The Science of Dreaming
We all sleep and dream, but do you know why we dream? Did you know that everyone has 4-6 dreams each night, including those who think they never dream? Recent studies conducted in sleep labs have shown that, during an eight-hour sleep, our brains cycle 4-6 times from slow-wave deep sleep to active REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, where most dreams occur.
On average, we dream two hours each day and six years in total over a lifetime. If dreaming takes up such a significant part of our lives, it must serve an essential purpose. So why do we dream?
Ancient cultures and religions believe that dreams are prophecies. Based on decades of scientific research, we now know that dreams help us in three main areas: problem-solving, psychotherapy, and creative insights.
Dreaming enhances problem-solving by helping us memorize and process information collected from waking times. In a study led by Harvard Medical School researchers, 99 participants were taught to navigate a computer maze. Half of them took a two-hour nap afterwards while the other half remained awake. Later that day, they were retested. The group that napped did better than the one that did not, and the people that dreamed about the maze in their naps scored the highest [i].
Dreams contain valuable psychological insights. Stress and anxiety typically result in bad dreams. Dreaming is a natural healing function of the brain to desensitize mental triggers. When we dream, our brains stop releasing the anxiety-triggering molecule noradrenaline, allowing our minds to heal by reprocessing upsetting memories from stressful sometimes traumatic events [ii].
People who have PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorders) commonly experience recurring nightmares, which contain triggers that dreaming alone cannot overcome. Dreamwork is an effort to discover the meaning of any dream experience and work with the insights gained for self-growth and therapeutic benefit. It is an effective way to stop nightmares and heal the underlying traumas.
There are many documented examples of well-known artists, musicians, scientists, and even athletes and sociopolitical leaders who dreamt of inspirations, including Paul McCartney's song "Yesterday", Mendeleev's periodic table, and Gandhi's non-violent resistance. These dreams bring fresh and unconventional ideas that manifest into brilliant new ways of thinking and doing [iii]. It's neither coincidence nor luck that made these creative dreams, but the mind itself. To incubate inspirations in your dreams, you will need to think about the subjects intensely in waking times and before going to bed.
Unfortunately, most people nowadays are unaware of the importance of dreaming and do not pay much attention to their dreams. As a result, they forget most of their dreams as soon as they get out of bed and think mistakenly that they never dream. Although dreaming is our birthright, we have to take the time to understand and develop it in order to reap its full benefits. The best way to start is to keep a dream journal; and of course, get enough sleep.
Tang practices and advocates dreamwork for mental health and better relationships. She is the author of Navigate Life with Dreams: A Guide to Happiness and Peace by Working with Your Own Dreams, and teaches dreamwork between 12-1 pm on most Thursdays at Dream Designs' store location. Tang is a member of the International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD)
[i] Robin Nixon, Naps and Dreams Boost Learning, Study Finds, April 22, 2010, livescience.com/9874-naps-dreams-boost-learning-study-finds.html
[ii] Matthew Walker, Why Your Brain Needs to Dream: Research shows that dreaming is not just a byproduct of sleep, but serves its own important functions in our well-being, Greater Good Magazine, OCTOBER 24, 2017
[iii] Deidre Barrett, The Committee of Sleep (Oneiroi Press, 2001)