Home Sleep Wellness A guide to dreams - everything you need to know

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A guide to dreams - everything you need to know

I'm sure many of us have awoken in the middle of the night from a dream so vivid that you had to pinch yourself back into reality. Some theories have described dreams as magical doors to the mind, revealing our deepest desires, feelings, and anxieties. There are other ideas that suggest that dreams may be completely meaningless - because they are the after-effects of a random neural activation.

The scientific reason behind why we dream is not clear yet - but there are many ideas about how  and why these electrical brain impulses that draw random thoughts and images from our memories appear at night. One generally held belief is that dreams help you keep significant memories and things you've learned, get rid of unimportant memories, and sort through confusing thoughts and feelings. There is no complete understanding of which portions of the brain are involved in generating dreams, however, the areas of the brain that are active during sleep play an important role in forming these bizarre visuals.

What causes dreams?

Scientists aren't sure why people dream, but there are some intriguing theories. 

One study suggests that when dreaming, the brain develops a sophisticated picture of the world in which certain sorts of elements are underrepresented in comparison to waking reality, while others are overrepresented - suggesting that the content of our dreams are not random but organised and selective.

What influences our dreams?

There are a number of factors that can contribute to influencing what we dream. Most dreams are probably caused by hidden stress or anxiety. Whilst people may experience similarities in their dreams, experts say the meaning behind the dream is unique to each person.

Age

As we get older, the context of our dreams are set to change among the responsibilities in our day to day life. 

Gender

One study opened up the possibility that gender can have an effect on what we experience in our dream-space. Men reported more nightmares about physical aggressiveness than women.

Welfare

If you experience a lot of stress in your daily life, then it comes as no surprise that these anxieties and insecurities could filter into your dream-space. 

All dreams have different themes

No matter our welfare, socioeconomic status, gender or age, we often experience the same types of dreams, or themes.
Top themes include: 

  • Sexual experiences
  • Being late or unprepared
  • Falling
  • Flying
  • Being chased

Some theories suggest that the theme of particular dreams have a purpose, these include the following:
 
  • Problem-solving
  • Cementing and processing memories
  • Emotional processing
  • Fight or flight training

How does your brain create dreams?


There are two significant areas of our brains that play a key component in dreaming and our ability to consolidate memories in our sleep. These are the neocortex and the hippocampus, these are two gently curved areas of the brain lying beneath the temporal lobe that plays a role in episodic memory.

Neocortex

The neocortex is a region of the cerebral cortex of the human brain that is regarded to be the genesis of higher cognitive functions. It is assumed to be in charge of neural computations such as attention, cognition, perception, and episodic memory.

Hippocampus 

The hippocampus is a complex brain region located deep within the temporal lobe. It plays an important function in learning and memory. The hippocampus is crucial for short-term memory to be encoded into long-term memory.  Sleep has been reportedly shown to be necessary to allow for the consolidation of memories via the hippocampus.

The hippocampus and neocortex may process memory parallel to allow for long-term memory storage within the neocortex during sleep. This notion has been supported by several studies including a 2007 study looking into whether your memory gets erased whilst you sleep found that the hippocampus responded to synchronised firing of neurons in the neocortex with a broad variety of responses and a 2015 study that examined the neural communication between the hippocampus and neocortex. Memory Consolidation (nih.gov)

But what does this mean? These studies suggest that memories are stored in both the neocortex and the hippocampus, and the hippocampus may aid in the reorganisation of information stored in the neocortex until the information is stored long-term in the neocortex. This is in opposition to the idea that information is transferred from the hippocampus to the neocortex during sleep. While the hippocampus and neocortex are thought to be involved in dreaming, the amygdala and brainstem have also been reported to play a role.   

Amygdala

The amygdala is often considered to be the fear centre of the brain, it is often involved in negative emotional responses including those caused by stress. Activity in the amygdala at night could be one reason why we feel so strongly about what we have an emotional connection to what we sometimes experience in our dreams, as well as nightmares.

