We’ve all had the experience of waking up suddenly in the middle of the night in sheer panic as we dreamt our way through a situation that felt all too real. Maybe you ran into someone you never wanted to see again. Maybe you forgot to hand in that assignment that was worth a quarter of your grade. Whatever it was, you can eventually lay back in relief knowing it was all just a dream. But what exactly was happening in your mindthere?
Dreaming is a fascinating human occurrence that has been pondered and fixated on since the days of the ancient Egyptians. From a neurological perspective, the entire brain is involved in the process of dreaming, from the brainstem all the way to the cortex. Dreams typically occur during the rapid-eye movement (commonly known as REM) stage of the sleep cycle. REM sleep is centered around the reticular activation system in our brains, responsible for sleep-wake transitions.
The limbic system, located in the middle of the brain, also plays a big part in our dreams. This part of the brain is primarily responsible for emotions and also includes the amygdala, the part of our brain responsible for fear.
When it comes to the crazy content often found in our dreams, it is the cortex that is responsible for this. Specifically, the temporal-occipital cortex (found in the back of our brains) produces the realistic and ongoing visuals we experience during our dreams.
The frontal lobes are least active in our dreams. This is the part of the brain associated with movement, organization, the ability to self-monitor, and other executive functions of the brain. With the logical side of our brains dulled down, it makes sense why we interpret our dreams as reality in the moment.
Though we may hardly remember our dreams, research suggests that the average person dreams between three to six times per night, with each one lasting between five and 20 minutes.
It has been suggested the brain may be using this time to consolidate learning and memory tasks that would support our waking consciousness. It may also be a method of preparing us for possible future threats through a cognitive simulation of sorts.
Second-year psychology student Preet Dhaliwal has taken an interest in his dreams and what they may represent. He even makes an effort to keep track of them.
“I find dreams really fascinating and I love to reflect on them when I’m conscious and alert. To do this, I started keeping a journal by my bed and whenever I wake up from an intense dream, I quickly write down what happened so that I can revisit it later,” says Dhaliwal.
So, why exactly do we dream anyway? What purpose does it serve us as humans? Well, scientists are still not completely sure; however, many plausible explanations have been put forth.
It has been suggested the brain may be using this time to consolidate learning and memory tasks that would support our waking consciousness. It may also be a method of preparing us for possible future threats through a cognitive simulation of sorts. It is also thought to be a time during which we are able to reflect on our unconscious mental functions in a psychoanalytic way, and to perhaps even confront subconscious emotional trauma and repressed memories.
How much or how little we sleep is thought to have a big impact on our dreams. When we are sleep deprived, it’s likely our dreams will be a little wilder than usual as we have missed out on REM sleep for an extended period of time. Third-year health studies student Shelly Persaud can attest to this experience.
“I’ve definitely noticed that if I go a long time without much sleep, when I finally do get around to catching up on some Zs, my dreams are extremely vivid and connected. I see things that confuse, excite, and intrigue me, and it really makes me wonder about everything going on in the mind while it’s happening,” says Persaud.
Though dreaming may seem like an effortless activity, it’s clear that our brains are doing a lot more during the process than we may have thought.