Words: Iain Carmichael (he/him)
Throughout history, dreaming has been a behaviour shrouded in mystery. Speculation over its cause, effects, and especially meaning, has been a cause of debate dating back to early civilisations. Ancient cultures, such as Egypt and Greece, interpreted dreams as messages from their gods. More recently, prominent thinkers, led by Sigmund Freud, perceived dreams as encrypted subconscious thoughts and desires. These former propositions were all reasonable in their respective contexts, limited by the science of their time. Indeed, Freud himself once predicted that improvements in science would eventually uncover the biological mechanisms underlying dreams. As predicted, this came true in the late twentieth century when the field of neuroscience boomed thanks to breakthroughs in brain imaging technology. Driven by the previously inaccessible ability to observe the brain in action, researchers have gradually uncovered the true secrets behind dreaming.
One commonly held view regarding dreams is that they’re representative of unconscious thought. This belief was put forward by Freud, who prided himself on his ability to correctly interpret people’s dreams; this became a common practice, and, for the best part of a century, countless “experts” proceeded to psychoanalyse people’s dreams. However, a common fault of this dream analysis is that interpretations were far too inconsistent to support the practice. If every doctor you saw gave you a different diagnosis, eventually you’d simply lose faith. This inconsistency was the downfall of dream analysis, as interpretations were too subjective to merit scientific value. The notion that dreams represent unconscious thoughts has not been disproved, but it hasn’t proved true yet either. As such, Freud’s theory has been cast aside and replaced by more rigorous scientific methods.
A more recent perspective on dreams is that their content reflects our waking lives; this is both true and untrue. Whilst the actual content of our dreams – what we see, hear, etc. – doesn’t reflect our lives, the emotional content of our dreams does. One study found that between 35-55% of emotional concerns and themes that people had during the day would then resurface in their subsequent dreams. This suggests that dreams are responsible for processing unresolved and salient emotions from our waking lives. This processing is facilitated by the inhibition of stress hormones during REM sleep – the stage in which we predominantly dream. Outside of REM sleep we constantly have stress hormones running through our brains. In the absence of stress hormones, our brains can unpack any intense emotional content from our waking lives, in a stress-free environment. This process has been labelled as a form of overnight therapy, which helps us resolve intense or difficult emotions. If you’ve ever gone to bed with a troubled mind and woken up the next morning with a sense of emotional resolution, you’ve got the wonders of dreaming to thank!
Another benefit of dreaming relates to creativity and abstract thought. During REM sleep our prefrontal cortex, the brain area responsible for logical thinking and reasoning, is largely offline. Interestingly, whilst it’s offline, our brains perform better in certain measures of creativity and abstract thought. Some studies compared people who had just woken from dreams with people during waking hours and measured their abstract thinking and creativity. “Out-of-the-box” thinking was measured using things like anagrams and association tests (e.g. music, dancing, movement, exercise, etc). The results showed improved anagram performance and more abstract associations in ‘dreamers’ compared to daytime participants. These findings suggest that dreaming promotes creativity and the synthesis of abstract information. Perhaps this explains why numerous scientific discoveries, such as Einstein’s theory of relativity, and expressive masterpieces, such as Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday”, were conceived or inspired by dreams, as the great minds behind them weren’t constrained by logic or reason.
The benefits of dreaming are evidently numerous, so it stands to reason that sleep deficits would have adverse impact; unfortunately for many people, this is an inescapable truth. Sleep deficits are not only seen in sleep disorders, such as sleep apnoea and insomnia, but also among a range of social groups. People of lower socioeconomic status, elderly people, and adolescents account for countless restless nights. The average period of sleep obtained by adolescents is up to two hours shy of their optimal amount. Importantly, given that most REM sleep occurs at the tail end of the night, people whose sleep is cut short by early mornings have significantly less dreaming than needed. In sleep disorders, difficulties in falling and/or staying asleep also cause deficits in REM sleep. In both situations, the emotional and creative benefits, afforded to those who sleep well, are unavailable to those who don’t.
Every night we are given the key to unlock our creative minds, and a safe space in which to process the emotion life inevitably hurls our way. Unbeknownst to most, dreaming isn’t just a quirky, confusing experience. It is a privilege, and a necessity.