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Compelling Theories About the Dreaming Brain
Dreaming allows our brains to rest for a little bit while they consolidate and store the memories we have experienced. Shutterstock

7. Dreaming can help us in a few ways. The first is that dreaming is essentially overnight therapy. 

REM sleep is the only time when our brain is entirely devoid of the anxiety-triggering molecule noradrenaline. Simultaneously, critical emotional and memory-related structures of the brain are reactivated during REM sleep as we dream. That means that emotional memory reactivation releases a stress chemical that allows us to reprocess upsetting memories in a safer, calmer environment. Dreaming has the potential to help people de-escalate emotional reactivity. During one study, participants were divided into two groups to watch a series of emotion-inducing images. Twelve hours later, they saw the same emotional photos. Half of the participants saw the pictures within the same day.

They separated the other half by an evening of sleep. Those who had the opportunity to sleep between the two sessions reported a significant decrease in how emotional they felt in response to seeing those images for a second time. Their MRI scans also confirmed a substantial reduction in reactivity in the amygdala, the brain’s emotional center that creates painful feelings. In contrast, those who remained awake displayed no dissolving of the emotional reactivity. The one night of sleep helped provide a sense of therapy and released some of the negative emotions associated with viewing those images. 

Compelling Theories About the Dreaming Brain
Dreaming allows for increased creativity to flow. Studies show how dreaming in REM sleep was able to solve a puzzle or problem more quickly. Shutterstock

6. In addition to serving as a form of overnight therapy, dreaming also enhances creativity and problem-solving. 

Experts prove that deep non-REM sleep can strengthen individual memories. However, during REM sleep, those memories can be fused and blended in highly novel ways. During the dreaming state, your brain can consider the knowledge acquired and then extract rules and commonalities. Doing this creates a mindset that can help provide solutions to problems that may have previously seemed impossible to handle. A few studies concluded that dreaming could increase creativity and problem-solving.

In one study, participants were woken up during the night, in periods of both non-REM and REM sleep. They got short tests such as anagram puzzles. The team tested each participant before going to sleep, so they were familiar. They were then monitored and woken up at different points of the night to re-perform the tests. When woken up during non-REM sleep, they solved very few puzzles. However, when they woke up during REM sleep, they could solve between 15 and 35 percent more puzzles than when they were awake in the beginning. During their REM sleep stage, participants who woken up reported that the solution just popped into their head and required little effort. 

Compelling Theories About the Dreaming Brain
There is evidence to suggest that dream reports from those who wake up during non-REM sleep are identical to REM reports; other sources indicate that non-REM dreams are less vivid. Shutterstock

5. Dreaming can occur in all stages of sleep, including during non-REM stages.

One of the most common misconceptions is that dreams only occur during the REM sleep stage. As previously mentioned, REM sleep is an excellent part of our sleep routine where the brain activity increases although the body remains at rest. Generally, REM sleep occurs between four and five times per night. Although most dreams occur during the REM sleep stage, that is not the only time dreaming can occur. To understand this theory, researchers utilized an EEG device to examine how people’s brain activity in Non-REM sleep is affected by whether they dream or do not dream.

When the non-REM sleep subjects had slept for at least three minutes, the researchers gave them magnetic pulses that induced a weak electric field and activated neurons. After a series of pulses, the participants were woken with an alarm sound and asked whether they had dreamed and described the dream’s content. The study was able to identify that subjects woken up during non-REM sleep were also able to give descriptions of their dreams in more than half of the cases. The researchers also observed that the longer the individual told the dream’s story, the more their EEG resembled that measured from awake people. 

Compelling Theories About the Dreaming Brain
Scientists have been able to pinpoint specific areas of the brain that are involved in dreaming. They have also been able to identify the parts of the brain that remain inactive while someone is sleeping. Shutterstock

4. Researchers have been able to identify specific parts of the brain involved in dreaming. 

With the theory that dreaming only occurs during REM sleep disproven, scientists worked to understand better how specific parts of the brain are involved in dreaming and, more specifically, the dream’s content. For instance, experts prove that dreaming about faces was linked to increased high-frequency activity in the brain region involved in face recognition. Doctors link dreams that involve perception, movement, and thinking to brain regions that handle those specific tasks when awake.

