What We (Don’t) Know About Dreams

What We (Don’t) Know About Dreams

Whether or not you remember them, you and every other human, dog, cat, and duck-billed platypus (to name just a few) have dreams every night. Despite how pervasive dreaming is in the animal kingdom, its purpose and function is still largely unknown. Many ancient cultures believed that dreams are prophetic signs from the gods. Early psychoanalysts like Sigmund Freud studied their patients’ dreams, believing that they are windows into the subconscious mind.

Steady advances in brain imaging are helping today’s psychologists unravel this mysterious subject, and since dreaming is apparently a fundamental part of sleep, discoveries in this area offer us a wealth of insight on the importance of sleep more generally. At Regal Sleep Solutions, we believe in staying on top of the latest in sleep science and passing knowledge on to our valued customers — the more you know, the better equipped you are to make your sleep a priority!

Freud may not have been completely wrong. He discussed a now famous distinction between the conscious mind or “ego” and the unconscious mind or “id.” In modern psychological terms, the conscious mind can be likened to the prefrontal cortex (the part of your brain right behind your eyes), an area associated with complex thought and the regulation of behaviour. This part of the brain disengages during dreams, while other brain areas known as the amygdala and hippocampus show a spike in activity. These areas are involved in the processing of emotion and memory, just like Freud’s unconscious. An interesting exception to this pattern of brain activation occurs during lucid dreams, where people experience an unusual amount of awareness and control. As you might expect, people show a heightened level of activity in the prefrontal cortex during lucid dreams.

Dreams are most common during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, a deep phase of mammalian sleep almost as mysterious as dreams themselves. During REM sleep, mammals have low muscle tone, random eye movement, and vivid dreams. Though we don’t know exactly what its function is, we know it’s important. Adults who are deprived of REM sleep in a clinical setting always display REM-rebound, or an increase in the frequency and depth of REM sleep.

REM sleep-deprivation has been associated with learning and memory deficits, especially in children. Brain imaging studies have revealed that the brain circuits activated during dreaming are remarkably similar to those used in learning and memory consolidation. Essentially, it seems that whatever goes on in our brains during dreaming plays a role in helping us recall information we learned during the day. Some researchers also suspect that the activation of the amygdala during dreaming, which is a major emotional processing centre, may help explain why sleep-deprived people display problems with emotional regulation.

While there is still much ground to cover, this field of research is revealing an expanding picture of sleep’s influence on our daily functioning. Proper learning, memory, and emotional regulation are just a few areas now known to be directly supported by adequate sleep. At Regal Sleep Solutions, we are committed to helping all our customers get the best night’s sleep possible. If you’re in the market for a new mattress, see an expert at Regal— we’ll find the mattress of your dreams, guaranteed.

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