Six years of your lifespan will be spent in dreaming! That is a whole lot of years spent in a world of fantasy and bizarreness. We oddly believe we are in the real world when we dream, only to wake up and be surprised and fooled yet again. In the world or dreams, you are always at the center; you are the hero who conducts the narrative. You never dream as someone else such as an animal (butterfly for example as suggested by certain literary works). The passage of time might seem to you to be compressed or expanded but actually it stays the same; so a 10- minutes dream is played out in 10 minutes of real time. The narrative form or story-like quality of dreams begins at age 8 years when the brain’s frontal lobe becomes more mature.

We only dream in colors, even though we think we dream in black and white. That is because the memory of colors are erased the instant we wake up. Our memory in dream recall and retention is poor and fades rapidly. Maybe so we don’t get our dreams confused with wake reality. We often remember fragments of our dreams and these are often erased quickly as soon as we open our eyes. This is partly due to the suppression of brain neurotransmitters called serotonin and norepinephrine during REM sleep (a state when most of dreaming occurs). This suppression is necessary because it causes our muscles to become paralyzed, a process that we need so we don’t act out our dreams and get hurt. There are individuals who cannot completely become paralyzed; unfortunately, the resulting kicking and screaming tends to physical harm their bed partner. This disease is known to sleep doctors as “REM Behavioral Disorder” which is more common in men. I had seen couples who saw me at the sleep clinic because the wives who realized this is a problem when they got punched and had purple  eyes. The husbands who had no recollection of this feel very bad about it.

Dreams have found their way in art, poetry, literature, and religion. Paul McCartney heard his Yesterday in a dream. In the ancient world, dreams were believed to be a way for the Divine to connect with humans. Dreams are mentioned 80 times in the bible. In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Prospero talks of death as being an awakening from life’s dreams.

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Do dreams have meaning or are they just random thoughts signify nothing? Dreams are emotionally charged and can be pleasant, disturbing or neutral. Some sleep researchers believe that the purpose of dreams is to make sense and work out our emotions and life drama. They believe that these dreams are opportunities for insight and healing and may aid in decision making.  Others believe that these dream stories are results of crazy exchange between brain regions with neurons and neurotransmitters being thrown here and there like soup.

Dreams not been studied scientifically until recently, so there is much to be learned. One of the founders of sleep medicine, Eugene Aserinksky, observed in 1953 that sleeping babies move their eyes beneath their eyelids at specific intervals. This eventually led to a major discovery of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep.  During REM sleep, the brain is able to generate visual images, which we are all able to recollect. But few dreams can also occur in other sleep stages and might have a non-visual quality, let’s say tactile, taste or touch and these kinds of dreams are very poorly remembered and only give a vague recollection. One of my patients told me that he has a “sense of a snake being somewhere in his room” but no actually seeing one.  Every night, an average of 2 hours is what an adult spends in REM sleep, a stage of sleep where most of dreaming happens.

During REM sleep, the brain is physiologically active (versus passive, not doing much), resembling the awake state based on the brain waves that are picked up on the electroencephalogram (EEG) studies and brain scams. Brain scans such as PET scans (positron emission tomography) which study blood flow were used on sleeping individuals shows us that brain structures that are involved in memory (especially long term memory), emotions and visual scenes show increased activity (blood flow) during REM sleep. An area, called amygdala which is involved in fear and intense emotions was especially active during REM sleep. Because of the activation of these emotionally charged brain regions, we experience the bizarre stories, intense emotions and surreal nature of the dream imagery. They all seem utterly real but every time you wake up, you are fooled.

If you are one of those who “ I don’t dream” kind of person, you are likely dreaming but just not remembering them. Sleep disorders such as sleep apnea or severe insomnia can disrupt the normal flow of REM and lead to poor recollection of dreams and perhaps little dreaming.

Sweet Dreams