Class is called to order. The teacher at her desk, students facing forward, on the chalkboard, underlined, “Presentations”. You hear your name called, grab your index cards, and make your way to the front of the class. Without pause, you launch into your speech, staring at your notes. Laughter explodes in the classroom and you look up to see that they’re laughing at you. You look down and…
Panting, cold sweat, it was just a dream. But, what the hell does it mean? And does it matter? We’ve all woken from a deep sleep with the faint memories of some wild dream. Sometimes, we find instant meaning and great satisfaction, like solving a puzzle where deeper self-understanding is the prize. But, like The Bachelor or poetry, science can’t quite explain what dreams do or why they’re there.
So why do we dream?
Healthy sleep allows for the body and brain to recuperate, grow, and improve mental function.
There’s little agreement, but lots of theories, about why dreams exist. Some camps believe that dreaming is sleepy-time therapy, an opportunity to lie down on the proverbial couch and hash out the crazy sh#$ you dealt with that day. Others, including Mr. Freud, would argue that dreams act as a sort of wish-fulfillment. In a safe, fantastical space, anybody can leap 100 stories high or get the girl/boy. When we dream, our unconscious mind comes to life, casting us in crazy stories that defy logic, physics, or continuity.
There might not be consensus on why we dream, or even what those dreams mean, but there’s plenty of evidence that dreaming, or being in the state where dreams exist, is certainly a good thing.
Why dreaming matters.
When we close our eyes and drift off, we enter and exit different levels of sleep many times throughout the night. Across all four of these sleep states, the brain produces alpha waves that shut your body down for regular business, so that the overnight crew can clean, restock, and get you ready for the next day. While each sleep state has its benefits to our health and restedness, getting to REM sleep is how we press play on that one where we gave a book report in the buff.
In REM (rapid eye movement), the body finally stops producing noradrenaline, a stress hormone that aids in fight or flight. It’s in this safe space, free from stress, that scientists believe our bodies get the most rehab work done. And coincidentally, it happens to create ideal conditions for letting our minds wander. During REM sleep, while we’re fighting aliens, chewing out the boss, or dealing with wardrobe malfunctions, our bodies are undergoing the level of sleep necessary to heal, restore, and regenerate.
Your psyche on dreams.
We know for certain that healthy sleep impacts the body and the mind, and though science can’t seem to agree on where dreams explicitly fit into that healthy picture, there’s no doubt that getting to REM sleep is great for the whole package. Dreams can also offer a chance to make sense of the hundreds of inputs, stimuli, and experiences encountered in our waking lives. As we dream, we can strip the complexities of a memory down to the most important parts and tuck those away for both understanding and knowledge.
Studies also show that dreaming can arm us to deal with conflict, leading some researchers to believe that in processing and dealing with past stresses through dreaming, we’re better able to respond to stresses in the here and now. Dreaming has been associated with more control over how we emotionally respond to stressors.
Other studies have found that the memory processing that takes place during dreams can boost creativity. As our dreams untangle the day, associations between different pieces of information may occur, giving you access to insights you may have otherwise missed. You might not know it when it hits, but that “Aha!” after staring at a tough project at work might be the child of some one-night dream stand.
By hitting REM sleep and dreaming, we not only get our bodies the rest they need, but we also put our minds to work: processing memories, making new connections, and scratching some unimaginable itch. What’s more, we can wake up not only refreshed and ready to tackle the day, but emotionally prepared for the challenges ahead and armed with some novel approaches to solving them.
From Freud’s idea that dreams serve to fulfill wishes to the theory that dreams are basically the brain’s time at the gym, what’s clear is that dreaming is a part of cognitive development. Whether processing the day’s events or promoting brain development, REM sleep and dreams are important to healthy sleep patterns.
We say this a lot, but getting a good night’s sleep is one of the best and easiest ways to live better. And just like sleeping, making it into REM sleep for some of those sweet, sweet dreams is a lot easier if you’re making space to relax before hitting the hay. Avoid excessive alcohol as well as any stimulants like caffeine. Read a book. Put the day away. And it’s always a big help if you’re sleeping on a comfortable, supportive mattress like one of these.