Brainstem

The brainstem, one of the most rudimentary sections of the brain, aids in the signalling that allows for movement and sensation, and the involuntary nervous system. This part of the brain sends out rapid-fire signals while you dream, which result in the activation of higher brain areas, and the creation of the dream’s images.

What happens to us physically when we dream?

You might have noticed that when dogs are spotted kicking their legs in their sleep, it is often said that they are ‘dreaming of running’ - and you might be right. There are physical effects to our dreams, the most common include: 

Eye movement

Eye movement during dreams is typically based on image processing during deep sleep, including the ways you visually interpret your dream-space. During the REM phase of the sleep cycle, your eyes move rapidly behind your eyelids and in this time, your eyes do not send visual information to the brain. 

Difference in heart rate and blood pressure

Heart rate and blood pressure often drop by roughly 20% during the NREM periods of sleep. During REM sleep your heart rate and blood pressure can fluctuate depending on the content of what one is experiencing. 

Breathing changes

REM sleep causes irregular breathing, with rapid rises and falls. REM sleep is also distinguished by brief apneas or pauses in breathing - so when we enter the state of dreaming, there is a notable change in our breathing.

Temporary paralysis 

Known as atonia - your body is mostly immobilised when you enter REM sleep. With the exception of the muscles under your eyelids and diaphragm, you lose practically all muscular tone. Atonia, which is produced by a shift in the neurons in the base of the brainstem, communicates with the neurons that stimulate muscle action.

Another side effect of being in the state of atonia is muscle twitching - it is normal for people to twitch involuntarily, particularly the fingers and toes.

Types of dreams

While it might be uncommon to notice a difference in your ability to create images at night, there are a number of different types of dreams which are reported to react in your brain and physically in different ways. 

Nightmares

Nightmares are common in both children and adults. Stress, conflict, and terror, as well as trauma, emotional difficulties, medication or drug usage, and illness, are all common causes. They are nothing more than just a bad dream. Doctors refer to a nightmare condition as parasomnia, which is a sort of sleep disorder characterised by unpleasant experiences that occur while you are falling asleep, sleeping, or waking up. Nightmares typically occur during the rapid eye movement (REM) period of sleep.

Recurring Dreams 

A recurring dream is defined as having the same vision over and over again or having a vision with a recurring theme. These are frequently the result of an unsolved problem or disagreement. If you can figure out what the problem is, you'll probably discover that fixing it makes the recurrent image disappear. While the substance involved in recurring dreams generally differ, recurring dreams have been associated with common mental health conditions such as generalised anxiety disorder. Additionally, people suffering from  post-traumatic stress disorder often experience recurring dreams.

They frequently feature themes like conflicts, being chased, or falling. You can have repeated dreams that are neutral or reoccurring nightmares. A good night of sleep can help us avoid recurring nightmares. These could be the results of an underlying mental health condition, substance abuse, or a specific medication. Elements of our daily life that could cause recurring dreams include:

Day to day frustrations

When you are confronted with something that threatens or prevents you from accomplishing your goals, you may feel annoyed or agitated. This, in turn, can infiltrate into your dream-space.

A 2017 study on the connection between psychological needs and dream recurrences had a significant effect on people. The contribution of psychological need satisfaction was more modest, which brought about a more positive interpretation of dreams.


Lucid Dreams


Lucid dreams occur when you are aware that you are dreaming while sleeping. You're aware that the events that are flashing across your mind aren't genuine - however, the dream is vivid and real. Some individuals who experience lucid dreaming have reported the ability to direct the course of events within their dreams. While normal dreams can occur at any stage of the sleep cycle, research has shown that the majority of lucid dreams occur during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

Current events

Whilst a lot of recurring dreams can be about exciting things in your personal life, they can sometimes derive from current events, too. A 2020 study by Yale Medicine suggested that people had reported strange COVID-19 related recurring dreams.

Do dreams affect sleep?

Dreaming is an important element of a good sleep routine, and it is generally accepted that it is perfectly natural and has no detrimental impacts on sleep. The exception is nightmares. Because nightmares include waking up, they have been known to cause disruptions in sleep habits. Dreams that are disturbing may drive a person to avoid sleeping, resulting in insufficient sleep. A study by J. Ellis has found that Lucid Dreaming Training could be an effective method for treating insomnia, alongside the likes of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. 

