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The Fascinating World of Dreams

The world of dreams has been the fascination of humans since the ancient of days. Emperors, kings, and the common man all sought knowledge of the meaning of dreams, making those who could interpret dreams in high demand.

Modern science may not have all the answers to the meaning of dreams, but recent studies in the field of neuroscience and sleep have taken us much closer to understanding why and how they happen.

Let’s start by taking a look at the types of dreams we can experience and then examine some fascinating facts about dreams.

Types of Dreams

Not all dreaming is the same. Dreams can be sad, strange, stressful, funny or frightening. Here are a few dream classifications we might, over the course of our lifetime, experience:

  • Normal Dreams – normal dreams commonly reflect our everyday life and can incorporate familiar faces and places. Often the dreamer experiences activities during the dream. These dreams simply replay what we experienced during the day and process events from our waking life. These dreams occur mostly in REM (rapid-eye-movement) sleep and are vital to our survival. The normal dreaming process helps the brain to maintain sanity of thought.
  • Lucid Dreams – lucid dreams are dreams where the dreamer is aware that they are dreaming and can often control or manipulate the dream. Studies have found that lucid dreamers have significantly higher brain wave frequencies than non-lucid dreamers. Research has also shown lucid dreamers to have more activity in the frontal lobe of the brain, which is deeply involved with sense of self and conscious awareness, as well as memory and language.
  • Recurring Dreams – recurring dreams are dreams that re-appear with a pattern of regularity. Some studies have shown that recurring dreams may have more threatening content than regular dreams. Links betweens recurring dreams and psychological distress in both adults and children have been found by researchers.
  • Nightmares – a generalized definition of nightmares is frightening dreams that lead to some degree of awakening from sleep. Nightmares usually occur during REM sleep. A bad dream is considered to be a less severe form of a nightmare. Nightmares can be experienced throughout life but rarely occur with regularity. They result from different triggers, with stress, emotional upheaval and traumatic experiences being the usual culprits. Research has found that nightmares disrupt sleep by not only waking the dreamer and possibly causing a fear of falling asleep again, but can also lead to other negative health outcomes like fatigue, depression, anxiety and insomnia.
  • Night Terrors – night terrors are very intense episodes of fright during the dreaming process. These episodes are usually accompanied by yelling or screaming, flailing in panic, or even jumping out of bed. Unlike nightmares, night terrors usually occur during non-REM stage sleep and are more common to children than adults, with an estimated 6% of children ages 3-12 experiencing night terrors.

Fascinating Facts About Dreaming

  1. Dreams serve to protect us. New research shows that dreams help us to select the optimal response to threatening situations. On average, humans have 300 to 1,000 threat dreams per year, or one to four per night. Just under half of these dreams are aggressive encounters, either physical or verbal. Finnish researcher Antti Revonsuo believes that dreams provide theaters of rehearsal, helping us recognize dangers more quickly and respond more efficiently.
  2. REM Sleep and dreaming consolidates memories. For more than a decade, sleep researchers have hypothesized that REM sleep is correlated with memory consolidation, but with little ability to prove it. A recent study at McGill University and the University of Bern used state-of-the-art optogenetics to confirm a link between REM sleep and memory formation. REM sleep is critical to forge our daily experiences into long-term memories, especially if we want to master an activity like art, music, sport through daily practice.
  3. People around the world dream about the same things. Psychologist Calvin S. Hall and his colleagues found through a study of 50,000 dream reports from around the globe some remarkable similarities in the way people dream: the most common emotion experienced in dreaming is anxiety; negative emotions are much more prevalent than positive ones; the vast majority of people dream in color; and people, places, events and objects tend to merge into one another during dreaming.
  4. A significant amount of people who appear in dreams are known to the dreamer. A study conducted by Harvard neurophysiologist J.A. Hobson and colleagues found that 48% of dream characters are recognizable by name to the dreamer. Another 35% were identifiable by their generic social role or relationship – friend, doctor, police officer, etc. Only 16% (fewer than one-fifth of dream characters) were unrecognizable to dreamers.
  5. The majority of dream content is autobiographical. Research indicates that the majority of dreams contain content that is related to memories about the self rather than memories which deal with events and locations/times. Studies have shown that pregnant women dream more about pregnancy and childbirth, musicians dream twice as often about music versus non-musicians, and hospice workers dream about care-giving and the people for whom they care-give.