Dreams are strange things. We all have them, even if we don’t always remember them, and they can affect our day-to-day lives in many different ways. After waking from a nightmare, for example, we might feel uneasy or even frightened for a number of hours. When waking from a good dream, we might feel more positive about life and even inspired to make changes. It is clear that dreams happen for a reason and certainly must have a function, but what those reasons are can be hard to determine. Scientists have studied dreams for centuries, and now there are some theories as to what they are and why we have them. Here are just some of them to think about.
What Are Dreams?
Before we can look at why dreams occur, it is important to understand what dreams are. Although there are still some aspects of dreams and dreaming that haven’t yet been determined, we do know that dreams are hallucinations that only occur during certain stages of our sleep cycle. Dreaming is at its most active during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep. During this time, it is thought that we have dozens of short dreams, but when we wake, we barely remember any of them. Dreams that occur during the less deep sleep cycles are easier to remember.
Dreams often have no logic to them, even if at the time they seem absolutely real. Scientists believe that this is because a different part of the brain is being used to create these hallucinations that would usually be used. It is the emotional center instead of the logical one that creates the dreams.
Although scientists and those researching dreams have yet to come to a conclusion about the role of dreams, some do believe that they are a kind of natural therapy that the brain uses to confront emotional issues and dramas that are happening. This reason could be why dreams don’t make a lot of sense when they are thought about during waking hours. If the emotional center of the brain is being used to create stories out of feelings, then those feelings might be connected to all kinds of other events, feelings, and ideas that the logical part of the brain would never link.
Once the dream has occurred, the hypothesis is that those thoughts and feelings are no longer swirling around the mind, helping people to think more logically and calmly. This is why the recommendation on sleeping on a problem and waiting before you act is a good one. Sleep is the time when the brain can deal with those problems itself without any distractions, and by the morning you will have more of an idea what to do.
Fight Or Flight Training
Human beings have an inbuilt ‘fight or flight’ function. It means that when something dangerous or traumatic is occurring, the natural instinct will either be to fight against it or to run from it. Knowing which option to take can be the difference between safety and injury, or worse, and therefore having a good sense of this ‘fight or flight’ element is vital. Some studies suggest that dreams are actually training for this, giving us situations where the fight or flight mode needs to be used, and showing us what would happen depending on which option is chosen.
The reason for this theory is that it is the amygdala within the brain that is the most active when we dream. Since this is also the part of the brain that is responsible for the fight or flight instinct (also known as the survival instinct), it makes sense that the two are linked. If this is the case, why don’t our bodies respond as they would in waking hours by running or hitting out, for example? It is because the brain ensures that signals are sent through the body to make the muscles relax.
Another idea that some people think could make a lot of sense is that of past lives making themselves known through dreams. Some theorize that the ‘soul’ has lived many times before, moving from one body to another after death and before birth. They feel that this could mean that sometimes there is leftover memory attached to that soul from previous lives, which then shows itself in your dreams. It could account for the times when information that the dreamer could not have known or even been aware of is made clear in dreams, or when a recurring dream happens, telling a story over and over again.
Past lives are a fascinating area of study, and for those who want to know more, perhaps after experiencing a dream as described above, for example, there is a hypnosis technique known as past life regression wherein the patient is taken back into their past lives to find out more. For more about this kind of therapy, take a look at this website.
Every human being has the potential for vast amounts of creativity, but only some are able to harness that creativity and make beautiful works of art, designs, writing, poetry, and other creative ideas with it. When dreaming, the mind is relaxed enough to bring forth all those ideas that were otherwise hidden, and no matter how creative you might be in waking hours, everyone gets the chance to be creative during sleep.
For those who use creativity in their work or need it for a hobby, dreaming can give them many new ideas. For those who aren’t creative, or who don’t see themselves as creative, dreams can offer them a glimpse of what it might be like to try something, and inspire them to write something or pick up a paintbrush or join an art class. The beautiful thing about dreaming is that there are no restrictions, there needs to be no logic, and creativity can naturally flow wherever it wants. It’s no wonder some incredible songs and other works of art have come from dreams.
Another theory (a widely-held one, in fact!) is that dreams are there to help you remember things. Dreams are said to help you keep track of important stories and information that you have been told and to remove any of the unimportant information that might have been stored along with it.
Sleep is well known to store memories; after all, if you are learning new information and you sleep well, you can recall that information that if you don’t have enough (or any) sleep. Therefore it makes sense that dreams would also link to these memories, giving us ‘visual’ clues as to what is essential to know and what is no longer required.
Nightmares, although frightening and unnerving, are still dreams and work in the same way (whatever that way might actually be). However, nightmares are thought to come about through stress and anxiety. The brain can’t relax as it should, and because it is still so stressed, the pictures that are released in dreams are unpleasant.
Nightmares can sometimes become sleep disorders, but the occasional nightmare is nothing to worry about and is perfectly natural, even if it does leave us feeling drained and on edge the next day. A sleeping disorder is defined as being afraid to go to sleep, not sleeping through the night, and having psychological problems such as daytime hallucinations through lack of sleep. If this is happening to you, you should seek the advice of a medical professional.
There could be many things that influence your dreams, but your health is one that many researchers agree on. If you aren’t sleeping well due to a health condition, some parts of your brain may become more active than they usually would be, particularly during REM sleep. It means that your dreams will be more vivid, more easily remembered, and potentially more scary as well.
Your hormones can also affect your dreams. This could be why pregnant women with increased hormone production have more vivid, intense dreams than those who are not pregnant. The more hormones your body creates, the more those hormones can affect the way the brain processes information and especially emotions. These emotions can then spill out into our dreams.
Some foods have always been thought to influence dreams. You may have heard the advice about not eating cheese late at night if you want to avoid nightmares, for example. While there is no hard evidence to say that this is absolutely true and that food can make you dream, there does seem to be evidence to suggest that some foods enable you to remember your dreams better. Therefore it might seem as though the food itself is causing the dream, even if that is not entirely the case.
The more you exercise, the less likely it is you will have dreams that you can remember. That doesn’t mean you won’t be dreaming at all, but the dreams won’t register. You’ll still have dozens of them throughout the night, of course. On the days that you go to the gym, or go for a long run, or even play sports, you may find that you recall fewer dreams than those days when you don’t exercise at all.