Anything can happen in your dreams. You can fly; you can drown; you can show up naked to school; you can have your teeth fall out, or you can have Leonardo DiCaprio staring intensely at an infinitely spinning top (Inception (2010)).
Dreams have been a topic of intrigue for researchers across all fields of science. Those on the biological side study the physiological processes that occur in the brain during sleep and observe neurological fluctuations while people dream. Scientists on the psychological side study the implications of the dream content on waking life. Despite these different focuses, scientists agre that there is still a great deal to be discovered about dreams.
Scientists have been grappling with the question of “Why do we need sleep?” for decades. It’s clearly understood how much sleep we need and that sleep deprivation is harmful, but the reason why is still unclear. The best we can do, then, is try to understand as much as we can of what actually goes on while we’re asleep.
Although it normally just feels like blacking out for awhile, sleep actually occurs in five different stages. The first stage is a light sleep that is easy to wake up from (the kind of sleep you experience when you start dozing off in a boring class or meeting). The second stage goes slightly deeper, usually the kind of sleep that you get when you lie down for a quick 20-minute nap. The third and fourth stages represent deeper sleep.
As we go through these four stages, our brain waves gradually become longer and slower. The waves start with alpha waves in stage 1, then beta, theta, and finally, delta waves in stage 4. After the fourth stage, we reach one final stage known as REM sleep. REM is an acronym for “rapid eye movement” and is, oddly enough, one of the most active physiological parts of our entire day.
During REM sleep, breathing quickens, heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, and brain activity goes back to the same level as when we’re awake (or even higher!) with alpha waves.
All of this, though, is counterbalanced by the rest of our body being paralyzed. If you’ve ever suddenly woken up in the middle of the night and discovered that you’re unable to move, this is just you accidentally being interrupted in the middle of REM sleep – it’s nothing to be afraid of.
This might seem a little terrifying, but this is actually the body’s way of keeping you safe while you’re asleep. Most of our dreams happen during REM sleep, so if we weren’t physically paralyzed at this time, then we would be inadvertently acting out our dreams. If you were dreaming about being a ninja, you’d end up throwing imaginary shuriken in your sleep and, if you’re sharing a bed with someone, would probably end up whacking him or her right in the face (Obringer).
This brings us to what the purpose of dreams actually is. No one has pinpointed one single explanation, but there have been several theories on the subject. Some focus solely on the physiological aspect and believe that dreams are merely spikes in our brain activity during our sleep, nothing more. There is no higher meaning to them; there is no real purpose.
Others, though, focus on the more abstract psychological implications of dreams. Sigmund Freud believed that dreams help people act out things they can’t do when they’re awake. As a result, he put a great deal of stock in the symbolism of our dreams in helping us uncover our secret desires. Carl Jung believed that dreams were actually similar to thoughts we have while awake, but are our brain’s way of thinking through problems or troublesome issues while we are asleep and undistracted.
Freud and Jung proposed these theories in the Victorian era, but now, most psychologists accept a theory that helps bridge the gap between the psychological and neurological standpoints. In 1973, Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley expanded upon the hypothesis that dreams are the result of random electrical brain impulses. They suggested that dreams are images pulled from experiences stored in our memory, so that the random electrical impulses are not entire coherent stories but rather, a series of scattered images. Once the person awakens, the brain takes these scattered images and forms stories to make sense out of them (Gupta).
There is still a great deal about dreams and sleep that we have yet to discover because at the moment, everything is still speculation and theory. In the future, though, perhaps we will finally be able to understand enough to be able to control them and implant ideas into someone’s head by entering a dream within a dream within a dream…
Written by Constance Kaita
Images courtesy of guardian.co.uk, thebabysavant.com, weknowmemes.com
Gupta, Priyamvada. “How Things Work: Dreams.” TheTartan.org. 21 April 2008. Web. 23 July 2013.
Obringer, Lee Ann. “How Dreams Work.” HowStuffWorks.com. 27 January 2005. Web. 23 July 2013.