A Japanese sleep study further concluded that the brain’s activation within the brain is broader in REM sleep than when it is awake and subjected to visual stimulation. Researchers have also studied how people born blind experience visual images while dreaming. One study suggested that they have limited graphical images but experience enhanced references to smell, taste, or touch. However, another study suggested that EEG readings in both blind and sighted dreamers had similar visual experiences. Both groups were able to describe their dreams visually. Further, experts suggest that while the primary cortex is unaffected, a related visible area in the brain called the extrastriate cortex could be activated in blind subjects by stimulating other senses. The increased stimulation of other senses such as touch, taste, or smell helps create virtual images in the brains of people born blind. 

Compelling Theories About the Dreaming Brain
Inactive regions in the brain can help dreamers understand why they do not wake up even when they know they have an odd dream. The areas that are responsible for putting things into perspective remain dark while dreaming. Shutterstock

3. While certain parts of the brain have an increased frequency during dreaming, there are also passive brain areas. 

Like how scientists studied which parts of the brain are active while someone is dreaming, they have also completed an analysis of the dormant areas. The areas of our minds that are responsible for placing items in a physical context remain dark. This discovery helps to explain why sometimes proportions are often distorted in dreams. One example of this is within the right inferior parietal cortex’s inactivity. The lack of activity in this area may explain why we can experience dreams in both the first and third person. The inferior parietal cortex is not the only area of the brain that remains dormant.

Executive regions of the prefrontal cortex responsible for reality testing and self-monitoring also remain dark. That can explain why the dreamer is completely unfazed when a person is replaced with an animal while you are in a work meeting. When we are awake, a situation like that will make zero sense. However, since that part of the brain remains inactive or dormant while dreaming, we are entirely unfazed by it. 

Compelling Theories About the Dreaming Brain
Sufficient and quality sleep are critical to promoting good health. Shutterstock

2. As many of us know, sleep is critical to our overall health. Adequate sleep can contribute to the frequency and type of dreaming you may experience. 

How can we ensure we are getting enough sleep and experiencing a dream state? The good news is that there are several simple ways you can enhance your sleep and achieve that dream state. The first change you can to make sure your room is dark and that you are not looking at bright light sources within the last hour or two before going to bed. It is talking to everyone who scrolls social media before going to sleep. You can also purchase some dimming lights to stimulate sleepiness.

The second thing you can do is to create a consistent schedule by going to bed and waking up at roughly the same time every day. That helps to signal to your body that there is a regular time for sleeping. To get sufficient sleep, you should keep the temperature in your house cool at night. Your body temperature naturally drops at night for sleep, and a lower room temperature signals that it’s time for rest.

If you have trouble falling asleep or wake up in the night feeling restless, it’s vital that you don’t stay in bed awake. Doing so trains your body that your bed is not a place for sleeping. Try getting up and reading a book and when you start to feel sleepy again, return to bed. Lastly, avoid caffeine late in the day or too much alcohol. Both interfere with quality sleep and will either keep you awake or stimulate frequent wakeups throughout the night. 

Compelling Theories About the Dreaming Brain
You may find yourself dreaming about people or situations you experienced the day before, or perhaps they are people and situations from a week ago. Shutterstock

1. Dream lag occurs when the images, experiences, or people in your dreams are ones that you have seen recently. 

When you see someone recently, perhaps the previous day or a week before, and then see them in your dream, this action is a dream lag. Experts asked people a simple question: did they see images before? In turn, they report that most images came from the previous week. The idea is that certain types of experiences can take a week to become encoded into your long-term memory. Some of the images from the consolidation process will then appear in a dream. Events people experience while awake is said to feature in one to two percent of dream reports.

On the other hand, 65 percent of dream reports reflect aspects of recent waking-life experiences. Memory theorists suggest that the hippocampus in your brain takes those events, whether from the previous day or the last week, and selects some of them to transfer into long-term memory. Those chosen then begin to transfer over to the neocortex for permanent storage. The transfer process can take about a week. Therefore, dreaming participates in the relocation of memory storage from the hippocampus to the neocortex over time. In short, you can see encoded images stay in your long-term memory by merely paying attention to your dreams!