No matter who you are, you must have had a dream before and even nightmares. But have you ever wondered what actually causes these dreams?
So, when you fall asleep, it is basically your conscious mind that is sleeping. However, your subconscious mind never falls asleep. It works 24 hours a day even when you are asleep. Your subconscious mind is controlling your body, your breathing, your organs functionality, your cell’s growth and everything else.
This is why when you sleep; your subconscious mind is still wide awake. And that simply indicates that it is your subconscious mind that is solely responsible for your dreams.
Most people don’t understand how their subconscious mind works and or how it can affect their lives. To put it in simple terms, our subconscious mind is just like a huge bank that stores our memories, our beliefs and also our experiences in life.
And since our subconscious mind thinks in the form of symbols, metaphors, and visual forms, our dreams tend to be projected in that way too. This is why most dreams are indirect and difficult to understand, but they are often connected to our experiences and the events in our daily life.
Now during sleep, the brain goes through 5 different stages. Out of these 5 stages, the last stage is REM while the first four are non-REM (Non-Rapid Eye Movement). We enter the REM phase of sleep within 90 min of sleep, after the completion of all the 4 stages of Non-REM sleep. The dream appears when we enter into the REM stage. REM (Rapid Eye Movement) is the last stage of the sleep cycle when our eyes move very rapidly in different directions (as the name suggests). It usually starts when we enter REM sleep after 90 minutes of non-REM sleep and this is the exact time when we start dreaming. First REM lasts for 10 minutes. After completing the first round of all 5 stages of sleep, the cycle restarts from Non-REM. The time period of REM after every round increases and reaches from 10 minutes to 1 hour.
Our body and mind undergoes the following changes during REM sleep:
During REM, the mind becomes active.
- The breathing rate is increased.
- Increased heartbeat.
- Blood Pressure increases.
- Changed Body Temperature.
- The consumption of Oxygen by the brain increases
When we reach the REM stage, a state of temporary paralysis can be felt as the brain signals the spinal cord to withdraw all locomotion from legs and the arms. This change takes place to prevent many people from the injury that may occur if they act out in their dreams.
The dreams, in general, can be of anything, it may be about your relationship, your job, day-to-day tensions or happiness or anything related to your recent trauma.
After summing up all the possible activities of the brain, researchers conclude that dreams are a brain’s way of rebooting. For example, we have a natural way of arranging an unorganized stuff so that it can be used another time. It can be anything like arranging books in a rack or clothes on a shelf. Likewise, the brain does it too. When we sleep, it organizes our every day’s conscious and unconscious stimuli and stores it in the part of the brain as a memory.
The proposed link between our dreams and emotions is also highlighted in another recent study published by Matthew Walker and colleagues at the Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab at UC Berkeley, who found that a reduction in REM sleep (or less “dreaming”) influences our ability to understand complex emotions in daily life – an essential feature of human social functioning. Scientists have also recently identified where dreaming is likely to occur in the brain. A very rare clinical condition known as “Charcot-Wilbrand Syndrome” has been known to cause (among other neurological symptoms) loss of the ability to dream. However, it was not until a few years ago that a patient reported to have lost her ability to dream while having virtually no other permanent neurological symptoms. The patient suffered a lesion in a part of the brain known as the right inferior lingual gyrus (located in the visual cortex). Thus, we know that dreams are generated in, or transmitted through this particular area of the brain, which is associated with visual processing, emotion and visual memories.
Taken together, these recent findings tell an important story about the underlying mechanism and possible purpose of dreaming.
Dreams seem to help us process emotions by encoding and constructing memories of them. What we see and experience in our dreams might not necessarily be real, but the emotions attached to these experiences certainly are. Our dream stories essentially try to strip the emotion out of a certain experience by creating a memory of it. This way, the emotion itself is no longer active. This mechanism fulfils an important role because when we don’t process our emotions, especially negative ones, this increases personal worry and anxiety. In fact, severe REM sleep-deprivation is increasingly correlated to the development of mental disorders. In short, dreams help regulate traffic on that fragile bridge which connects our experiences with our emotions and memories.
Nightmares are one of the subcategories of dreams that usually ends up making us feel sad and miserable. It is memorable as it is fearful, scary and forces us to wake up suddenly and sit in a go. Studies show that a person good at creativity, sensible, imaginative and intuitive are more prone to nightmares. Nightmares can also be a warning signal about something that our mind needs attention too.
According to science, nightmares are just disturbing dreams that occur when our subconscious mind is trying to get the attention of something that is really important for our body. When we experience nightmares, we wake up frightened and anxious. It may be the brain’s response to our real-life bad experiences or day’s trauma.
What causes nightmares?
There can be numerous psychological triggers that can be the reason behind nightmares. It can either be daily tensions, recent trauma, overtiredness, use of certain medications or illness.
The amygdala is in what amounts to the basement of the brain, both physically (it is deeply buried, not far from the brain stem) and functionally (it’s where the demons are kept, especially fear, aggression, anger and sadness). When we’re awake, the prefrontal cortex keeps a close watch on what all those emotions are up to downstairs. But during sleep, the frontal areas of the brain are shut down and the brake that actively suppressed the emotions in the amygdala during the day does not work properly anymore, which may result in nightmares.
However, frequent nightmares might be an indication of an underlying psychiatric ailment and require consultation from a specialist.