Health Fo­cus

De­cod­ing the sci­ence be­hind dreams and why they oc­cur…

Health & Nutrition - - CONTENTS -

Know why dreams oc­cur

Adults dream for about two hours a night, on an av­er­age – that’s onetwelfth of their lives, adding up to more than six years of dream­ing dur­ing an 80-year life. World lit­er­a­ture is filled with dreams. Dreams play an out­sized role in Shake­speare’s plays, from ‘Ham­let’ and ‘Mac­beth’ to ‘A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream’. Old Tes­ta­ment pa­tri­archs were dream­ers on a cos­mic scale: Ja­cob dreamed of a lad­der lead­ing up to heaven; Joseph got a job in­ter­pret­ing dreams for Pharaoh.

In­deed, ex­plain­ing dreams has, over the cen­turies, been a good way to earn a liv­ing. In some so­ci­eties, shamans use dreams to diagnose ill­ness, ex­pose adul­tery, pre­dict preg­nancy and the weather, or lo­cate game. Un­der the in­flu­ence of Sig­mund Freud’s psy­cho­an­a­lytic the­o­ries, dreams passed into the do­main of the psy­chi­a­trist, and many peo­ple un­der­go­ing analysis spend their 50 min­utes un­rav­el­ling their dreams.

Dreams may seem to have lit­tle or noth­ing to do with physical health, but they are an in­te­gral part of sleep and thus are es­sen­tial to life. We

are such stuff as dreams are made on,” as Pros­pero says in ‘The Tem­pest’, yet dream­ing re­mains largely a mys­tery. That said, we’ll try to an­swer some ques­tions about dreams.

Do dreams dis­rupt sleep?

No, dreams are a key part of restora­tive sleep. Sleep has four phases, which we cy­cle through usu­ally four or five times a night: REM (rapid eye move­ment) plus three non-REM stages. Most dream­ing goes on dur­ing the REM stage, when the eyes move un­der the lids. Dream­ing may not seem par­tic­u­larly rest­ful, how­ever, es­pe­cially if you have night­mares and they oc­cur just be­fore wak­ing.

Does ev­ery­body dream?

Ex­cept for peo­ple with cer­tain brain ab­nor­mal­i­ties, every­one has REM sleep, dur­ing which dreams oc­cur. Of course, peo­ple who don’t re­mem­ber their dreams may think they don’t dream, but they al­most cer­tainly do. Re­search has found that when peo­ple who claimed they never dreamed were moni­toured dur­ing sleep, their move­ments and other be­hav­iour strongly in­di­cated they were dream­ing dur­ing REM sleep.

Does dream­ing serve spe­cific pur­poses?

Hu­mans have long won­dered why we dream and whether it serves a pur­pose – per­haps as a way for us to com­mu­ni­cate with the Gods, pre­dict the fu­ture, or rep­re­sent our re­pressed feel­ings. There are scores of the­o­ries. Mod­ern dream re­search be­gan with Dr Freud, who thought dreams rep­re­sented un­ful­filled wishes, rooted in un­re­solved child­hood trau­mas that had been re­pressed. Carl Jung, an­other fa­mous dream the­o­rist, thought a dream was ‘the small hid­den door in the deep­est and most intimate sanc­tum of the soul.’

The truth is that no­body knows for sure why we dream or whether dreams are of any use, but many func­tions have been pro­posed. For in­stance, stud­ies have found that REM sleep (the dream­ing stage), in par­tic­u­lar, may help peo­ple con­sol­i­date and re­or­ga­nize mem­o­ries so that they can per­form cog­ni­tive ac­tiv­i­ties bet­ter. Other stud­ies sug­gest that REM sleep may mit­i­gate the in­ten­sity of stress­ful ex­pe­ri­ences, in part by re­duc­ing nor­ep­i­neph­rine, a stress-re­lated hor­mone. This was seen in a 2017study in the ‘Jour­nal of Neu­ro­science’, in which stu­dents learned to as­so­ciate an im­age with a mild elec­tric shock. Brain scans showed that those who spent more time in REM sleep prior to the ex­per­i­ment had re­duced

It was found that it wasn’t fear that made night­mares so emo­tion­ally charged, but rather feel­ings of guilt, dis­gust, or sad­ness.

You’re more likely to re­call dreams that are more co­her­ent as well as those that are vivid and cause greater arousal.

brain ac­tiv­ity in re­sponse to this learned fear. The re­searchers sug­gested this may be due to the ef­fect of REM sleep on nor­ep­i­neph­rine.

How can you bet­ter re­mem­ber dreams?

Some peo­ple re­mem­ber their dreams reg­u­larly, with­out ef­fort, but most of us for­get them quickly – or sel­dom re­mem­ber them at all un­less we are awak­ened in the mid­dle of one. The brain pro­cesses that store mem­o­ries are largely sup­pressed dur­ing sleep. You’re more likely to re­call dreams that are more co­her­ent as well as those that are vivid and cause greater arousal. Ther­a­pists who want their pa­tients to dis­cuss their dreams may sug­gest var­i­ous strate­gies to in­crease the chances of re­call­ing them. For in­stance, tell your­self as you fall asleep that you want to re­mem­ber your dreams, and keep a note­book or dig­i­tal de­vice by your bed so you can record them when­ever you wake up. It may also help to record the day’s events be­fore you fall asleep. When you wake up in the morn­ing, try to do so grad­u­ally, in a re­laxed man­ner, and try to hold onto your mem­o­ries of your dreams, rather than jump­ing out of bed and get­ting im­me­di­ately dis­tracted. Keep in mind that when peo­ple re­call and re­late dreams, they in­evitably shape them, tend­ing to make them more sen­si­ble and ra­tio­nal by piec­ing snip­pets to­gether and fill­ing in gaps. There’s no way to cap­ture a dream while it hap­pens.

What is night­mare?

Typ­i­cally, night­mares have been seen as dreams that are fright­en­ing (like be­ing chased by a mon­ster) and wake peo­ple up. To­day, night­mares are usu­ally de­fined as in­tensely dis­turb­ing, rather than just very scary, dreams. It’s es­ti­mated that up to onethird of adults have at least one night­mare a month, while up to 6% say they ex­pe­ri­ence night­mares every week. In a study in the jour­nal ‘Sleep’, re­searchers an­a­lyzed the dreams of al­most 600 peo­ple and it was found that it wasn’t fear that made night­mares so emo­tion­ally charged, but rather feel­ings of guilt, dis­gust, or sad­ness. Night­mares also of­ten in­volve death, feel­ing threat­ened or health con­cerns.

Do med­i­ca­tions af­fect dream­ing?

Yes. Peo­ple tak­ing cer­tain med­i­ca­tions may ex­pe­ri­ence more vivid or in­tense dreams, typ­i­cally in the form of night­mares. Some betablock­ers (used for hy­per­ten­sion) com­monly do this. But the list is lengthy and also in­cludes some anti-de­pres­sants, cor­ti­cos­teroids (at higher doses), lev­odopa (for Parkin­son’s dis­ease), and meflo­quine (used to pre­vent or treat malaria).

Some peo­ple may ex­pe­ri­ence in­creased night­mares when they ‘stop’ tak­ing cer­tain drugs – in­clud­ing ben­zo­di­azepines, bar­bi­tu­rates, and, again, cer­tain anti-de­pres­sants – es­pe­cially if this is done abruptly or if the dose is re­duced too quickly. In many cases, the drugs af­fect brain chem­i­cals that in­flu­ence REM sleep.

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