Mar. 18, 2019Anyone who’s ever been a vivid dreamer will tell you, that stuff can be exhausting. The mental fatigue of going to bed for a good night’s sleep, only to be hunted down by a serial killer or delivering a keynote in your underwear feels like anything but restful. So what the heck is the point of a dream? Why do we have them, and what in the world do they mean?
What Happens When You Dream
The short answer is: scientists have some excellent theories, but nobody really knows for sure.
It’s only from the most recent research that scientists have determined where in the brain dreams even originate. In a fluke during a recent dream study, it was found that the patient’s visual cortex, known as the lingual gyrus, is directly tied to dream production. This particular section of our brain is responsible for emotional and visual processing and recalling memories.
Dreaming seems to occur during our REM sleep cycles, the periods of time in which our brains are more energized and our bodies are almost completely devoid of muscle tone. In short, your brain is switched on, and it’s lights out for pretty much everything else.
But when you’re in REM sleep, not your whole brain is active, and this is the really interesting part. Your limbic system is wildly active, the part of your brain responsible for reactions, memories, and the part responsible for skeletal movement.
Your frontal cortex — the part of your brain responsible for saying, “This is ridiculous Karen, the mailman is not a zombie”, is completely offline — leaving your limbic system running the show (and it’s got a wild side).
Sleep Walking and Talking
Because the part of your brain responsible for skeletal movement is still online, despite your muscles being totally lax, occasionally what your hippocampus (your memory center) decides to play for your visual cortex can rile you up enough to physically move during sleep.
Particularly at the end of an REM sleep cycle, when your muscles are beginning to regain their tone, this can cause some ultra-vivid dreamers to talk, walk, and even react instinctively in the physical world to what’s happening in their minds.
Does What We Dream Mean Anything?
Now the golden question — are dreams just random firings from the part of our brains that haven’t completely gone offline, or is there more to it than that? Nobody is really sure.
What scientists have largely theorized is that with your logic center offline and your limbic system going bananas, you pull all kinds of memories out of your mind while you sleep. With nobody sane as the gatekeeper, your brain interprets what happens as real. You react instinctively and emotionally, based on ideas and memories that are already there. Even so, there are four primary schools of thought on the subject.
Wish Fulfillment. Freud’s theory goes hand-in-hand with many of his revolutionary psychological work. Though not always a pleasant reality in the case of dark and macabre dreams, Freud’s theory suggests that dreams aren’t really random at all, but manifestations of thoughts we’re already having, even if at the subconscious level.
Carl Jung’s Theory
Direct Mental Expression. Jung’s theory is an interesting one and plays into the most mystical side of dreams. His theory suggests that dreams are much more symbolic and metaphorical and not literal projections of our internal thoughts.
REM and Activation-Synthesis
This theory is based on the neuroscience we’ve proven thus far, that dreams are just side effects of normal brain activity that happens during REM sleep.
Threat Simulation Theory
An interesting theory, this one is based on the idea that our brains are subconsciously preparing us for stressful situations we perceive, whether consciously or not, to be threats in our lives. We act them out in our minds, and we’re that much more prepared in real life.
Are Dreams Our Brain’s Way of Exercising?
The science is missing pieces, and many parts are unclear, but there seems to be a link between people who don’t dream, or often have them interrupted, and an impaired ability to process emotions.
Many psychologists theorize that social communication is one of the most essential components of the human survival instinct, but also one of the most stressful. Many attribute the rise in stress hormone levels with the constant attachment to social media — communicating constantly is mentally exhausting.
It seems that our dreams might prepare us for emotional processing, a key component of communication, and that a lack of dreams can result in difficulty with those situations.
Dreaming as an Essential Bodily Function
Whatever the case may be, dreaming doesn’t just seem to be a normal neurological process. It seems to be an inevitable side effect of the hippocampus being left up late to play cards with the visual cortex and no frontal cortex supervision.
The result can be the wild and wacky, the downright disturbing, and the profoundly thought-provoking. Scientific explanations or not, dreaming is fascinating, and as it turns out, could be a healthy part of a fully-functional brain.
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