Jack Slatter blogs about the science of dreams

Scholars Project

What are dreams and how does the brain perceive them?

A dream is in fact a series of thoughts, images, and sensations occurring in a person’s mind during sleep. However, to first understand how we dream, we must learn about the phases of sleeping in which dreaming occurs. There are 5 stages in sleeping in which some of these stages are repeated in order to get a full night’s sleep.

Stage 1: This happens for 15 minutes and is a very light sleep which includes non-rapid eye movement. This stage is also called to NREM sleep.

Stage 2: This also lasts for 15 minutes and is essentially a light sleep. In this stage the body temperature drops, and the heart rate slows. There is still non rapid eye movement and this stage is also known as the NREM sleep.

Stages 3 and 4: This once again lasts 15 minutes and is referred to as delta sleep. In this stage the body uses the time to repair itself.

Stage 5: This stage only lasts 10 minutes on the first cycle but can last up to 1 hour on subsequent cycles. Rapid eye movement occurs, and the brain activity is similar to waking levels. This is what is known as REM sleep and it is also the stage where dreaming occurs. After this stage, the cycle restarts.

Usually, the average person has 3-6 dreams every night which tend to last for 15-20 minutes, and although the most vivid dreams occur during REM sleep, they are also able to occur in other stages. There are 5 different types of dreams that can occur.

The first type of dream is the typical, most common type of dream; a basic dream. A dream starts with an individual thought or scene, such as walking down a dimly lit street. Since dreams are not predetermined, the brain responds to the situation by either thinking a good thought or a bad thought, and the dream framework follows from there. However, it is usually represented by their emotions before falling asleep.

For instance, if you are feeling happy before you go to sleep, it is then very likely that the brain will respond to the situation in a good way by thinking a good thought.

This of course, works in the same way that for nightmares (also called a bad dream). This is the second type of dream that can happen. If a person was feeling very anxious, stressed out or scared, these emotions can be used as a trigger for a nightmare. In a study focusing on children, researchers were able to conclude that nightmares directly correlate with the stress in children’s lives. Simultaneously, scientists believe it possible that there are also physical causes for when people indulge in nightmares. For instance, sleeping in an awkward/uncomfortable position and having a fever. Eating before going to sleep, which triggers an increase in the body’s metabolism and brain activity, is also a potential stimulus for nightmares. In the case of many people, 95% were not able to remember the dreams they had at night. However, since a nightmare can be so vivid, the terror causes you to remember what happened. Which is why most of the 5% of people who could remember their dreams were the people who had nightmares.

However, why are dreams hard to remember? Well, researchers do not exactly know the reason yet. One possibility is that if we remembered all our dreams, we would not be able to distinguish them from our reality’s memories.   Also, it could be harder to remember some dreams, because during the process of REM sleep, the body may shut down certain systems of the brain that holds or creates memories, and the only dreams that we are able to remember, are those which happen towards the end of REM sleep, just before we wake, when certain brain activities are turned back on. However, it is thought that it can be possible to remember some dreams, by having similar experiences in real life. This is the concept of Déjà Vu. This phrase literally translates to “already seen”. It is an anomaly of memory whereby, despite the strong sense of recollection, the time, place, and practical context of the “previous” experience are uncertain or believed to be impossible.

Famous psychologist Sigmund Freud believed that dreams were a way into our subconscious, and reveals a person’s true motivations, and unconscious thoughts. Freud thought that dreams were a way for people to satisfy their own urges and desires that were not allowed in our society. A dream is a place where things can happen which are not bound by normal laws.

The third type of dreaming is day dreaming. Studies have previously shown that the average person daydreams for a whopping 70-120 minutes of their waking day. As with all types of dreams, you enter a kind of hypnotic trance and allow your unconscious thoughts to rise to the surface. It is very easy to tell when someone is day dreaming, as they will most likely be staring at 1 place for long periods of time. This is because the person is only semi awake. Not asleep, but obviously not fully in check with reality either. Daydreams also have similar starts to normal dreams as well.

Most likely, it will start with a compelling thought, memory, or a fantasy. This will then lead to your imagination running away. The longer that your daydream occurs, the more you become immersed with your own fantasy land. However, it is quite easy to stop daydreaming and snap out of it. When you are in a daydream, everything gets blocked out except for your imagination and the brain becomes dominant. Deeper worries and concerns can arise from the unconscious mind by acting themselves out in the daydream. This serves to reinforce negative beliefs about the future or bad memories of traumatic past events. Conversely, daydreaming is also useful for acting out good outcomes. For instance, a pop star might visualise winning an award for the best song of the year. From a personal perspective, I use daydreaming to visualise all sorts of goals happening to me. It serves as good motivation to achieve this goal. Daydreams are psychologically healthy, helping you temporarily escape the demands of reality, release frustrations and plan for a better future.

