1. Dream Scape
You are getting sleepy, very sleepy. When your head hits the pillow it’s lights out for the brain and body, right? Not if you consider the brain cells that must fire to produce the sometimes vivid and sometimes downright haunted dreams that take place during the rapid-eye-movement stage of your sleep. Why do some people have nightmares while others really spend their nights in bliss? Like sleep, dreams are mysterious phenomena. But as scientists are able to probe deeper into our minds, they are finding some of those answers. Here’s some of what we know about what goes on in dream land.
2. Dreams are meaningful
If you dream about winning the lottery or having an accident, should you prepare? If you answered “yes,” you’re not alone, according to a study published in the February 2009 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The researchers ran six experiments, finding that not only do we put stock in our dreams, we also judge dreams that fit with our own beliefs as more meaningful than ones that go against the grain.
“Psychologists’ interpretations of the meaning of dreams vary widely,” study researcher Carey Morewedge, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University, said in a statement. “But our research shows that people believe their dreams provide meaningful insight into themselves and their world.”
Violent dreams can be warning sign
As if nightmares weren’t bad enough, a rare sleep disorder causes people to act out their dreams, sometimes with violent thrashes, kicks and screams. Such violent dreams may be an early sign of brain disorders down the line, including Parkinson’s disease and dementia, according to research published online July 28, 2010, in the journal Neurology. The results suggest the incipient stages of these neurodegenerative disorders might begin decades before a person, or doctor, knows it.
Night owls have more nightmares
Staying up late has its perks (as long as you can hit the snooze button the next morning), but light dreams is not one of them. Research published in 2011 in the journal Sleep and Biological Rhythms, revealed that night owls are more likely than their early-bird counterparts to experience nightmares.
In the study 264 university students rated how often they experienced nightmares on a scale from “0,” (meaning “never”) to “4” (meaning “always”). The stay-up-late types scored, on average, a 2.10, compared with the morning types who averaged a 1.23. The researchers said the difference was a significant one, however, they aren’t sure what’s causing a link between sleep habits and nightmares. Among their ideas is the stress hormone cortisol, which peaks in the morning right before we wake up, a time when people are more prone to be in REM, or dream, sleep. If you’re still sleeping at that time, the cortisol rise could trigger vivid dreams or nightmares, the researchers speculate.
Dreams help us solve puzzles
Scientists have long wondered why we dream, with answers ranging from Sigmund Freud’s idea that dreams fulfill our wishes to the speculation that these wistful journeys are just a side rapid-eye-movement, or REM, sleep. Turns out, at least part of the reason may be critical thinking, according to Harvard psychologist Deirdre Barrett who presented her theory in 2010 at the Association for Psychological Science meeting in Boston. She has found that our slumbering hours may help us solve puzzles that have plagued us during daylight hours.
Men dream about sex
No surprise here, men are more likely than women to dream about sex. And comparing notes in the morning may not be a turn on for either guys or gals, as women are more likely to have experienced nightmares, according to doctoral research reported in 2009 by psychologist Jennie Parker of the University of the West of England.
In her study of nearly 200 men and women, ages 18 to 25, Parker found that women’s nightmares could be broadly divided into three categories: fearful dreams (being chased or life threatened), dreams involving the loss of a loved one, or confused dreams.
You can control your dreams
If you’re interested in lucid dreaming, you may want to take up video gaming. Both represent alternate realities, according to Jayne Gackenbach, a psychologist at Grant MacEwan University in Canada. Of course they aren’t completely the same. While video games are controlled by computers and gaming consoles, dreams arise from the human mind.
“If you’re spending hours a day in a virtual reality, if nothing else it’s practice,” Gackenbach told LiveScience in 2010. “Gamers are used to controlling their game environments, so that can translate into dreams.” Her past research has shown that people who frequently play video games are more likely than non-gamers to have lucid dreams where they view themselves from outside their bodies; they also were better able to influence their dream worlds, as if controlling a video-game character.
Dreams can take the edge off
Taking the edge off may require, not a stiff drink, but a trip to la-la land. UC Berkeley scientists report in the Nov. 23, 2011, issue of the journal Current Biology that during the dream phase of sleep (also called REM sleep), participants’ brains showed decreased levels of certain chemicals associated with stress.
“We know that during REM sleep there is a sharp decrease in levels of norepinephrine, a brain chemical associated with stress,” study researcher Matthew Walker, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience, said in a statement. “By reprocessing previous emotional experiences in this neuro-chemically safe environment of low norepinephrine during REM sleep, we wake up the next day, and those experiences have been softened in their emotional strength. We feel better about them, we feel we can cope.”