Dreaming is one of the most mysterious things humans do. No one knows exactly why we dream, but there are a lot of theories about the science behind dreams. There are also a lot of ways to interpret dreams depending on the cultural structure.
You can learn to become a lucid dreamer and control your dreams to work through problems and ideas.
Dreaming is a very strange state where the body is paralyzed, presumably to keep us from getting up and acting out our dreams and hurting ourselves.
During dreaming sleep eyes dart around in all directions giving it the name Rapid Eye Movement or REM sleep. The brainwaves during REM sleep resemble waking brainwaves.
We often remember these odd narratives as the dream cycle or REM sleep grows longer throughout the night.
We start with long deep-sleep cycles where there is very little dreaming, interspersed with short REM or dream cycles. The dream cycle lasts longer and longer until we finally wake up in the morning.
REM sleep only lasts about 10 minutes early in the night and gradually increases in duration. The longest dreams are toward early in the morning right before we wake up. REM sleep can last 60 minutes for the final cycle of the night.
Dreams can be a great source for ideas and creative projects so it can be very useful to learn how to remember your dreams better.
The structure of human sleep
The body slows down gradually during sleep. The body temperature, heart rate, and breathing rate go down and the brainwaves slow down. Metabolism, blood pressure, and cellular processes begin to slow.
We have different 5 sleep modes that we travel through several times per night lasting around 90 minutes. Non-rem sleep has different stages.
The first stage is when our brain slows a little to theta brain waves and lasts for a few minutes before we go into a slightly deeper state. Theta is a good state for self-hypnosis exercises.
Next, we go into stage 3 and 4 sleep. Deep sleep is where the human brain is in slow brainwave mode or delta. This non-rem sleep cycle eventually gives way to REM sleep or rapid eye movement.
What kind of brain does it take to create dreams?
Birds and mammals are the only creatures that have REM sleep. Other animals sleep or at least go through dormant periods at night. As far as scientists can tell every animal they have checked seems to sleep. Even sharks do go into a semi-catatonic state for periods each day. Of course, with eyes open, it is hard to tell if they are sleeping.
Even jellyfish without a brain or central nervous system exhibit a dormant period for several hours per night. But they probably are not having very interesting dreams.
How to get better at remembering your dreams
Some people claim they don’t dream but most likely they simply don’t remember their dreams.
It is easy to wake out of the middle of a dream toward the end of the sleep cycle and remember the final dream of the night. You can train yourself to remember more of your dreams if you write down the bit that you remember in the morning or if you wake up in the night.
You can program yourself to remember your dreams better by telling yourself you will remember your dreams. When you go to sleep at night make a mental note to yourself that you will remember your dreams.
You may notice that at first you only remember the last few moments of a dream upon waking. But as you continue your dream journal you will notice you start to remember the bit that came before that last bit. After a while, you can go pretty far back into the dream and even get the full dream recalled.
Why do we have REM sleep?
There are many theories about why we dream and what the rapid eye movement during dreams is for. Sleep has many benefits to all the different systems but a lot of the deep rest we need happens during the non-REM phases of sleep.
In the Freudian dream model, it is all about simple wish fulfillment. We are working through neurotic emotional material that the subconscious suppresses so we can get through the day without falling apart.
The Jungian model of dreams added the idea of dreams compensating for imbalances between the conscious and unconscious mind. Jung saw dreams as a positive, health-promoting way to grow and understand yourself as an individual.
Is the purpose of REM sleep to keep the mammalian brain warm?
One theory is that the mammalian brain needs to be kept warm. When the temperature goes down too far we go into a REM stage because it mimics waking brain activity and warms the brain up a bit without waking us.
Seals and dolphins sleep with only one half of the brain at a time while in the water. That means they can keep swimming while one half of the brain sleeps. Then they switch sides while the other half of the brain keeps watching for danger.
Dolphins and whales never have REM sleep because they never get to put two sides of the brain asleep at one time since they cannot get out of the water to sleep. They have slow waves on one side while swimming and being awake with the other hemisphere. Seals revert to lots of REM sleep on land. So perhaps they are keeping the brain warm periodically when sleeping on land.
The half-awake brain no doubt stays nice and toasty when you only sleep with half a brain. After all the awake side is warming the sleeping side while you swim.
This could be part of the reason we developed two hemispheres that are only connected by a corpus callosum as mammals. Non-placental animals have two mirror-image sides to the brain, but they do not have a corpus callosum connecting two halves.
So this need to keep the brain warm might be the most important reason we dream.
Do dreams keep the cornea from becoming damaged?
A recent theory by an ocular scientist Dr. David Maurice of Columbia University Medical suggests that REM sleep doesn’t exist to work through psychological or emotional problems. Maybe REM sleep acts to keep the eyes from being damaged while sleeping.
The vitreous liquid inside the eyes needs to move around to get the circulation of blood to the cornea or we could wake up blind. Maurice noticed that animals born with sealed eyelids still need REM sleep and that fetuses in the womb require a lot of REM sleep. Why would you need all that REM sleep before you even developed neurosis?
This new theory has Freudian dream theorists in an uproar. But Dr. Neil B Karvey is board certified in both psychoanalysis and sleep medicine. Karvey reassures everyone on both sides of the argument that all is well. REM sleep may indeed keep our corneas from starving during sleep and at the same time also have other benefits.
So far no one knows the full story behind dreaming.
But that doesn’t stop you from using your sleep time to remember your dreams. Or use your dreams for creative ideas. Or learn to interpret your dreams or guide yourself into lucid dreaming.
Dream interpretation through history
Many cultures emphasize dream interpretation and meaning. The earliest dream theories came from the dream priests of Mesopotamia where these experts were able to incubate dreams and wrote the first dream book.
In Greece, Aristotle believed dreams to be the purest form of knowledge. The oracle at Delphi used dreams to interpret and predict future military, financial, and decisions.
Oneirocritica (Interpretation of Dreams), was written by Artemidorus in the 3rd century AD.
Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine used dreams for indications of physical and mental health.
Culture and dream interpretation
In western dream theory, certain themes recur. But dream interpretation is very individual as well as cultural.
A few studies have compared dreams across different cultures with interesting results.
Journalist Roc Morin did a cross-cultural study of dreams around the world. He found that there were specific themes in certain parts of the world and that everyone dreams of flying everywhere he visited.
First Nation and other indigenous groups have a long tradition of dream interpretation and these can be powerful places to learn how to work with your dreams.
The International Association for the Study of Dreams is another great place to learn about dreams.
Learning the art of lucid dreaming
Many people have found themselves to be aware that they are dreaming once or twice. But did you know you can learn to manipulate your dreams deliberately?
D’Urso worked with Stephen Laberge who founded the Lucidity Institute. Laberge wrote the classic book Lucid Dreaming. You can become better at inducing lucid dreaming by practicing certain waking activities, suggestions to yourself before going to sleep, and preparation to test if you are dreaming or awake.
After you condition yourself to check these triggers and suggestions while you are awake they can become triggers to get you into a lucid state when you are asleep.
We may not know what dreams are for ultimately. But there are things you can do to become more aware of your dreams and use them for your own benefit.