Most of us understand that getting a good night’s sleep is vital to our general health and well-being, but did you know that bad things happen if your slumbers don’t include enough dreams?
Please understand that we’re not talking about hopes or goals here – or any other abstraction. This kind of dreaming is a physiological state, as determined by neural activity throughout the body, which affect consciousness while sleeping.
Scientists have known since 1953 that humans exist in one of three basic states of consciousness: fully awake or in either REM (rapid eye movement) or NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep.
The brain has a regular progression through the stages of sleep:
1. Alert wakefulness
2. Relaxed wakefulness
3. NREM N1 – drowsiness
4. NREM N2 – light sleep; eye movement stops
5. NREM N3 – Slow Wave Sleep (SWS) – deep sleep
6. REM – first occurs after about 85 minutes of NREM sleep
Most dreaming occurs during REM sleep. During this phase, brain activity is high with fast, desynchronized waves, much like that in our waking state. Breathing speeds up and becomes shallow and irregular. Muscles in the limbs become paralyzed temporarily as the eyes move rapidly in all directions under closed eyelids.
Sleep and dream expert Matthew Walker wrote in Mind & Body that dreaming “is like overnight therapy” to “take the painful sting out of difficult, even traumatic, emotional episodes experienced during the day, offering emotional resolution when you awake the next morning.”
Perhaps this is because it is physically impossible to be anxious during REM sleep. Oddly enough, REM sleep is the only time the brain contains no molecules of noradrenaline, which trigger anxiety. Walker concluded that “key emotional and memory-related structures of the brain are reactivated during REM sleep as we dream.”
This is why dreams can be healing – or cautionary:
Dreaming has the potential to help people de-escalate emotional reactivity, probably because the emotional content of dreams is paired with a decrease in brain noradrenaline.
Those who have awakened from normal REM sleep report feeling calmer and less reactive emotionally. After dreaming, test subjects could read emotions and process external stimuli better than when deprived of REM sleep.
Research suggests that NREM sleep is linked to individual memories, whereas REM sleep stitches them together in new and creative ways.
Have you ever woken up with the solution to a problem that “came to you” in a dream? If so, you are not alone. Check out the World of Lucid Dreaming website for a few mind-blowing ideas and inventions that came to famous figures nocturnally. Among them are the literary giant Mary Shelley and Elias Howe, father of the sewing machine.
Did I mention that Paul McCartney (“Yesterday”) and Albert Einstein (theory of relativity) were also inspired by their dreams?
While not all of us will be dreaming up the next hit song, remember that the importance of sleeping has been well documented since antiquity. If you’re not getting enough REM sleep, you’re not reaching your full potential and might just miss out on your dreams – in every sense of the word.