Written by Michael Mantz, M.D.
Dreams have fascinated mankind throughout our history. In Chinese history it was once believed that we had two vital aspects of the soul — one of which was freed from the body during sleep to enter the dream realm while the other remained in the body. In Greek history, early beliefs about dreams were that their gods physically visited the dreamers leaving behind divine messages. Sigmund Freud’s famous book The Interpretation of Dreams heavily influenced the 20th century view on dreams. He proposed that dreams came, not from soul parts visiting different realms or from visiting deities, but from our brainmind. He considered dreams to be the royal road to the unconscious mind and espoused an interesting but unreliable and unscientific method of dream interpretation still used by many therapists today.
I. Are dreams important or are they a mere quirky byproduct of evolution?
A) The Dawn of Dreaming in Animals
Interestingly, the ability to dream developed independently in both birds and mammals (excepting marine mammals). If you own a cat or dog and watch them sleep, you will see periods in which their eyes will begin to dart back and forth during a sleep phase known as REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. This is the phase in which we have full on dreams. Ever wonder what our four-legged friends dream about?
The fact that REM sleep developed separately in two distinct classes of animals provides indirect evidence to the importance of REM sleep.
B) Dreaming – Muscle paralysis – Survival vulnerability
One unique feature that occurs when you dream is that your brain stem sends a signal down your spinal cord to block any motor signals to your postural muscles. This motor blockade jams these signals in order to block your body from actually moving while you are running, punching, jumping, etc…while dreaming.
Your body goes limp while you dream. This increased vulnerability from temporary muscle paralysis is a large survival risk that puts you in a precarious situation if something where to attack you while you were dreaming.
The fact that both birds and mammals still undergo REM sleep to this day, despite this survival risk, is more evidence that REM sleep is important or else it would have been ironed out of our genes long ago.
C) Dreaming/REM Sleep – 2 major benefits uncovered by recent neuroscience
Recent neuroscience has uncovered many powerful capacities that dreaming helps our brainminds develop. These include:
We will explore the last two below and discuss the other two in another article.
1) Dreaming – The Creative Spark
What does Frankenstein, the periodic table, the discovery of the benzene ring, the songs ‘Yesterday,’ ‘Let it Be’ and ‘Satisfaction’ have in common? Nothing…
Just kidding. They were all sparked by the dreams of Mary Shelly, Dmitri Mendeleev, August Kekule’, Paul McCartney and Keith Richards respectively.
Several studies have uncovered that while we dream, our thinking mind, rather than being focused, linear, and logical (which is its default style while we are awake and actively engaged) becomes more divergent, holistic, and capable of making unexpected connections.
One of the primary cognitive tasks that your thinking mind does is to compare recent information you have gathered from your previous day with the information that is stored inside your long-term memory programs. When your thinking programs are under the influence of REM sleep their style of comparing new and old information shifts from looking for obvious connections towards looking for hidden and unexpected connections. Dreaming drives your thinking programs to look for big idea “ah-ha” type connections where interesting, insightful, and more unique answers to problems can be found.
Dreaming allows your thinking mind the freedom to explore and play in a virtual world liberated from the laws of physics. This lets your thinking mind cross pollinate between divergent areas of knowledge in search of less obvious connections to help potentiate your mind’s ability to make quantum leaps from your current state of knowledge.
Fun fact: Many scientists hypothesize that dreaming was critical in our development of language – arguably the single most important human invention.
2) Dreaming – Brings Peace to our Minds
While you are in REM sleep, an important neurotransmitter that is normally released when you deal with stress – noradrenaline – is blocked. This allows your mind to recycle through recent emotional memories within an arena where one of your major stress signals is unplugged. This facilitates your mind’s capacity to process the emotional charge associated with these memories.
When you do not dream enough, you burden your mind with an increasing load of unprocessed, highly charged emotional information which causes your mind to become emotionally constipated. This constipation can lead you into chronic states of irritability, anxiety, and potentially depression.
Not Fun fact: 90-95% of all mood disorders are preceded by low-quality sleep
REM sleep also presses the refresh and reset buttons on several key emotional processing centers in your brain. Lack of REM sleep disrupts your ability to not only process your own emotions but it also fogs up your ability to accurately perceive the emotions of others. Several studies have shown that your perceptions become more biased towards both FEAR and ANGER when you don’t get enough high-quality REM sleep. Several studies demonstrate that people who get crappy sleep tend to interpret facial expressions and body language with a stronger negativity bias.
Can you remember a time, after sleeping poorly, when you got into an argument with a loved one?
Putting it All Together
Whether you are a bird or a human — REM sleep and dreaming are essential for both your mind and brain to be healthy. Dreaming allows your mind the unique opportunity to discover creative insights and helps you find unique solutions to the challenges that you face. It also helps your mind effectively process your emotions and helps reset/refresh your mind’s emotional processing systems (which helps you to perceive yourself, others, and the world more clearly).
Most of our REM sleep occurs in the second half of sleep. It is estimated that 60-90% of all your REM sleep will occur in the last two hours of sleep. It is highly recommended that you give both your brain and your mind 8 hours of sleep opportunity to ensure that they, and you, get the precious benefits that REM sleep and dreaming offer.
Please refer to my article: 5 powerful ways for building sustainable brain energy: Part 1 – Getting high-quality sleep to get more detailed information on getting higher quality sleep.