The fact that pieces of our life ranging from 2 days ago to 20 years ago come together to create a story in our minds while we are asleep seems pretty crazy, at least to me it does. What’s even harder to grasp is that we rarely remember these stories, but pretty much everyone has more than one of them every single night.
We all know these as dreams. We forget 95-99% of our dreams, but have them around 4-6 times per night, according to “How Often Do We Dream” by Sleep.org. Since they occur so frequently, they’re clearly beneficial in more ways than many of us are aware of. Dreams have an impact on processing our emotions, memory storage, developing problem solving skills, and more. Dreams seem to be unique because they do so much for us and are something everyone has in common, yet at the same time many of us know little about their capabilities and impact.
To start, “dreaming is a way of processing, at your subconscious level, events, memories, and things you’ve learned from your conscious level,” said local sleep physician, Rachel Higginbotham. During dreams, a lot of putting various memories and pieces of information together occurs.
Emily Anderson (‘20) spoke to this. “Sometimes I can piece them together as to why things that wouldn’t normally make sense going together have come together to make this story up.” There could be fragments of things from that day, week, year, or 10 years ago, all in one dream.
When all of that comes together is during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep. This is the fifth and final stage of sleep we all go through. According to “What does it mean when we dream?” by Medical News Today, written by Hannah Nichols, during this stage, breathing is rapid and irregular, eyes go in many directions, limb muscles become temporarily paralyzed, and heart rate and blood pressure increase. The mind is very active during REM, and the brain waves almost make it look like the person is awake during that time, according to Higginbotham.
“One hypothesis suggests that REM sleep is a time of memory consolidation during which important memories are retained and less important neural connections are pruned,” said “Stages and architecture of normal sleep” by UpToDate.
Clearly REM sleep is beneficial, but how are dreams specifically important? Dreams can help with a variety of things in our everyday lives. According to “The Health Benefits of Dreams” by WebMD, dreams likely help us cope with stress and process our emotions. The article quoted Rosalind Cartwright, PhD, professor emeritus of psychology at Rush University in Chicago, who said, “It’s almost like having an internal therapist, because you associate [through dreams] to previous similar feelings, and you work through the emotion related to it so that it is reduced by morning.”
Another big way dreams can be beneficial deals with our memory. As students, this is a big reason we should care about dreaming and the amount of sleep we get. For more information on students and our lack of sleep, check out Emily Hamilton’s article, “slumped.” According to Higginbotham, there is memory storage that happens during REM sleep. For example, if you were memorizing things for a test the next day, getting sleep is beneficial for that memory to help you. So, if you’re ever deciding between sleep and more studying: choose sleep. It can be hard to recognize that something we hardly recollect can help us in areas like academics, however getting enough sleep to dream really can make an impact on us.
Memory storage for tests the next day isn’t the only thing dreams are good for. According to Nichols, dreams can “help develop cognitive capabilities,” help prepare for potential future threats, and bring things that would be unsettling while awake, but are necessary for the body, together.
The amount of sleep we receive is also a factor when looking at the specific details of dreams. If you’re sleep deprived from staying up late cramming for a test, it can make your brain more active during REM, and therefore leave you with more vivid dreams. Higginbotham said, “you usually start dreaming earlier and have more dreams if you are sleep deprived. It’s like your brain is making up for lost time.”
While amount of sleep may be an explanation for the vividness of the dream, the specific causes of dreams are different depending on the person. Although dreams are difficult to study, there are various theories as to what causes them. According to Nichols, causes could be that they work as a form of psychotherapy, they portray desires and wishes, consolidate and process information, or interpret signals from our body.
According to Nichols, dreams are caused by a number of factors, and are different for everyone. “One widely held theory is that the purpose of dreams is that they help you store important memories and things you’ve learned, get rid of unimportant memories, and sort through complicated thoughts and feelings” wrote James Roland in “Why Do We Dream” by Healthline.
Sadie McKenna (‘21) has been recording the dreams she remembers since 2016. McKenna discussed one of her dreams and how recent aspects of her life came into play. “I was a mailwoman, and I was delivering a package. I knocked on the door and it opened as I knocked and I went in and the door closed behind me. I was in a maze and I had to try to get out and solve all these problems. Along the way, the problems that I was having were problems that I was dealing with in my real life.”
What makes dreams like this so unique and difficult to grasp is that more often than not, we can’t remember them, or put together exactly what happened during them. According to Roland, the brain’s ability to recall things is at its lowest level while dreaming, which offers an explanation as to why they can feel impossible to remember. Typically, if we remember a dream it is because we woke up during it. If you don’t wake up during it, you probably won’t remember it. “It’s typically related to if you woke up soon after you dreamt. A lot of dreaming happens towards the end of the night. How long you spend in REM sleep increases as the night goes on, so your longer periods of REM sleep are towards the morning,” said Higginbotham.
However, this is not always the case. Emily Anderson (‘20) has had experiences where she remembers them later on in the day, not right when she wakes up. “I’ll be going throughout my day and something will happen and it triggers my dream. So, I’ll think ‘where have I seen this?’” she said.
While the longest stage of REM is towards the end of the night, people experience REM multiple times during the night. According to Higginbotham, one sleep cycle (going through all five stages of sleep) takes about 90-120 minutes. Typically, people have three of four stages of REM sleep a night. However, some people may not get into dream sleep due to a variety of outside factors such as medication or sleep disorders going on, according to Higginbotham.
Although there’s a lot of science behind dreams, and they help with a plethora of things, the most intriguing, and often times frustrating, part for us, can be remembering them and what they were about. There are some easy things you can do to try and remember them, although there is no guarantee. The National Sleep Foundation suggests reminding yourself that you want to remember the dreams you have that night before you want to go to bed. I’ve tried that recently, and I seem to be remembering my dreams a lot more frequently. Either it’s working or I just have been waking up during REM, but it’s worth a shot. Another tip would be keeping a journal beside your bedside, or using the notes on your phone, and recording your dreams as soon as you wake up or remember them.
With these tips in mind, maybe now you’ll remember more than 95-99% of your dreams. And, to all those people who say “I don’t dream,” you do, and it’s good for you.
Artwork by Hannah Jeong