How to stop vivid dreams

Sometimes we wake up with no recollection of having dreamed, while other times we can clearly recall our dreams because they were so detailed. These are referred to as vivid dreams and can occur from a variety of things.

Several mood altering substances and abuse of illicit substances can lead to vivid dreams. If you drink alcohol on a regular basis, this can cause you to have really vivid dreams as it interferes with your REM sleep. If you are going through withdrawal from alcohol you may have more vivid dreams around alcohol and drinking, but this is not confirmed for everyone going through withdrawal. Substances such as cocaine and ketamine can cause vivid dreams too and, similar to alcohol abuse, those in recovery may have intense dreams about using the drug they're trying to quit. Analysts claim that these dreams are a result of the brain's reaction to drug addiction.

There are additionally several innate causes of vivid dreams. People with narcolepsy have been reported to have more vivid dreams. This could be due to the fact that people with the condition are tired and lethargic during the day, blurring the distinction between sleep and wakefulness.Fluctuations in hormones during pregnancy can contribute to vivid dreams, along with the stress of labour and delivery, as well as parenting - these can all play a vital part in causing uncomfortable dreams. 

Finally, intense dreaming can also be linked to sleep deprivation and if you are known to suffer from stress, anxiety or poor mental health then this can cause vivid dreams. There are some things you can do to keep your stress and anxiety at bay before going to bed, in the hope to alleviate vivid dreams. You may be able to control the severity of your dreams by doing specific things before going to bed. 

How to help prevent vivid dreams 

MeditationMeditation is an effective method to calm your mind and body down before bed. This is usually done through breathing exercises and shutting off all distractions. We have mediation resources available on our wider site. 

Relaxation techniques

As well as meditation as a relaxation technique, you might relax by reading or shutting off all blue-light distractions in order to wind down before bed. This is effective for clearing your mind for a good night’s sleep. 

Exercise 

Whilst it’s not recommended to exercise just before going to bed, moving your body throughout the day might aid a better sleep with less vivid and interrupted dreams. 

How to have better dreams

Sleep acts as an echo of the day you have just experienced. It is clear that the moments immediately before falling asleep can manipulate the actual effect of sleep. One of our Sleep Advisory Board experts has elaborated on this aspect. His research shows that the repetition of relaxing and calming words before going to sleep could generate a more prolonged deep sleep phase - the fundamental phase to feel well-rested. 

Understanding sleep wellness and sleep health is important when thinking about your bedtime routine - this is at the forefront of everything we do here at Sunrise by Emma. We are dedicated to giving you the most scientifically proven sleep recommendations and information about everything sleep-related. 

How can I prevent nightmares?


Whilst there is no quick-fire way to abolish nightmares, sometimes they just happen, but if you find they are becoming more frequent you should try the following for preventative measures.
 

  • Adopt a sleep schedule: Maintain a consistent routine every day, even on weekends or days when you don't have to get up at a specific hour.

  • Wind down: Exercising during the day can assist you in getting a better night's sleep. Allowing your mind and body to peacefully relax before bed, such as mild stretching, deep breathing, or other relaxation techniques, can be a good idea in the evening.

  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine: Drinking alcohol later in the night might lead to more focused REM sleep, increasing the likelihood of nightmares. Caffeine is a stimulant that can disrupt your sleep cycle, keeping your brain charged when you're trying to sleep.

  • Block out distractions: Make an effort to create a sleeping environment that is dark, quiet, smells pleasant, and is the right temperature. Consider a sturdy mattress and pillow, too. All of these characteristics make it easier to relax and avoid unwelcome awakenings that can cause sleep disturbances.


Adapting yourself and your environment to aid a better night's sleep sounds challenging, but luckily, at Sunrise by Emma, we have a whole range of resources available to you to help you establish a healthy, sleep routine that could aid a better, more restful night's sleep. Why not explore our collection of sleep advice and information, or head over to Emma and browse our range of award-winning sleep products and accessories, from mattresses to weighted blankets.

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