The 4th type of dream that is possible to have is called a false awakening. The general idea of a false awakening is like the movie Groundhog Day. It is a normal dream, with the only difference being that you think that you are awake and in real life. A false awakening is mostly bound to the laws we have in the real world. You will typically start the dream off by waking up and going into the bathroom, getting dressed, eating breakfast, and even possibly getting halfway to work before realising that you are in a dream. After that moment, you wake up. These dreams are vivid and quite easy to remember. Like any normal dream, you assume you are awake, and you certainly do not know you’re dreaming. It begins in your bedroom, or the last place you went to sleep – or even a different bed altogether. You dream that you have woken up for real and somehow your brain mimics every detail of the room, exactly as it should be. To be able to stop dreaming in this way, it will take something obvious to shock you out of this dream. For example, you could look in the mirror and see yourself as an elderly man/ woman or be driving down the road and realise that there are no other moving vehicles within miles. These types of things will make you question the reality of the dream and that is the point in time that you wake up.

The final method of dreaming is called Lucid dreaming. This is easily the most intricate type of dream and the hardest dream to find yourself in. Personally, I have never even Lucid dreamed even once in my entire lifetime. The basic premise of Lucid dreaming is that it is a normal dream, however you can control everything that happens inside the dream. You need to realise that you are dreaming

when you are inside the dream and from that point on you can do anything you want while the dream remains. Lucid dreaming, like most other dreams, happens in REM sleep. Since Lucid dreaming is so difficult to achieve, it is necessary to follow a specific guide that increases your chances of successfully Lucid dreaming.

Step 1: It is very important to get more REM sleep, as spending more time in this stage will increase your chances of Lucid dreaming. You can extend REM sleep by getting enough sleep overall. When you have healthy sleep habits, your body can properly cycle through all five stages of sleep. Easy ways to increase your REM sleep are: follow a daily schedule, exercise daily, avoid electronics before you go to bed, create a relaxing sleeping environment and to reduce caffeine and alcohol intake before you go to sleep.

Step 2: It is a wise decision to use a dream journal if you are planning to Lucid dream. Writing down your dreams forces you to recall them. This is thought to make your brain become more aware of dreaming. To keep a dream journal, keep a notebook and pen beside your bed. Write down your dream as soon as you wake up. Read your journal regularly to familiarize your brain with your dreams.

Step 3: This is probably the most important part and it is testing reality. Your level of consciousness is similar when you are awake and dreaming. So, by increasing your awareness during your waking state, you can enhance your awareness during your dreaming state. Reality testing is an effective way to do this. It trains your mind to recognize your own awareness while you are awake. The method involves doing reality checks throughout the day. As reality testing becomes a habit, you will be able to induce awareness while dreaming. Popular and easy reality checks include: Pushing your fingers through your opposite palm. If they push through, then you are dreaming.

Checking yourself against mirrors is another good way, as in your dreams your reflection tends to look irregular and not normal. By pinching your nose, you will still be able to breathe in your dream, but obviously not in real life. Also, if you have tattoos, they will look different in a dream.

Step 4: There are also some induction techniques that can prove quite useful. One being to wake up 5 hours after bedtime. When you go back to sleep, you will be more likely to enter REM sleep while still conscious. Before you go to bed, repeatedly tell yourself that you will lucid dream tonight.

Combining these four steps will easily increase your chances of being able to Lucid dream. Studies show that Lucid dreaming also comes with many benefits. One decreases the chance of nightmares and the many things that come with them. For example, it reduces stress, anxiety, depression, sleep deprivation, sleeping disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder. Lucid dreaming increases motor skills and enhances your creativity by working your imagination.

Even though Lucid dreaming is generally considered safe, there are a few risks entailed with it. Sleep problems, depression and anxiety, derealisation and dissociation from the real world are all possible risks when attempting to Lucid dream.

In conclusion, there are 5 mains types of dreams, which mostly happen when you are in REM sleep. The 5 types consist of: normal dreams, nightmares (bad/ scary dreams), daydreams (when you are awake but disconnected from reality), false awakening (when you think that you are awake but you are actually in a dream), and Lucid dreaming ( where you are aware that you are dreaming and can control the events of the dream to some extent).

Bibliography https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/conditions/nightmares https://www.healthline.com/health/what-is-lucid-dreaming https://www.world-of-lucid-dreaming.com/types-of-dreams.html https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/health/wellness/advice/a19290/interesting-facts-dreams/ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Déjà_vu https://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/dreaming-overview#1 https://www.tuck.com/stages/ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nightmare https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/apr/10/scientists-identify-parts-of-brain-involved-in-dreaming https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/dream-catcher/201711/the-reality-sense-in-dreams