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Wednesday, 18 November 2009
Why We Dream
A couple of days ago I watched a TV documentary about sleep and dreaming. I've written about dreams before - If you want to find those posts, I suggest clicking that label, below or in the list in the margin.
During the night we go through different stages of sleep. Early dream research showed that people dreamed during so called REM-sleep. So called because during this kind of sleep Rapid Eye Movements occur. Otherwise, however, during this stage of sleep, the body is usually very much relaxed. Later research has shown that we also dream during non-REM sleep. But apparently - and this was the thing I can't remember really having heard much about before - the dreams we have during the different stages of sleep are also of different kind. That is why for example medication can affect our dreams (because they can affect what kind of sleep we have). (Or at least that is one reason why etc.)
It seems that during non-REM sleep, we tend to dream happy dreams. During REM-sleep, negative ones, even nightmares. There is also something called REM sleep disorder - some dysfunction in the brain which disturbs this usually relaxed phase of sleep, and causes people to act out in violent action, like punching, kicking, jumping out of bed etc.
The documentary also dealt with the question why we dream. I don't really have a problem with that - I have long believed from my own experience that it is a way to deal with reality, trying to solve problems etc. During a period of intense dreaming years ago, I came to regard even nightmares as "friends" rather than enemies (helping me to understand myself). Scientific research seems to agree.
Scientists now also add the theory that the function of nightmares is sort of preventive: Their job is to train us in our sleep to contend with the dangers of the day. (Experiments have been carried out on animals which seem to support this idea - forcing them into a kind of REM sleep disorder which makes them act out instead of remaining relaxed.) The idea is that our ancestors, having to deal with a more physically cruel reality than most of us today, needed this nightly mental training to survive. But we seem to be able to adapt even our dreams to modern society - modern adult dreamers seem to adjust their nightmares to be related to modern kind of stress rather than fighting wild animals etc. While children often seem to have the more primitive kind of nightmares.
And even today - if I got it right what someone in this documentary said - it seems that the nightmares may fill an odd function, because it seems that people who are bereaved of REM sleep (the nightmare kind of sleep) actually tend to easier fall into depression than those who do have to fight (a normal amount of) nightmares in their sleep!
(Written down from memory the day after I watched the TV documentary.)
(Photo: My own, from the zoo.)