-traumatic-stress (PTSD) caused by war, abuse, fear, trauma, violence, emotional difficulties, and accidents, have patterns of weekly harmful nightmares that re-play damaging events. Prescription drugs, supplements, stress, anxiety, and mental health issues can also trigger nightmares which result in fragmented sleep and impairs our waking lives and thoughts.

Our dreams evolve as we age. Each one lasts up to 30 minutes although they feel longer and the average person dreams 2-3 hours each night. You usually don’t control the dream’s content and ninety-five percent of individuals forget their dreams when awakened since memory sections of our brains may be turned off. Dream subjects are often romantic, fantasy, bizarre, puzzling, and fun. Most dreams are like viewing movies that involve 70 percent of the people we know. Other dreams present compromising or embarrassing situations that may challenge our values. However, your chances of remembering what happened improve if you awake naturally versus being startled by alarm clocks. Researchers recommend keeping journals to record your dreams’ contents upon awakening since they disappear within minutes. The mind, as your psychotherapist, may be telling you, through dreams, there are unconscious, buried issues that need resolving so take notes if you have concerns. When it’s time to “rise and shine,” our minds generate norepinephrine, histamine, and serotonin to activate parts of the brain that keep us alert during the day.

How would you describe your dreams? Mine are collections of snapshots from my past and present. Then, my brain carefully weaves thoughtfully-crafted vivid stories that seem real to me while dreaming. For example, since I have a business background, my dreams may center around logical details of starting a new company. I design strategic plans with others and am thrilled about new adventures. Then, upon awakening with excitement, reality sets in and my thoughts are: “Hey, I’m retired.. Let’s move on.” In other situations, my brain uses people from my past and creates strange, jumbled-up hallucinations jumping from one vision to another. Psychologists would define my irrational dreams as “Just plain nuts.”
On a final note, most of us have experienced “day-dreaming”—a trance-like-oblivion of staring out into space. It isn’t really dreaming but “mental wandering.” It’s short-lived, only lasting for a few minutes, and provides our brains with mental pauses from our daily, stressful demands.

If you’re having pleasant dreams “most of the time,” don’t worry about their meaning. Our complex brains, crafted by an Almighty God, can play unbelievable tricks on us. I wonder sometimes if my mind, as Sigmund Freud suggests, is independently entertaining itself throughout the dreams it created.

The Bottom Line: If you have re-occurring nightmares or your sleep quality is poor, consult with medical doctors and experts trained in sleep therapy. Otherwise, enjoy your first-class dreams to nowhere. More to come.

Visit Mike’s nonprofit website for free access to his books, including “The Art of Building Great Businesses,” and 100+ published articles on business, travel, and personal topics, in addition to health research with Surb Guram, MD. Write him at [email protected].

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