What science can tell us about our dreams
Deena Kara Shaffer
Are your dreams hazy and hard to recall? Or funny and unforgettable? Ever tried to make sense of a bizarre dream? Read on to learn about the inner workings of dreams and their connection to well-being.
Do you remember your dreams? Are they wild or subtle, strange or hilarious? Always in full colour? In your mother tongue? Have you ever tried to analyze your dreams, teasing out their various clues and metaphors? To make sense of why we dream, what we dream, and the impact of dreaming on our waking life, I turned to two internationally renowned sleep psychology scholars: Dr. Joseph De Koninck, professor emeritus and researcher at the University of Ottawa, and Dr. Tore Nielsen, professor of psychiatry at the Université de Montréal and director of the Dream and Nightmare Laboratory.
Dreams are made of “memory fragments, sensory impressions, creative images, and bodily and emotional feelings, all arranged roughly into the form of a story lived in real time,” explains Nielsen. When and how they occur depends on sleep stages, explains De Koninck: “We know that more vivid dreams happen in REM sleep, and these cycles recur every 90 minutes.”
During REM, our brain is in a state of recovery. Even though our dreams may seem wildly creative, we are not as cognitively sophisticated as when we are awake. Because of this, points out De Koninck, “We seldom dream of reading, counting, or writing. These take concentration.”
When we sleep, the frontal lobe of our brain (the part of our brain in charge of higher functions such as discernment) in particular, is resting. That’s why, he says, “Our dreams tend to be both more emotional and out of contact with reality.”
Dr. Tore Nielsen, professor of psychiatry at the Université de Montréal and director of the Dream and Nightmare Laboratory, recommends these tips for improving your quality of sleep.
“Dreams paint a more negative picture of what we have experienced,” explains De Koninck. “This is because the regions of the brain involved in REM are the very ones associated with emotions, particularly with fear, namely the amygdala. Flight, being chased, even violence, these are the lower parts of the brain taking over.”
“Nightmares,” explains Nielsen, can come with “intense negative feelings, even to the point of waking up, and may induce significant distress in the daytime.” They often occur after adversity, as in the case of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), says De Koninck. “In all dream formation, the regions associated with negative emotions are mobilized,” he says. “In nightmares, this system is heightened.”
This kind of dreaming occurs when people learn to realize that they are dreaming. “Instead of waking up, they can exercise control,” says De Koninck. He describes it as a complex, emerging area. He feels that understanding lucid dreaming could in time be particularly helpful for people who suffer from ongoing bad dreams.
From Freud and Jung to present-day thinkers, many ponder whether dreams mean anything. De Koninck states, “While there is no actual need for dreams, when we do remember them, they can be very useful.”
Dreams can help us “learn about ourselves,” De Koninck says, “through the concerns being expressed and the things we haven’t paid attention to.” Nielsen affirms “there is mounting evidence” that dreaming functions to “consolidate new memories and regulate emotional activity.” In dreams, we can also process and defuse intense emotions separate from their waking life triggers.
Along with what we dream about, how we interpret dreams can help us make sense of our frustrations, needs, stressors, and preoccupations. According to a recent study, our own tendencies to view dream themes as negative or positive can provide us with insight— how we perceive the emotional tone of our dreams.
There is tremendous hope for nightmare sufferers. One approach is to write out the details after a nightmare occurs, explains Dr. Joseph De Koninck, professor emeritus and researcher at the University of Ottawa, but change the scenario into something less scary—for instance, from being chased by a lion to a much more pleasant rabbit. Then rehearse the new storyline. Youth struggling with nightmares to the point of being frightened to go to sleep have experienced relief in as little as one week.
We can indeed offer ourselves pre-sleep suggestions. De Koninck explains that it can be as simple as saying, “‘I’d like to dream about this or that.’ And it does work. It might take a few nights for some or a while longer for others.” Requesting and rehearsing your hoped-for dreams is effective.
To improve our dreaming life, Nielsen recommends
“Don’t try to solve your problems at night! Your frontal lobes are shut down, so worries can feel more aggressive.” De Koninck makes it clear that the old adage of “sleep on it” is right!
As for whether there is any correlation between dreams and wellness, De Koninck explains that our dreams are “in continuity with waking experience and tend to reflect our concerns.” Quite simply, he says, what we dream is “in line with our waking tension.”
What’s more, because our dreams “are always transformed and never just a replay of our day-to-day, images come with new associations. This is what makes our dreams so interesting!”
You've probably seen dream catchers used as decoration, but did you know that they actually have a storied history among First Nations people? Also known as "sacred hoops," dream catchers were hung over kids' beds in order to ward off nightmares.